One of the primary reasons the United States is so far behind the rest of the world with respect to the use of the Modern Metric System (SI) is a lack of leadership, from both government and industry — but especially from government.
The U.S. Government has a clear mandate and, in the opinion of many, a clear obligation to provide such leadership. The U.S. Constitution leaves many decisions up to the individual States. However, laws respecting weights and measures (along with currency) are clearly the responsibility of the Congress of the United States.
Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 5 of the United States Constitution states:
Doubtless, most Americans appreciate Congress' power to regulate the nation's currency. Day to day business transactions would be a nightmare if the individual states had the power to mint and determine the value of their own currency.
Unfortunately, with respect to weights and measures, Congress has made little more than a recommendation. Although the legal definition of the size of "traditional" units of measure, such as the inch, is based on metric units, Congress has decided that the use of the metric system shall be on a voluntary basis.
We intend to provide some of the history of congressional actions, on this or a linked page, at a later date. We shall also look at areas where progress towards genuine metrication has, indeed, been made. In the meantime, you may want to take a look at a NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) document on The United States and the Metric System. NIST was established by Congress in 1901, as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). The name was changed to NIST in 1988 (see A Brief History of NIST).
Every so often, a news item drives home to us the problems caused by a half-hearted approach to metrication. The loss of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter was based, as now appears to be very clear, on the use by a major subcontractor of non-metric units, despite the requirement by the contractor with whom they were dealing to use metric (SI) units.
Opponents of metrication are saying, not surprisingly, that the Orbiter would not have been lost if NASA and all of its contractors used the "traditional" units of measure. Such a position ignores the fact that NASA cooperates with the European, Japanese and Russian space agencies (among others), all of whom use SI units exclusively.
In the meantime, the NASA Inspector General's office has published a report (on January 20, 2001), making no fewer than eight recommendations regarding the use of the modern metric system within NASA. To download or display the report, visit the Downloadable Documents section.
The loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter ($125 million of taxpayers' money for the vehicle alone) provides an opportunity for Americans to drive home to their Government the foolishness of having only a "voluntary" system of weights and measures. The longer the United States delays affirmative decisions in this area, the more problems it will have, not only in dealings with the rest of the world, but within its own borders.
It's interesting, in this context, to note that every U.S. Federal agency is officially required to:
There appears to be no published information about the degree to which federal agencies are complying with this requirement. However, the policy was reiterated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, in NIST Special Publication 814 (1998 Edition). There can be no doubt, though, that the term "significant inefficiencies" is open to subjective interpretation.
Twenty seven states (see SI News and Events) are already ahead of the others, at least with respect to the metric labeling of a wide range of products. The departments of transportation of fifteen states, including the two most populous ones (California [Caltrans] and New York [NYDOT]) already require contractors to bid exclusively in SI units. The departments of transportation of several other states require SI units generally, but allow exceptions.
This is encouraging, but it's not nearly enough.
You can write or email both of your state's U.S. Senators and your Member of Congress, calling on them to support positive moves towards metrication. Additionally, rather than simply wait for Congress to overcome its current inertia, you can write to your state government and its legislators to encourage them to do all they can at their level.
Write to Both of Your Senators, to Your Member of Congress, to Your State Legislators, to The White House, to House and Senate Committees, to Cabinet Secretaries and to Newspaper Editors
We've made it easy for you. Click on one of the links below. Among them, they provide links to the web sites of all U.S. Senators, all state legislatures, almost all Members of Congress, key committees in both the House and the Senate, the White House, and all the Cabinet Secretaries.
You can also write letters to the Editors of local, regional and national newspapers, giving you an opportunity to influence the opinions of other readers and, moreover, to urge your newspapers to use rational metric units in their reports — especially reports of events outside the United States, where the information provided by their sources is already in metric units.
Remember that public opinion is a major factor in political decision making.
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