The U.S. Metric Program may be the loneliest office in Washington. Located about 30 minutes from the White House, its headquarters is in the much larger—and better funded—“measurement standards laboratory” at NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology).
For years, Ken Butcher was the sole employee working for the Metric Program (there are now two employees). Charged with guiding the whole country through the gargantuan task of metric system conversion decades earlier, he admits progress can be measured in centimeters.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act into law. It made metric the “preferred” system, though using it was strictly voluntary. But if Russians could forgo the arshine (28 inches), surely Americans could learn to forget the gallon. Global trade demanded a standard and although late, the U.S. would not be left behind.
The Rise and Immediate Fall of Metric Gas Stations
As a young metric converter in the mid-1970s, Butcher was assigned to update West Virginia to the new system. He said almost as soon as the first metric gas station opened in West Virginia, his office—the one trying to help people swap gallons for liters—had to shut the station down.
When a retailer charged 35 cents for a liter of gas versus $1.40 per gallon, cars lined up around the block, causing other store owners to complain.
“They were losing so much business. Then they realized the guy at the metric gas station wasn’t pricing his gas the same way they were”—consumers were paying more and not realizing it. “They complained and pressured the state government to stop the metric system,” he said.
As the years went on, the Metric system wasn't only derided as confusing. It was a communist conspiracy! If the Americans converted under a multi-million dollar price tag, it was prime time for the Soviets to invade our weakened economy, according to the author of the 1981 book Metric Madness: Over 150 Reasons for NOT Converting to the Metric System.
Government downsized under Reagan and cut the U.S. Metric Board in 1982. Butcher was the only person left.
The Metric Movement Today
To be clear, Butcher said, the Metric Program doesn’t promote the adoption of the metric system. Even if they wanted to, they don’t have the resources. Many people over the years have offered to promote the metric system for $20 to $30 million of government money. He laughs.
Armed with a scant budget, Butcher said the extent of the government’s metric campaign is arranging workshops at Rotary Clubs and schools. Part of his job is educating skeptics that they do in fact use the metric system every day. He sometimes gets caught up in conversations where people learn where he works and then vow their loyalty to the inch-pound system. “Don’t need it, don’t want it,” a lady at Costco once said to him. But she was buying tires in metric sizes and didn’t realize it.
“My point is, we’re going to use it—we’re going to be using more and more of it,” he said.
So why make the switch? Safety, for one. Butcher said that there are an increasing number of truck drivers on the roads in the U.S. who grew up in Mexico, or Europeans who migrate to the UK. They are the ones who get stuck under bridges more often than others because they can’t convert 12’ 6” in their head before they hit the overpass.
He said the biggest reason why people haven’t switched is not the millions of dollars it would cost. "If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy," he said. "But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary."