Jewish World Review March 26, 2004 / 4 Nissan, 5764

Dean P. Johnson

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Consumer Reports

Why are we still annoying Americans with metrics? | Last week saw the passing of an international hero. Steve Thoburn, 39, died in Sunderland, England from an apparent heart attack, reports said.

While most people probably never heard of Thoburn, his stand against a system forced upon millions of people in both the UK and here in America echoes many people's beliefs.

In 2001, Thoburn was prosecuted for selling fruits and vegetables in pounds and ounces when the European Union requires produce to be sold in metric units.

Fortunately, Thoburn's spirit of aversion to the metric system carries on.

While standing in line for nearly twenty minutes while some guy in front of me was buying enough lottery tickets for the entire eastern seaboard, I contemplated my purchase.

Why was I buying a two-liter bottle of soda? Why not a quart of milk or, for that matter, a half gallon of ice cream or a pound of American cheese? Why not just a thirty or so once bottle of soda? Why two liters? What ever happened to the metric system anyway?

While most of the world now measures out its highways in kilometers, it seems we still have miles to go. Even though my car has a 1.3liter engine to cruise those highways (zero to sixty in about three days), I still fill it with gallons of gas and keep my 13-inch tires filled with air at 32 pounds per square inch.

The metric system was first made compulsory in France in 1801. It was first authorized for use here in the US in 1866 by an act of Congress, though the debate over our utilization of the metric system has been raging for nearly 200 years.

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Back when I was in elementary school we were told that by the year 2000 everyone would be using the metric system exclusively. The US Metric Conversion Act that was signed on December 23, 1975 declaring a national policy to encourage the voluntary use of the metric system prompted this metric exuberance. So, to prepare us for the measurable future, we were drilled in conversion: inches to centimeters, pounds to grams, quarts to liters. What made it even tougher was that even our parents couldn't help us with the homework because, much like kids and technology today, we knew more about the system than our parents.

Some parents flat out refused to take the metric system seriously because they considered it un-American.

Imagine a new-fangled Committee for Un-American Activities: (In a smoky room with flashbulbs snapping all about):

Panel: Is it true, sir, that on April 15, 2000, you asked for .45 kilograms of German bologna? German bologna? And you actually pronounced it bologna with the short "a" sound at the end and not baloney with the long "e"?

Witness: I respectfully exercise my constitutional right and not answer that question on the grounds that everybody will look at me funny, like I was French or something.

Learning the metric system was always a problem because nothing else outside of school measured up in the same way. Conversion to the metric system was not going to be so easy.

In September of 1999, even National Aeronautics Space Administration ran into its own little conversion problem.

The Mars Climate Orbiter, valued at $125 million, was lost, tossed into the abyss of space or crashed and burned in the Martian atmosphere, when engineers failed to make a conversion between the metric system and the US system units (pounds, inches, feet, et. al.). "I can only say," one of the project scientists said, "it served the United States right for not converting to the metric system decades ago." Served us right? Economically, politically, financially and militarily the strong-arm of the world and they're going to get us on weights and measures?

Why is it that illegal drug dealers work so successfully with grams and kilos as well as pounds and ounces, easily converting constantly between the two systems, but it's a challenge for a rocket scientist?

It is time for the world to realize that our system of measurement is indefatigable because it is quintessentially American. It's no accident that the United States is one of the only countries in the world not totally committed to adopting the metric system. Rugged defiance of global influence and shrewd isolationism are representative of the American spirit. What else than good ol' American determination can fathom (6 feet) measurements like the rod (16.5 feet) or the pole (5.5 yards) or the peck (2 gallons) or the pace (2.5 feet) or the gill (half a cup) or the hogshead (63 gallons)?

America will keep her measures just as she pleases. She will not bend to the torrents of international pressures. Her scales of justice will tip left and right with ounces and pounds; her quantities of milk and honey will flow in pints, quarts and gallons; her rulers will hold its inches to a foot. And remember what Thomas Jefferson said: People get the rulers they deserve.

JWR contributor Dean P. Johnson's columns appear in Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Hartford Courant, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, San Francisco Examiner, Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, Atlantic City Press, Philadelphia Inquirer among other smaller papers. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Dean P. Johnson