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The U.S. and the metric system

The long history of the metric system in the U.S.

The United States of America has a long history with the metric system, one that reflects slow but steady progress toward its use here. A decimally based system of measurement was recommended to Congress by George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The standard unit for our first coastal survey and all subsequent federal surveys was the meter. The metric system was made legal for commercial and legal matters in 1866. We were one of the original 17 signatories to the 1875 international Treaty of the Meter making it the official international system of measurement and we've played a key role in that system ever since. In 1893 the artifacts that defined our customary units were discarded and were replaced by definitions in terms of metric units. Thus even our yard, pound, gallon, bushel and all their divisions and multiples are based on the metric system.

In 1975 we embarked on a national program to replace those customary units and to use only metric units. The federal coordination board was later dissolved, but the program remains in place. In 1988 the metric system was declared by the U.S. Congress to be the preferred system of measurement. A few years later, the federal government undertook steps to metricate itself. Also, dual unit labeling of packages in the retail market was instituted to give Americans opportunity to start becoming familiar with metric units in the market place. In 2000 the UPLR, a program of revision to state regulations and laws, began to bring about permissible metric-only labeling of goods regulated by the states. Now, all but 2 states allow metric-only labeling, at the vendor's discression. Work is underway to permit metric-only labeling on goods regulated by the federal government as well. Go to our Metric Moments page to see how all Americans encounter and use the international metric system each day.

How the metrication process continues in the U.S.

Historically, our federal government has supported commerce by providing only the amount of regulation necessary to keep the marketplace operating smoothly, safely, and honestly. Much of our U.S. Code is therefore driven by the collective will of businesses, labor organizations, and civilian professional societies. The 1975 program to metricate the U.S. reflects that philosophy and leaves it to business sectors to metricate themselves at a pace and by means that economic circumstances dictate. This is consistent with our capitalistic system of commerce.

As a result, some sectors lead other sectors in making progress. The automotive industry and the wine and liquor industries were metricated fairly rapidly. Among the professional societies the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has been a leader with a few others close behind, such as the American Welding Society (AWS) and ASTM (once, American Society for Testing and Materials). Individual businesses have taken their own lead in metricating, such as Xerox, Kodak, Caterpillar, Cummins, Proctor and Gamble, etc.

The United States is now more metric than it is non-metric. Approximately 60 % to 70 % of U.S. commerce is done in metric units. Metric companies range from small businesses to large corporations, such as those noted above. All have found metrication to be a cost-saving and business-expanding move. But this continuing metrication of the U.S. has been a "silent revolution", with large corporations quietly positioning themselves to take advantage of it. Small businesses are in danger of "not getting the word" and thereby being squeezed out.

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