Metric system

Little by little our way to the metric system

Have you ever wondered what happened to our country’s conversion to the metric system?

I did too. So, I dug and found dead bodies in the process.

In the 1970s, President Ford and Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 to coordinate and plan for eventual conversion to the metric system in the United States. Ford and the metric system were defeated a year later in the election by Jimmy Carter of a mile (which is not metric). It has since served as a warning to anyone foolish enough to impose anything European (especially French) on Americans so close to an election.

The Metric Conversion Act declared the metric system “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States commerce and commerce”, but still permitted the use of current units in all activities. In other words, Congress said, “We’ll deal with it when we get there.”

America has had a funny relationship with the metric system; we are about half way there. We buy Coke in 12 ounce cans, but in 2 liter bottles. We measure the size of car engines in liters, but we put oil in them in quarts and we buy gasoline in gallons. The nutritional content on food packages is labeled in grams, but the food itself is sold in ounces. What are we doing here?

We drink soda from a 12 ounce can, then run 5k and 10k races, to burn it off. Or you can drink a larger metric sized 2 liter soda bottle and then run a marathon (26.2 miles) to burn it off. We define the calibers of firearms in millimeters and the holes they make in their victims in inches. Sometimes feet.

Poetry has always been about the metric system. In poetic terms, an iambic pentameter is a metric line that has five feet. I thought a meter was a little over 3 feet, so that proves that poets would make terrible carpenters, right? Sure, Emily Dickinson was known for her remarkable poems, but you never hear of her building prowess or impressive additions, do you?

Poetry has very confusing terms like iambic pentameter, dactylic tetrameter, trochaic hexameter, etc. Most people wouldn’t even know the difference between an iambic pentameter and a dactylic tetrameter. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s about 4 inches.

Even though most people think of me as a fossilized, crusty curmudgeon, I’d be willing to keep an open mind for at least long enough to try out the metric system before throwing it on the pile of failed ideas.

If you look around you will see metric system indices everywhere. We have electric meters, gas meters, speedometers and odometers for cars (which measure in miles), barometers, thermometers, pedometers, seismometers, stopwatches and diameters; so I guess we’re off to a good start.

Imagine a world where we are converted. Our planes would fly at an altitude of 35 kilometers, we would measure our doorways in centimeters, baseball would be known as “a game of centimeters”, we would have “by the meter” sales instead of “yards” sales, although I’m still not sure what we’re doing with “foot-ball”.

We would say things like “a gram of prevention is a pound of cure”. People would be “insane by the penny and by the kilogram”. Denver would be known as the “1.6 mile high city”. You’d order “113 grams” burgers at McDonalds instead of Quarter Pounders, you’d buy huge houses with living space as big as 280 square meters, and your kids would run in incredibly high temperatures of 40 degrees!

Yes, I think it’s time to give the metric system another chance before throwing it away again. Science, medicine and other technologies converted to the metric system a long time ago, so why not? And I bet you didn’t know this, but even biologists use the metric system.

I found out recently that they measure animals like snakes in meters because as everyone knows they don’t have feet.

Joe Crawford is a longtime Alton resident who writes weekly columns for The Telegraph. He can be contacted at