The switch that didn’t happen – Hasso Hering


A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

The switch that didn’t happen

Written June 6th, 2017 by Hasso Hering

For close to 40 years, this mile/kilometer marker stood on N.W. Oak Grove Drive outside of Albany. Now this lone sentinel of a long-forgotten campaign for the metric system lies flat on the ground, just like the conversion campaign itself.

It was back in the late 1970s that I first noticed this marker, made of sturdy plastic and standing by the roadside about 2 miles from the start of Oak Gove Drive. I don’t remember the details, but I surmise that it was part of the drive during that era to accelerate our acceptance of the metric system.

Just why this spot of rural Benton County was chosen to make a point about metrics, I have no idea. But there it was, a silent reminder that somewhere decades ago, the county road department must have received a federal grant to install some kilometer markers. Recently, though, either the plastic finally gave out or a careless motorist mowed the thing down.

Actually, the metric system of weights and measures has been the official standard in the United States since the U.S. signed the “Treaty of the Meter” in 1875. But except in fields like medicine and science, the system never caught on in common usage. We kept using feet, yards and pounds — not to mention miles — despite occasional acts of Congress, including the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

There are exceptions: If you want to work on modern bicycles, especially those made in Asia, you need wrenches sized in millimeters. And of course we buy all those 2-liter bottles of soft drinks.

Just this month, someone asked Popular Science: “Why hasn’t the U.S. adopted the metric system?” The magazine summed it up: “Today, the problem with metric is the same as it’s always been: The benefits of switching are negligible, but the costs are huge.” (hh)


Posted in: Commentary, News

9 responses to “The switch that didn’t happen”

  1. David Boone says:

    Gosh, I’m old! I remember when it first appeared. Hard to believe it has been that long.

  2. Max m stalnaker says:

    This is an interest of mine.

    I think Somalia and burma are our companions. North korea finally switched. In fact we are pretty much metric, now that being imperial does not protect us much from foreign imports. Areas still to switch over include law, construction, and food packaging.

    And it is costly not to do so. We dumped a half billion dollar spacecraft because a contractor used imperial and nasa used metric. The contractors do not do use imperial anywhere around nasa projects now.

    Albany could get some publicity by requiring all city departments to ban imperial (ism?) Or maybe corvallis should lead the way on that. Or maybe some of your buds pwould do a charter amendment to require Cara to only finance metric compliant projects. That might slow then down for a gigasecond.

  3. Ray Kopczynski says:

    We came very-very close to having the metric system way back in our history. Read about “Gunter’s Chain” on Wikipedia… All part of the rapid expansion of our frontier. You can see examples of it in many area museums.

  4. Herald Godson says:

    Didn’t happen?

    After walking my 5K route and enjoying a glass from a 750 ml wine bottle, this isn’t a question I ask anymore.

    It is happening.

  5. Tony White says:

    Even the Brits have abandoned the “English System!”

  6. Bill Kapaun says:

    Bicycles still use fractional inch sizes on Ball Bearings, Pedals & most Bottom Brackets.
    And then there’s the old French, Italian & Swiss bikes that defy convention to various degrees..

  7. HowlingCicada says:

    From Digital History:

    “””… in 1819, the House of Representatives asked Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to recommend a system of measurement for the new American republic. Two years later, he issued his report, which recognized the strengths of the metric system, but recommended against it.

    Adams argued in behalf of the English system of weights and measures, in part because it had been perfected by hundreds of years of practical experience and partly because it used units of measurement based on the human body. An inch, Adams noted, was about the length of a knuckle; a yard represented the length of an extended arm; and a mile represented the distance the ground remained visible before it passed over the horizon (which is why a mile was sometimes called an “eye”). All that government should do, in Adams’s view, was to ensure the accuracy and uniformity of customary measurements.”””

    Ahhh yes, the standard knuckle. And thus we have a (future) American President, one of the brightest no less, responsible — at least in large part — for one of the most expensive mistakes in history, probably costing as many trillions by now as George W. Bush’s Iraq War. A “negligible” cost every year compounded and accumulated for 200 years equals an enormous fortune.

  8. Gothic Albany says:

    The benefits of switching are not negligible. It is very expensive and irrational to have to support two measurement systems. Many products that are designed in the US have to support both systems, which costs $$$$ in design, testing, and support. There is no debate about which is the better system, but the US continues to support the wrong one while the rest of the world leaves us in the dust. Because of this, anything designed here but also sold international such as industrial systems needs to have both metric and imperial units designed, tested, documented and supported. The values in software are only stored one way (either imperial or metric) leading to rounding errors when the user switches to the other system. Pathetic leadership lets this problem fester.


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