The Metrication of America in the 1970s — 5 Questions Answered

In 1976, I was so excited to learn the metric system in fourth grade. My teacher said everyone would need to know it soon. She was serious. We need to be ready. I took one-gram, green, plastic weights and put them on a balancing scale with one-ounce, orange, plastic weights on the other side to figure out conversion problems. I completed worksheets to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, ounces to milliliters, inches to millimeters and miles to kilometers. I got it. It’s more logical. A system based on units of ten. My teacher sold it! I was ready!

Dual measurement ruler- inches and centimeters
ruler with dual measurements

Looking at my ruler in 2021. This is about as far as the everyday U.S. world has gotten. Dual measurements. While I know that specific industries have been using the metric system for a while, I don’t need to use the metric system very often to function. Except when my cat gets his liquid medicine, the doctor prescribes it in milliliters and the syringe is marked only in milliliters. Pharmaceutic industries have been metric for a while. And running has changed. When I was young, we ran miles. Then, in the ‘90s, when I got into jogging for charity runs, I had to relearn how far 5K was… But I do confess a soft spot for the millimeter side of my ruler. Anything to avoid fractions of inches.

Even the dual measurements revolve around the imperial system. Is 3.79 liters the standard jug of white vinegar in other countries? It’s hard to like grams and liters when they are so often odd numbers. Large soda containers have been sold in 1- and 2-liter bottles for a while now. But most other beverages or household liquid products I use are like the one below. The metric conversion is an afterthought.

American label for gallon of vinegar in ounces and liters
American White Vinegar label in 2021

I have quite a few questions about what was happening in the ‘70s with the metric system. And I’m going to answer five of them using the local newspaper from where I lived as a child. Current news sites may have different interpretations of past events, but I’m trying to learn the ‘70s perspective.

The only metric conversations I recall in my extended family was with an often anxious great Aunt Rose of mine who followed the news daily on TV and on her little transistor radio she carried everywhere. She was very worried. All that news had gotten her into a metric frenzy. It was too difficult. Too complicated. She feared being too old to change. She didn’t like change. Those confusing conversion charts!

So, to find out the ‘70s metric reality that had gotten us both into different types of frenzies, here are my questions and my attempts to find answers to them.

Question 1: When did the metric enthusiasm really kick off in the U.S.?

The U.S. has been debating a different system of weights and measures since George Washington. An act of congress in 1866 made the metric system legal in the United States, but not mandatory. 1

U.S. companies operating internationally had been under pressure to convert to metric system for the sake of their business interests. As of 1973, 15% of American industries had already operated on metric system: chemical, optics, automobile, aircraft industries. Also, doctor’s prescriptions were in milligrams or milliliters, and many hospitals recorded patients’ weights in metric units.2 Some Highways in the U.S. (i.e., Ohio) already had roadsides posted in both miles and kilometers.   

But for my generation, the big kick off point seemed to be in December 1975 when President Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act into law for voluntary conversion to the metric system.

Question 2: What were the 1970s projections of how extensive the voluntary metric changes would be in U.S.?

Headlines tell the story:

“Get Ready, America, For Liters of Milk and Kilograms of Butter.” This 1973 article also predicted meat in grams and kilograms and gasoline in liters.2  

“Furlong Likely to Stay but Forget About Inch.” This 1973 article stated that we’d be using centimeters not inches, kilometers not miles, liters not quarts, and kilograms not pounds.3

“Things won’t change much.” In 1977, the author predicted that the changes would be primarily in speed limits (in kilometers), temperature (in Celsius) and food packages (in grams).4

Question 3: How fast were metric system changes supposed to happen after the 1975 law?

No deadline was given as it was a voluntary conversion, but consensus was that changes would happen gradually for the public, more quickly for American businesses operating internationally. Even before the law was enacted, in 1971, the Department of Commerce issued a study that the U.S. not converting to metric would leave them at a disadvantage in world trade and recommended conversion within 10 years of the study’s publication.5

The opinions on how these metric changes would be brought to the public were varied:

“Making It Through the Metric Maze” A 1977 article stated that “The Bureau of Standards says that for quite some time signs at gas stations and on roadways, on the supermarket shelves and for just about everything we buy, or use will carry the old measurements along with the new.”6

“We’ll thrive on Metric”describes stages of change. Step 1 was the dual labeling of customary and metric, which was already being done on food labels at the time of this 1976 article. Step 2 was “soft conversion” with items retaining their same size or amount but labeled in metric only. So, a bag of sugar would still be packaged in a 1-pound size, but be labeled only in metric terms, 454 grams7

“Things won’t change much.” The author made an ambitious prediction in 1977 that food packages would be primarily in grams with dual measurements secondary to metric. For example, a box of food would be labeled 500 grams. Not a one-pound box with the 454-gram conversion beside it.8

Question 4: How were people learning the metric system in the 1970s?

For children: The education system took the biggest steps to adopt the metric system, with 23 state school boards passing resolutions to use metrics as the official measurement system for public education. Also, the legislatures in at least seven states ordered metric education (Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia.)9

I also discovered a TV guide listing in the local newspaper for the Metric Marvels show. It was an animated children’s series that ran from 1978-1979 and featured songs to teach the metric system. The main characters were Meter Man, Liter Leader, Wonder Gram and Super Celsius.

For adults in my county, these learning opportunities were available:

  • The Metric Mobile visits:  A light blue retired school bus became a metric mobile and visited four area shopping plazas in the Arlington School district. Visitors could learn the fundamentals of metric system using materials and activities the children used at school. This was a special event for “National Metric Week” announced by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
  • Classes and workshops, such as: “The Metric System is Coming” at Dutchess Community College taught by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
  • Books, such as: Metrics Are for You, a 1978 book by local author William A Schrot teaches metric system basics in eight steps. He said the problem was that we’re focusing on conversion charts. The focus needs to be on the logic of the metric system itself.
  • Newspaper articles: the local newspaper had a 10-part series of guides to educate the public
  • Handy conversion charts: for purchase or posted in newspapers

Caldor Ad for metric guides, Feb 27, 1977

Question 5: When and why did running competitions in the U.S. switch the to metric system?

“Mile, 100-yard Dash to Become Relics When U.S. Switches Track Measurements”10

Effective June 1, 1975, the International Amateur Athletic Federation ruled that it would not accept any converted times to qualify an athlete for the Olympics. The U.S. was forced to change from measuring yards to meters during track meets. At the time, most U.S. college tracks were a quarter mile (440 yards). Only one college track in the U.S. at Oregon State was known to be 400 meters. It was built a year before this ruling was in effect. Having to remark all the 440-yard tracks (402.336 meters) to 400 meters was expected to be challenging, especially with the stagger lines needed to run metric relay races.

Final Thoughts on the Metric System

I found so many, many articles on the metric system in the 1970s. Too much to be covered here. I didn’t even mention all the backlash on the changes happening, the letters to the editor, the editorials, all the various fears, concerns and complaints about the metric system that citizens and various industry representatives expressed.

With my most burning questions now somewhat answered, I have a choice to make—rekindle my childhood excitement to live immersed in metrics or continue to ignore any metrics measurements unless absolutely necessary (i.e., my cat’s medicine).

Am I motivated to live a metric life? Perhaps. Cake could be a driving force.

Years ago, a coworker with a side business as professional baker – when I asked for advice – was adamant that my baking would improve if I weighed all my dry ingredients and used metric measurements instead of using the inexact cup measurements that were typical for recipes in American cookbooks.

“How do I get grams from cups?” I asked naively.

“Convert your recipes!” she said.

Of course. Conversion.

Out of curiosity, I just looked and discovered that the measuring cup I’ve had for years does have milliliter markings on the side that I had never noticed. And the food scale I bought to measure portion size does have a Unit button to choose metric. So, I have been ignoring metric opportunities.

But is it too late for me to change now? A system based on ten used to make so much sense. But that was back when it wasn’t going to be forever bound to be second fiddle to the old measurements.

While thinking about this, I grab a 355 ml can of cold seltzer from the frig, a single 28 gram serving of crackers with a 19-gram slice of American cheese. Something feels a little off– stuck in a state of perpetual conversion. Those metric conversion tables are still endlessly swirling around in 2021, the kind that gave my beloved great aunt so many daytime nightmares.

NOTES

  1. Science Research Associates, “Statue of Limitations from France” Poughkeepsie Journal, January 28 1977, 6.
  2. Robert E Dallos, “Get Ready, America for Liters of Milk and Kilograms of Butter,” Poughkeepsie Journal, November 25 1973 1, 10.
  3. “Furlong Likely to Stay but Forget About Inch” Poughkeepsie Journal, September 17, 1973.
  4. Science Research Associates, “Things Won’t Change Much,” Poughkeepsie Journal, January 25 1977, 20.
  5. Science Research Associates, “Time for a Change,” Poughkeepsie Journal, January 21 1977, 1.
  6. Harold Blumenfeld, “Making It Through the Metric Maze,” Growing Older, Poughkeepsie Journal, February 27 1977, 6A.
  7. Donna G Laurendreau, “We’ll thrive on Metric” Poughkeepsie Journal, October 19 1976, 24.
  8. Science Research Associates, “Things Won’t Change Much,” Poughkeepsie Journal, January 25 1977, 20.
  9. Marc Leepson, Editorial Research Reports, “You’re Being Metricated” Poughkeepsie Journal, March 27 1977, 19.
  10. Dan Berger, “Mile, 100-yard Dash to Become Relics When U.S. Switches Track Measurements,” Poughkeepsie Journal, July 13 1975, 7B.

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