Spurred by a decision from the nine Common Market countries that after April 21, 1978, they would accept no imports unless labeled in metric dimensions. Finally, on December 23, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, calling for voluntary conversion to the metric system and establishing a U. S. Metric Board to coordinate that conversion.
Even though Congress and the President did not go so far as to require mandatory conversion, most observers see the changeover coming with increasing rapidity anyway. Officials and businessmen to whom I have talked give varying estimates: some see a predominantly metric United States by the early ’80′s. More pessimistic forecasts suggest 1990. But all agree we are moving fast on the metric road. Even without metric legislation we have already gone a considerable distance down that road. Scientists use metric measurements exclusively. So do many of our engineers. Most of us are familiar with 35-millimeter cameras and film, 500-milligram vitamin pills, skis labeled in centimeters, hypodermics measured in cubic centimeters (the same as milliliters), and cars with engine displacement stated in liters. The airlines have long weighed our luggage in kilograms on overseas flights. We have watched races in the Olympic games—all in metric.
In at least 14 states some road signs show both mile and kilometer distances or speed limits. The same is now true of signs in some national parks. A few months ago the Department of Transportation proposed that all speed-limit signs be changed to metric beginning in July 1978. Coca-Cola, 7-Up, Pepsi-Cola, Dr Pepper, and Shasta are now marketed in liter containers. By the end of 1979, all wines and spirits must be bottled in metric sizes. The familiar fifth will become 750 milliliters—about one percent less. Federal agencies increasingly use metric measurements. The Department of Agriculture publishes crop yields and grain shipments in metric tons. All NASA reports give metric, with customary figures added. The Patent and Trademark Office now requires that patent applications include metric dimensions of items.
Of the top 1,000 major manufacturing and industrial concerns in the United States, more than 60 percent are estimated to be metric or in transition. All four major motor companies are converting. Ford began ten years ago and pioneered with the designing of the metric Pinto engine. General Motors followed in 1975 with the largely metric Chevette. Since 1973, GM has designed all new parts in metric. Has conversion posed an onerous burden on industry? I asked this question of a number of industry representatives. Their answer is uniformly no. “The worry is greatly overstressed,” says P. E. Burke of American Motors. “It turns out to be a myth that it would cost enormous sums.” Everett Baugh of General Motors says, “Going metric in the Chevette caused no more than a ripple.”
And George Nassauer of Procter and Gamble puts it even more succinctly: “Going metric is no big deal!” Perhaps not for business and industry. But how will it affect ordinary people, who now have to learn to think in a different measurement language? For youngsters, at least, it is no problem. The other day my 9-year-old granddaughter, who is excited about spending her spring break in an Amsterdam apartment, was describing her latest find. “It’s just about a centimeter long,” she said. The metric system will hold no terrors for her. Like most children in the U. S., she is learning metric measurements in school. Some school systems, in fact, are phasing out instruction in customary units. Some states now require that all new textbooks use the metric system exclusively.