Critical Mass and Tipping
The United States is one of the few countries that are neither on the metric system nor making progress toward converting to metric. The metric system originated in France and was first adopted by the French during their Revolution. From there it spread to much of Europe, then to the rest of the world. In 1989 Randy Moore reported in “Inching Toward the Metric System” that “Burma, Liberia and the United States are the only countries in the world that haven’t converted to the metric system.”1
The U.S. government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology notes that it was not for lack of effort on the government’s part.2 In 1866, Congress authorized the use of the metric system in America, and in 1875 the United States became one of the original signers of the Treaty of the Meter, which defined the metric system and refined its accuracy. In 1968, Congress authorized a study on adopting the system, and the report’s final 1971 study was entitled, “A Metric America: A Decision Whose Time Has Come.”3 Congress soon passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 that allowed for transition to the metric system through education and in a gradual, unforced manner. Road signs began to appear in kilometers, schoolchildren began to do math problems in grams and meters, and weather announcements gave us both Fahrenheit and Celsius. To remain internationally competitive in the expanding world market, in 1988 Congress passed the Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competitiveness Act that designated the metric system as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States in trade and commerce.
Since passage of the Metric Conversion Act most of the road signs have changed back; Sears still sells more socket wrenches and electric drills measured in 32nds of an inch than in centimeters. It looks as if, for ordinary citizens if not for the more scientifically oriented industries, “going metric” has petered out. “The United States is now the only industrialized country in the world that does not use the metric system as its predominant system of measurement,”4 the National Institute of Standards and Technology reported in the early twenty-first century.
The metric system in the United States never caught on with enough people so that others were convinced to convert to it. It is an example of something that failed to achieve the momentum that carries it forward to ultimate success.