Metrication in the United States
Metrication (or metrification) is the process of introducing the International System of Units (or SI), commonly known as the metric system, to replace the traditional or customary units of measurement of a country or region. Although all U.S. customary units have been redefined in terms of SI units, the United States does not commonly mandate the use of SI. This, according to the CIA Factbook, makes the United States one of only three countries as of 2007[update], with Myanmar (Burma) and Liberia, that have not adopted the metric system as their official system of weights and measures. Additionally, the United Kingdom still uses imperial units officially for a few purposes, including road signage and the sale of milk, beer, cider, and precious metals. Imperial units are otherwise still permitted there, but only alongside metric units in dual labeling.
- 1 History
- 2 Current use
- 2.1 Daily life
- 2.2 Weather
- 2.3 Consumer and retail
- 2.4 Construction
- 2.5 Aviation
- 2.6 Commercial aviation
- 2.7 Education
- 2.8 Electricity and energy
- 2.9 Financial services
- 2.10 Firearms
- 2.11 Gemstones
- 2.12 Manufacturing
- 2.13 Military
- 2.14 Illegal drugs and controlled substances
- 2.15 Science and medicine
- 2.16 Sports
- 2.17 Transportation
- 2.18 Hybrid units
- 3 Cultural impact
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Although the Constitution gave the authority to dictate standards of measure to Congress, it was not until 1832 that the customary system of units was formalized. In the early 19th century, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (the government's surveying and map-making agency) used meter and kilogram standards brought from France. Shortly after the American Civil War, Congress authorized the use of the metric system in the Metric Act of 1866 and supplied each state with a set of standard metric weights and measures. In 1875, the United States solidified its commitment to the development of the internationally recognized metric system by becoming one of the original seventeen signatory nations to the Metre Convention or the Treaty of the Metre. The signing of this international agreement concluded five years of meetings in which the metric system was reformulated, refining the accuracy of its standards. The Metre Convention established the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (Bureau international des poids et mesures, BIPM) in Sèvres, France, to provide standards of measurement for worldwide use.
Under the Mendenhall Order in 1893, metric standards, developed through international cooperation under the auspices of BIPM, were adopted as the fundamental standards for length and mass in the United States. The definitions of United States customary units, such as the foot and pound, have been based on metric units ever since.
The 1895 Constitution of Utah, in Article X, Section 11, originally mandated that: "The Metric System shall be taught in the public schools of the State." This section was, however, later repealed.
The General Conference on Weights and Measures is the governing body for the modern metric system and comprises the signing nations of the Treaty of the Metre. The General Conference on Weights and Measures approved an updated version of the metric system in 1960 named Le Système international d'unités (International System of Units) and abbreviated SI.
On February 10, 1964, the National Bureau of Standards (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology) issued a statement that it will use the metric system, except where this would have an obvious detrimental effect.
In 1968, Congress authorized the U.S. Metric Study, a three-year study of systems of measurement in the United States, with emphasis on the feasibility of metrication. The United States Department of Commerce conducted the study. A 45-member advisory panel consulted and took testimony from hundreds of consumers, business organizations, labor groups, manufacturers, and state and local officials. The final report of the study concluded that the U.S. would eventually join the rest of the world in the use of the metric system of measurement. The study found that metric units were already implemented in many areas and that its use was increasing. The majority of study participants believed that conversion to the metric system was in the best interests of the United States, particularly in view of the importance of foreign trade and the increasing influence of technology in the United States.
The U.S. Metric Study recommended that the United States implement a carefully planned transition to the principal use of the metric system over a decade. Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 "to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States". Voluntary conversion was initiated, and the United States Metric Board (USMB) was established for planning, coordination, and public education. The public education component led to public awareness of the metric system, but the public response included resistance, apathy, and sometimes ridicule. In 1981, the USMB reported to Congress that it lacked the clear Congressional mandate necessary to bring about national conversion. Because of this ineffectiveness and an effort of the Reagan administration — particularly from Lyn Nofziger's efforts as a White House advisor to the Reagan administration, to reduce federal spending — the USMB was disbanded in the autumn of 1982.
The ending of the USMB increased doubts that metrication would really be implemented. Public and private sector metrication slowed even while competitiveness between nations and demands of global marketplaces increased.
The American National Metric Council (ANMC) was established in 1973 by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization for planning and coordinating metric activity in all sectors of the U.S. economy. The ANMC became a separately incorporated organization in 1976. The ANMC was intended to facilitate U.S. metrication by maintaining a voluntary and orderly process that minimizes costs and maximizes benefits, and to provide information, forums, individual assistance, and other services for its subscribers. The ANMC attempted to coordinate the metric planning of many industrial sectors, unlike the USMB, which only attempted to implement the policy set forth in the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. After the formation of the USMB, committees of the ANMC submitted conversion plans for the chemical sector and for the instruments sector. These sector conversion plans were later approved by the USMB. From 1975 through 1987, the ANMC held a series of well-attended annual conferences. Subsequently, a series of National Metric Conferences, jointly sponsored by the ANMC, the U.S. Metric Association (USMA), the Department of Commerce, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), were held from 1989 through 1993.
Congress included new encouragement for U.S. industrial metrication in the Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competitiveness Act. This legislation amended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and designated the metric system as "the Preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce". The legislation states that the federal government has a responsibility to assist industry, especially small business, as it voluntarily converts to the metric system of measurement.
This legislation required most federal agencies to use the metric system in their procurement, grants, and other business-related activities by the end of 1992. While not mandating metric use in the private sector, the federal government has sought to serve as a catalyst in the metric conversion of the country's trade, industry, and commerce. Exceptions were made for the highway and construction industries. The Department of Transportation planned to require metric units by 2000, but this plan was canceled by the 1998 highway bill TEA21.The U.S. military has generally high use of the metric system, partly because of the need to work with other nations' militaries.
The use of two different unit systems was the cause of the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998. NASA specified metric units in the contract. NASA and other organizations applied metric units in their work, but one subcontractor, Lockheed Martin, provided thruster performance data to the team in pound-force-seconds instead of newton-seconds. The spacecraft was intended to orbit Mars at about 150 kilometers (93 mi) altitude, but incorrect data probably caused it to descend instead to about 57 kilometers (35 mi), burning up in the Martian atmosphere.
The effort toward national metrication is based on the premise that the U.S. industrial and commercial productivity, mathematics and science education, and the competitiveness of its products and services in world markets would be enhanced by the adoption of the metric system. Gerard Iannelli, director of the U.S. Metric Program, gave the opinion that Americans have so far not done so because of the effort it takes to "translate" from customary to metric units when both measurements are not shown. He also cited what he perceived to be ineffective attempts at public education and awareness.
On December 31, 2012, a petition was created on the White House's petitioning system, petitioning the White House to "Make the Metric system the standard in the United States, instead of the Imperial system." On January 10, 2013, this petition garnered over 25,000 signatures, exceeding the threshold needed to require the Obama Administration to officially respond to the petition. Patrick D. Gallagher, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, provided the official response stating that customary units were defined in the metric system, thus making the nation "bilingual" in terms of measurement systems. Gallagher also said that using the metric system was a choice to be made by individuals.
Early in 2013, state Representative Karl Rhoads introduced bill HB36 into the Hawaii House of Representatives that sought to make the metric system mandatory within his state. Called "Relating to the Metric System", the bill stipulated that the law would go into effect on January 1, 2018. By June 2014, bill HB36 hadn't gained enough support and was considered dead. If the bill had become law, Hawaii would have been the first state to introduce the metric system on a broad scale.
In January 2015, Oregon congressman Brian Boquist, at the request of metric enthusiast David Pearl, proposed Oregon Senate Bill 166, which is similar to the Hawaiian bill. It would establish the International System of Units as the official units of measurement within the state of Oregon.
While most Americans have studied metric units at school, metric use remains low in daily life. Speed limits are usually in miles per hour and road signs usually give distances in miles or feet. The BTU remains the common measure of heating and cooling, and clothing is measured in inches. Some of the more common SI prefixes are widely known, and are sometimes used with non-metric units. For example, computer memory storage capacity is measured in kilobytes, megabytes, or gigabytes, and digital camera resolution is specified in megapixels. Nuclear explosions are measured in kilotons and megatons of TNT. The letter K is commonly used to denote "thousand" (e.g., "She earns $80K"), even though this is inconsistent with the lowercase "k" in SI. This usage has largely replaced the letter "G" (for "grand", used almost exclusively for money) and the Roman numeral M that was commonly used for "thousand" before the 1960s; in fact, the "M" has now come to denote "million" (e.g., "$32.5M budget").
Televised weather reports are given in Fahrenheit for dew point and air temperatures, miles per hour for wind speed, inches of mercury for atmospheric pressure (millibars are used only when reporting tropical phenomena such as hurricanes), and other customary units. In some states that border Canada, temperatures are described in both Fahrenheit and Celsius, as the broadcasts can be received in Canada, which uses Celsius, as well as for those who live in Canada who are visiting the U.S. or have just moved.
Consumer and retail
Some U.S. consumer products come in rounded metric sizes. This appears to be increasing because of the international nature of manufacturing, distribution, and sales. A few products display the metric quantity first or more prominently. Some items are produced and sold in rounded metric quantities (e.g., Crest Glide dental floss is available in 35-, 40-, and 50-meter packages).
Perhaps the most common metric item sold is the two-liter bottle. Some supermarket chains also make their store brand soft drinks available in 3-liter sizes. Soft drink containers of 1 and 0.5 liters are sometimes sold alongside 12 fl oz, 16 fl oz, 20 fl oz, and 24 fl oz (355, 473, 591 and 710 ml) sizes. Wine is also sold in standard bottles of 750 mL, as in the rest of the world. A fifth of liquor, once one-fifth of a U.S. gallon, or 757 mL, is now commonly 750 mL, though it is still referred to as "a fifth". It is becoming increasingly common to find bottled water in half-liter and one-liter sizes, though 16 fl oz, 20 fl oz, and 24 fl oz sizes remain popular. However, attempts to sell 3- or 4-liter jugs of milk, instead of gallons (3.785 L), have been largely unsuccessful, and such bottles are rarely seen in the United States.
Household products such as shampoo, mouthwash, and dental floss have begun to be sold in metric sizes, and PowerBars and similar products have always been sold (but not marketed) by the gram. Consumer-size photographic film is commonly sold in a 35 mm standard (24x36 mm negative), although print sizes and large format films are defined in inches. Digital camera sensor sizes are measured in an archaic manner indicating inverse fractions of an inch, as a 1/1.6" sensor is larger than 1/2.5" sensor. However, lenses are marked in terms of focal length in millimeters (e.g., average natural human field of view is a lens with 50 mm focal length for 35 mm film). Electric power ratings are always provided in watts and electric current in amperes, which are metric units.
Sometimes metric and non-metric are combined on the same product. The standard method for sizing tires combines millimeters for tread width but uses inches for rim diameter. Tire inflation for a typical passenger car is 30 psi (pounds per square inch), which is also given in its metric equivalent (207 kPa, or kilopascals). In lighting, light bulbs use eighths of an inch for bulb diameter and full inches for fluorescent tube lengths, while the socket is always in millimeters (for example, the standard "medium Edison screw" is E26). On recently introduced Christmas lights, however, millimeters are often used with small globe-shaped bulbs (G30 and G40), and with miniature LED sets, where the standard T1¾ (7⁄32-inch tube) ones are sometimes called M5 (5 mm miniature; not to be confused with M5 thread).
Nutritional food labels typically report serving sizes in both systems but only list metric values (g or mg) for the breakdown of individual nutrients.
Since 1992, the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) has required consumer goods to be labeled in both customary and metric units. Some industries are engaged in efforts to amend this law to allow manufacturers to use only metric labeling. Forty-eight U.S. states have adopted laws permitting labeling in only metric units, with the two exceptions being New York and Alabama. New York was reportedly examining a shift to allow metric labeling in 2008, but had not done so by 2009. According to the European Community (now the European Union — EU) Directive 80/181/EEC issued on December 20, 1979, the European Union would have only allowed dual-unit labels to appear on products until December 31, 2009, but problems experienced during metrication efforts in the UK forced the EU to abandon this deadline.
Pending the EU deadline, an amendment to the FPLA to allow metric-only labeling would allow manufacturers, both importers and exporters, to avoid the significant costs associated with having to produce two distinct types of package labels. A bill to permit metric-only labeling at the federal level was to have been introduced in 2005. Significant opposition from the Food Marketing Institute, representing U.S. grocers, has delayed the introduction of the bill. FMI expressed the fear that legislation to permit metric-only labels might also somehow mandate resizing of packaging to round metric sizes (a process already well underway), and this could require expensive remodeling or replacement of existing display cases. A compromise has been suggested whereby manufacturers in both the U.S. and the EU could opt for either metric-only or dual-unit labeling, but this idea has been viewed dimly by the EU negotiators.
Out of all industries, construction has adopted metric units least. Dimensional lumber comes in standard nominal inch cross-section sizes and lengths are given in feet. Although model building codes — such as the International Building Code — provide information in both customary and metric units, locally developed building code amendments and zoning codes often provide customary units exclusively. Because of Canada's proximity to the U.S., issues of common units still arise. This tendency in construction is similar to Japan, an otherwise metricated country where traditional construction still uses Japanese units predating metrication. However, blueprints commonly signify measurements using decimals (e.g. 9.2 ft.); since feet are not divided into tenths on United States measuring tapes, builders commonly are forced to make conversions on-site that are often imprecise. In the previous example, 9.2 ft equals 9 ft 2.4 inches; slightly more than the 9 ft 2-3/8 mark on United States tape measures, though this degree of error is usually insignificant for these applications.
Aircraft altitudes for air traffic control and related purposes are measured in feet in the U.S. In fact, most of the world has used feet for aviation altitudes since the end of World War 2 (meters before 1945 in all European countries except the UK), with the notable exceptions of China, North Korea, Russia and many other CIS (former Soviet) countries. For instance, an airliner on a long flight, even if neither its starting point nor destination are in the United States, might use a nominal cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, using an internationally standardized system of flight levels (Flight Level 360 in this case). In 2011, Russia switched from metric to foot-denominated flight levels at high altitude to eliminate the need for adjustments when crossing in to or out of its airspace.
Frequent-flyer programs from commercial airlines in the United States are commonly managed using miles. This is likely to continue given the fact that some international airlines that used the metric system are switching to use miles or using both, to simplify the redemption of miles with United States airline partners (Aeromexico switched from kilometres to miles, and Varig from Brazil has used miles since the program was named "Smiles". Due to influence from the U.S., aircraft speed is often measures in knots and heights in feet even in the rest of the world.
Most students are given some level of introduction to the metric system in elementary, middle, and high school, but the emphasis varies. Instruction primarily centers on the concepts of powers of 10, the associated prefixes, and the conversion from one prefix form to another. Units of length, volume, and mass are typically introduced through comparison with ordinary objects. The metric system is not reinforced much outside the classroom due to lack of popular metric use. Consequently, while students may understand some of the concepts underlying the metric system, they do not necessarily have an intuitive sense of the value of the units.
In science education, students predominantly use metric measures in experiments and equations, allowing those interested in the sciences to become more familiar with the metric system. Science classes are requisites for an undergraduate degree in the U.S. which ensures most educated people have some familiarity with the metric system. Within higher education, the metric system is universal for classes in the sciences (see below), except for exercises designed to illustrate complex conversions. Some non-science textbooks in the U.S. use only the metric system without giving conversions in order to promote metrication.
Electricity and energy
There are no U.S. customary units for electric current, potential difference, or charge since these concepts were developed after the international adoption of metric in science. The metric units ampere, volt, ohm and coulomb are the only units used. The SI term hertz has replaced the term cycles per second as a unit of frequency.
Energy is often measured in watt hours, BTUs, therms or calories rather than the SI joule. Residential and commercial electrical energy use is metered and billed in kilowatt hours, kW·h, as in most metric countries. Fuel prices are mostly given in customary units, such as dollars per gallon, barrel, thousand cubic feet, or ton (short or long). Heating, cooling, and combustion are often measured in BTUs per hour or refrigeration tons and powerplant efficiency is often measured by its "heat rate", in BTU per kW·hour. The rated power of engines, electric motors, and power plant steam turbines is frequently measured in horsepower. Power plant output is generally expressed in megawatts.
The United States was one of the first nations to adopt a decimal currency. Until 2001, U.S. stocks were traded in fractions of dollars (½, ¼, ⅛) based on the old Spanish pieces of eight, but the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ordered stocks to move to dollars and cents to better integrate with global markets. However U.S. Treasury Notes and Bonds remain traded in 32nds, 64ths and 128ths of a dollar to this day. Some commodity market prices are quoted in customary units (such as barrels of oil, troy ounces of gold, pounds of frozen pork bellies, etc.). The federal government reports international production figures in metric units (for instance, wheat in metric tons) but in bushels for domestic production figures.
The U.S. uses both the inch and millimeter for caliber on civilian and law enforcement firearms. Historically, rounds designed in the United States were denoted by their caliber in inches (e.g., .45 Colt and .270 Winchester.) Two developments changed this tradition: the large preponderance of different cartridges using an identical caliber and the international arms trade bringing metric calibers to the United States. The former led to bullet diameter (rather than caliber) often being used to describe rounds to differentiate otherwise relatively similar rounds. A good example is the .308 Winchester, which fires the same .30-caliber projectile as the .30-06 Springfield and the .300 Savage. Occasionally, the caliber is just a number close to the diameter of the bullet, like the .220 Swift, .223 Remington and .222 Remington Magnum, all of which actually have .22 caliber or .224-inch-diameter (5.7 mm) bullets. The second development is actual metric calibers being introduced to the United States. 6 mm and 7 mm caliber rifles are particularly popular as are 9 mm and 10 mm caliber handguns. These metric caliber rounds are either described by their metric caliber, such as the very popular 7mm Remington Magnum round or have their bullet diameter converted into inches, such as the also extremely popular .243 Winchester. Occasionally, U.S.-designed inch-caliber rounds will be converted into metric as well. The U.S. military, reflecting its need to ensure interoperability with its NATO allies, uses metric measurements for almost all weapons calibers, even when the caliber in question originated as or was derived from a different measurement (e.g. 7.62 mm rather than .308, or 5.56 mm instead of .223). Major handloading manuals in the U.S., however, use U.S. customary units for all pertinent measurements including bullet diameter, cartridge overall length, powder charge weight, velocity, and maximum pressure, even with European-designed fully metric rounds.
Gemstones and pearls are sold in metric carats.
Globalization of manufacturing has led to wide adoption of metric standards, although this is not yet universal[where?]. After a period where automobiles were assembled with both customary and metric fasteners in each vehicle, cars are now universally built with metric parts. Automobile engines were once named after their displacement in cubic inches. For example, the Chrysler "426 Hemi" engine would be considered 7 liters in modern terminology. Technical publications by industry publishers and American automakers often give engine displacements in cubic inches as well as cubic centimeters (which are equivalent to milliliters), or liters. For example, the specifications for the Dodge SRT-8 6.1 L Hemi state the displacement as 370 cubic inches (6,059 cc).
The electronics and computer industries largely converted to metric standards as new technologies were introduced toward the end of the 20th century, also driven in part by a shift in manufacturing from the U.S. to countries in Asia with metric standards. Thus, while 5¼-inch diameter floppy disks had a nominal package size of 5¼ inches (approximately 130 mm), the nominal design diameter of the replacement "3½ inch" disks was actually 90 mm. CDs and DVDs are 120 mm in diameter, but their size is rarely mentioned; Mini CDs are sometimes called 80 mm CDs. Computer fan sizes are exclusively referred to by metric units (120 mm or 80 mm case fans, for example), while hard disk drive and CD drive bay widths are customary measurements, typically 3½ inches and 5¼ inches, respectively. Additionally, screen sizes are measured across the diagonal in inches, such as a 24-inch widescreen LCD display.
The U.S. military uses metric measurements extensively to ensure interoperability with allied forces, particularly NATO Standardization Agreements (STANAG). Ground forces measure distances in "klicks", slang for kilometers. Most military firearms are measured in metric units, beginning with the M-14 which was introduced in 1957, although a few legacy exceptions exist, such as .50-caliber guns. Aircraft ordnance is normally measured in pounds. Heavy weapon caliber is measured in millimeters. Military vehicles are generally built to metric standards. An exception is the U.S. Navy, whose guns are measured in inches and whose undersea fleet measures distances in terms of "kiloyards" (equivalent to 914.4 m), depth as "feet", and velocity, in some cases, as "feet per second". The Navy and Air Force continue to measure distance in nautical miles and speed in knots; these units are now accepted for use with SI by the BIPM. Furthermore in military aviation NATO countries use feet for flight heights, as they do in the civilian aviation.
Illegal drugs and controlled substances
In everyday use within its subculture, marijuana is sold using a combination of metric and American customary units. At small scales the basic unit is the gram (or fractions thereof), but for larger orders fractions of ounces and pounds are used generally starting at ⅛ ounce, which is often defined in turn as 3.5 grams and referred to simply as "an eighth". The term "kilo" is used quite commonly by those in law enforcement to describe the amount of drugs (in kilograms) seized during a drug bust. A kilo of illegal drugs (in particular cocaine) is often referred to by the slang term "key".
Science and medicine
In science, metric use is essentially universal, though additional specialized units are often used for specific purposes in various disciplines (such as the parsec in astronomy), consistent with worldwide use.
Medicine uses both U.S. customary units and metric units. The use of metric units for most other measurements has been widely accepted by healthcare professionals and patients. For example, medication doses are given in milligrams and milliliters and pediatric dosages given in terms of milligrams per kilogram. However, the sizes of pill containers are given in fluid drams. The exact metric unit used by healthcare professionals in the U.S. does occasionally vary compared to other countries. For example, U.S. diabetes mellitus patients measure their blood sugar levels in milligrams per deciliter, whereas most other countries use millimoles per liter. American blood glucose meters have the ability to switch between the two. Anthropometric data such as heights may be recorded in centimeters. The body mass index (BMI) is expressed in kg/m2, even though it may be computed from pounds and inches.
Earth sciences, such as hydrology and geology, continue to use customary units for field surveying, due both to the legacy of many decades of data collection and to the need to work with the construction industry, which has not adopted the metric system. American irrigation engineers, for example, talk in acre-feet and cubic feet per second, whereas their Australian counterparts would refer to gigaliters and cubic meters per second.
Meteorology extensively uses both metric and customary units. The METAR reporting system in use in the United States differs from the one used by the World Meteorological Organization in that wind speeds are delivered in knots (instead of meters per second), water-equivalent precipitation in hundredths of an inch, and altimeter setting in the customary inches of mercury (instead of hectopascals). Furthermore, temperatures are reported in whole degrees Fahrenheit but are converted to Celsius when encoded in METAR reports. Most synoptic observation charts are expressed in SI units, except for the aforementioned wind speeds, which must be converted for the purposes of calculation. Upper-air temperature charts typically use the Celsius scale (the freezing line is of great importance at lower levels of the atmosphere in determining precipitation type) while potential temperature charts use the kelvin; both of these are in line with international usage. Atmospheric vorticity is typically measured in full rotations per 100,000 seconds (a rough metrication of the day) but does not use the SI-recommended radian. Public forecasts, however, are given almost exclusively in customary units: degrees Fahrenheit, hundredths of an inch of rain or whole inches of snow (less than an inch is indicated by the informal terms "dusting" and "coating"), inches of mercury, and for wind speeds, miles per hour, except in marine forecasts, in which knots are used and wave heights are measured in feet.
Use among veterinarians varies, but because of the heavy emphasis on public interaction, animal weights (e.g., for cats or dogs) are nearly always recorded and reported in pounds and ounces. Usage at veterinary teaching hospitals, by contrast, favors the SI units.
In early 2007, NASA announced that it would use metric units for all operations on the lunar surface when it returns to the Moon, then projected for 2020. However, NASA's lunar return program was canceled in 2010.
U.S. citizens are frequently exposed to metric units through coverage of international sporting events, particularly the Olympic Games.
While the track and field Olympic Trials have always been conducted in metric distances, in order to duplicate the competition the selected athletes are destined for, the National Championships changed to metric in 1974. However, USA Track & Field (USATF) continued to calculate the national championships in the high jump in imperial measurements until 2002. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) switched its measurement system at the National Championship level in 1976. The final holdout was the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) administering high school sports, which switched to metric in 1980. Even these specifications are only for major competitions, and to this day some individual meet directors still choose to conduct their meets using customary units. It is common practice at all levels, even televised Olympic coverage, to give a conversion to customary units so the American audience will understand the measurement.
Running races in the U.S. are usually run in metric distances (e.g., the 100 meter dash and 5K (5 kilometer) races), although the mile distance remains popular. But even 5 and 10 kilometer races most often have mile markers on the course, and no kilometer markers. Long-distance races are often measured in kilometers, although exceptions exist (generally 10 mile races). The marathon is referred to as a 26.2-mile (42.2 km) race (the official marathon standard distance originally being in English units — 26 miles, 385 yards) rather than 42.195 km. Ultramarathons are measured in either miles or kilometers, with little standardization either way.
Measured distances as used in events such as shot put, high jump, and discus throw are, however, often in feet and inches, except at the national and international levels. The field and court sizes for most popular team sports (even soccer) were originally set in non-metric units. This is reflected in American football, in which the playing field is divided into yards, and many important statistics are measured in yards. Similarly, the dimensions for all baseball parks, basketball courts, tennis courts and ice hockey rinks are given in feet, golf courses in yards, auto racing tracks in miles (or fractions thereof), and horse racing in furlongs. Some sporting equipment, such as skis and poles, is sold in metric units. The lengths of automobile races in the U.S. are generally set in miles.
A novelty American football game was attempted in metric in 1977. That trend failed to gain a foothold.
Bicycles, especially at the high end, are increasingly being sold and sized in metric units. For example, a frame described as "21 inch" size in the past is now often labeled as a "53 cm" frame instead. Some bicycle wheels are labeled in metric as "700c" for a nominal 700 mm diameter road bike tire, but mountain bikes still tend to use 26-inch wheels.
Common swimming pool dimensions are 25-yard, 25-meter, and 50-meter. High schools and the NCAA conduct 25-yard competitions. USA Swimming (USA-S) swims in both metric and non-metric pools.
Highway speed limits are posted in miles per hour and distances are largely displayed in miles, yards, or feet, although a few dual mile/km signs can be found, mostly left over from demonstration projects that are no longer supported. One exception is Interstate 19 in Arizona, which is almost completely signed in metric, except for speed limit signs. Signage on this road is, however, being converted back to customary units as they are replaced. Another exception is the turnpike section of Delaware Route 1, which uses a kilometer-based system, in anticipation of the mid-1990s conversion in the U.S. to the metric system, which failed to happen as the deadline for converting highway signs was postponed until at least after 1996. Distances were originally signed in kilometers, but have since been replaced with standard mile-markers. The exit numbers have remained metric.
The 2000 and 2003 editions of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices were published using both metric and American Customary Units. Metric signs, including speed signs in kilometers per hour, were displayed in the manual even though they were not normally used on the roads and there was no definite plan to go metric. For visual distinction, regulatory and advisory metric speed signs have black circles around the numbers followed by "km/h" and other regulatory metric signs have yellow plates reading "METRIC" in black on top of the main signs. Metric signs and metric measurements were removed for the 2009 edition and replaced with an appendix of metric conversion tables. Officially, this means that, although not widely used, metric road signs are allowed in the United States. This is in marked contrast to the position in the (largely metric) United Kingdom where metric road signs are prohibited by law.
Newer signs on state highways on the island of Kaua‘i in Hawai‘i also include distances in both miles and kilometers. Mile markers along highways on the Island of Hawaii will indicate both units whenever the whole kilometer corresponds with the whole mile (e.g., 5 mi/8 km). In Houston, Texas, many speed limits have km/h signs underneath the MPH signs. These are located near both airports (Bush Intercontinental and Hobby) and in the Texas Medical Center. The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico generally uses American-style (MUTCD) signs with metric measurement on highways, displaying kilometer posts and distances in km, yet speed limit signs are in miles per hour. The Maine Turnpike has metric measurements on its highway signs in addition to Customary measurements, partially to assist the large numbers of Canadian tourists who visit Maine's beaches.
Gasoline and diesel fuel are sold by the U.S. gallon, and fuel economy is rated in miles per gallon (MPG). The metric unit is kilometer per liter, but often the inverse unit liters per 100 kilometers is used. Stations in Point Roberts, Washington, a short, noncontiguous peninsula that is accessible to the rest of the state of Washington only by crossing into Canada, sells its gasoline from pumps calibrated to dispense in liters. Gasoline is dispensed in liters in Puerto Rico. Automobile crankcase oil is sold by the quart, antifreeze by the gallon, brake fluid by the ounce (fluid), and A/C refrigerant by the ounce (mass). Windshield wiper replacement blades are measured in inches.
Domestic airline flights are assigned altitudes in feet and measure speed in knots. Nautical charts show depth in fathoms and use the nautical mile for distance. (One minute of arc of latitude at the radius of the earth at sea level was the standard for one nautical mile until ca. 1929. The nautical mile is now defined as exactly 1,852 meters.) Railroads use the standard gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches, as does most of Europe (where it is expressed instead as 1,435 mm). U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 101, which governs vehicle controls and displays, permits speedometers to display miles per hour (MPH), kilometers per hour (km/h), or both. Another common unit of speed is meters per second (m/s), especially in use for lifts and cable cars. Odometers are permitted to record miles or kilometers, but must be clearly labeled as to which unit they record. In practice, virtually all U.S.-market vehicles have mile odometers and dual-labeled speedometers with mile-per-hour as the primary calibration. Some vehicles with electronic speed and distance readouts can be switched between U.S. and metric units. For example, the Toyota Prius has an MPH–km/h button on the instrument panel that can switch between miles and kilometers. However, others are only single-labeled (with the kilometers-per-hour measurements either missing or invisible) and a few others have kilometers as the primary unit.
Some measurements are reported in units derived from both customary and metric units. For example:
- Heat rate from a power plant: BTU/kWh
- Federal automobile exhaust emission standards: grams per mile
- Caffeine in beverages: milligrams per ounce
Any measurement that combines customary units with electrical units is necessarily hybrid, since there are no U.S. customary electrical units. An example can be found in Table 8, chapter 9 of the National Electrical Code Handbook (8th ed.) where resistance of conductors per unit length is given in ohms per thousand feet.
Other units are based on customary units, but use metric prefixes. For example, distance to target for a U.S. submarine is expressed in kiloyards. Telephone network lines are measured in kilofeet (KF). In some fields of civil engineering (especially structural engineering), and architecture, large loads and forces (such as the weight of a building or the amount of load applied to a column) are measured in (kips) (1000 lbs) instead of short ton (2000 lb) which is used in virtually all other non-metric industries in the United States, as well as in common usage among the public, when dealing with large values of force.
The continuing use of U.S. customary units has caused writers to speculate about its adoption in fiction set in the future. Many authors have assumed that the United States and the human race in general will use metric units; however, others have assumed the continued use of U.S. customary units or have neglected to take metrication into account. Writers sometimes use customary units simply because American readers and watchers will understand the measurements; other times, they are simply used by accident. The 1966 show Star Trek, for instance, initially used U.S. customary units despite multiple Earth national origins and a setting in the 23rd century. Later, starting with "The Changeling", metric measures were used, albeit inconsistently. Later sequels of the show, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Star Trek: Enterprise (set in the 22nd Century), used the metric system exclusively.
Both the metric system and attitudes in the U.S. toward the metric system are a target of humorous jabs in shows such as The Simpsons, Futurama and The Big Bang Theory. A Saturday Night Live sketch titled "Decabet", released at the height of the metrication movement, lampooned the different metric measurements by introducing a new alphabet consisting of only ten letters.
In the 1994 film Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) tells Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) that "Europe is a little different", because for example in Paris, they don't call it a "Quarter Pounder with Cheese" but a "Royale with Cheese" as "they've got the metric system, they don't know what (...) a Quarter Pounder is". Later, Jules compliments the intelligence of one of their victims, because he knows they don't call it a "Quarter Pounder" in France "because of the metric system".
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- 39th United States Congress (May 13, 1866). "H.R. 596, An Act to authorize the use of the metric system of weights and measures". U.S. Metric Association.
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Henceforth it shall be the policy of the National Bureau of Standards to use the units of the International System (SI), as adopted by the 11th General Conference of Weights and Measures (October 1960), except when the use of these units would obviously impair communication or reduce the usefulness of a report.
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The measurement is read in centimeters and recorded to the nearest millimeter
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- In The Simpsons, jokes about the situation are made in episodes "A Star Is Burns," "Homer the Great," "The Seven-Beer Snitch," and others. For instance, Abraham "Grampa" Simpson once remarked: "The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets forty rods to the hogshead and that's the way I likes it."
- An example is in "The Series Has Landed," when a farmer on the Moon states that at night, the temperature drops down to -173. Fry asks, "Is that Fahrenheit or Celsius?" to which the farmer replies, "First one, then the other." Another is in "I, Roommate," when Calculon attempts to put a ring on Monique's finger; when it fits, she replies, "It fits! But then, you must know that I'm ..." "Metric? I've always known, but for you, my darling, I'm willing to convert."
- Season 4 Episode 07 "Apology Insufficiency"; Sheldon: "Ethyl alcohol. 40 milliliters." Penny: "I'm sorry, honey, I don't know milliliters." Sheldon: "Ah. I blame President James "Jimmy" Carter. He started America on a path to the metric system but then just gave up. He wonders why he was a one-term president."
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- www.us-metric.org — U.S. Metric Association (mirror link)
- Mean Mr Metric satire about the (non)conversion to metric units. One of the highest scoring submissions to the Internet Oracle. Originally written by Jim Palfreyman in October 1991.
- Weights & Measures
- Examples of metric roadsigns in the U.S.
- www.metrication.us — Metrication.us site at Archive.org
- www.metric4us.com — Metric 4 US! site