WASHINGTON -- Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island senator and governor now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, drew lots of coverage -- and a few jabs on late-night television -- for suggesting this week that the U.S. should "join the rest of the world" and "go metric."
But advocates for the move says there's nothing funny about it. In fact, they say, it's a change that's long overdue.
The U.S. is the only industrialized country that relies significantly on older forms of measurement, like inches and pounds, instead of using metric measures -- units, such as meters and kilograms, based entirely on units of ten. It's not for lack of effort by would-be reformers who would prefer the U.S. leave the so-called customary system of measurement and go metric. Back in the 19th century, former President Andrew Johnson signed into law a measure making use of the metric system lawful. In the 20th century, a pair of laws -- the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and the Omnibus Trade and Competitive Act of 1988 -- tried to speed the transition. In 1991, an executive order from then-President George H.W. Bush declared the metric system to be "the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce."
Most recently, a petition on We the People urging a shift to the metric system gathered almost 50,000 signatures.
That petition prompted an official response from Patrick Gallagher, the then-undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "The U.S. uses the metric system now to define all basic units used in commerce and trade," he noted. He encouraged Americans to choose whichever system of measurement worked best for them.
But the U.S. has been slow to convert. The decades-old laws haven't mandated the complete abandonment of the customary units, which remain in wide use -- sometimes at a high cost to business or government. In 1999, for example, NASA lost the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter because the contracted engineering team used customary units while NASA used the metric system for a "key spacecraft operation." Experts also say that the failure to embrace metric fully has held back U.S. students, since they're less familiar with the standard that the rest of the world uses.
"We are handicapping our kids in math and science by continuing the current confusing mess in the schools," Richard Phelps, a editor of The Nonpartisan Education Review, told the Huffington Post.
Phelps, previously an education analyst at the Pelavin Research Center of the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., noted -- as did Gallagher's letter -- that the metric system is already the standard for global trade, which forces companies to adapt. "It's actually in legislation that we're moving to the metric system, and it's happening bit by bit," he said. "When we make trade agreements, we usually have to agree to label all of our stuff in metric because that's what other countries use so we can export to them."
Phelps believes the rest of society will follow, but only "at a snail's pace." And he'd like to speed that up.
"A 'hard' conversion, whereby folk are forced to change probably could not work in the U.S. But a 'soft' conversion could," he said in an email. "With a soft conversion, schools just quit teaching the inch-pound system, and inch-pound measures are no longer required on products, provided that metric measures are."
For the moment, school systems don't seem in a rush to change that -- but perhaps a conversation about it in the presidential campaign will get a few of them thinking.
CORRECTION: This article previously stated that only the U.S. among industrialized nations still clings to customary measurements, omitting the United Kingdom's unflagging commitment to "pints."