EDITORIAL: How Do We Measure Up To The Metric System?
The loss of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) in September 2000 due to a contractor using English rather than metric units of measurement in a navigation software program prompted the NASA Office of Inspector General to review the Agency's use of the metric system. By law and policy, the metric system is the preferred system of measurement within NASA. However, the Inspector General's review found that use of the metric system is inconsistent across the Agency. Also, the review found that little guidance is provided to employees on NASA's policy and procedures regarding the use of the metric system.
This incident calls attention to the current state of the metric system in the U.S. The U.S. Dept. of Commerce began a three-year study in 1968 of the nation's systems of measurement, with particular emphasis on the feasibility of adopting the modernized version of the metric system, called Le Syst-me International d'Unités (SI). The study recommended the U.S. change to predominant use of the metric system over a ten-year period. Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975 to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the U.S. This led to the creation of a U.S. Metric Board to initiate a program to plan, coordinate, and implement the policy set forth in this Act and also to educate the public about using the metric system. However, process was voluntary and the ten-year conversion period was not part of the policy. The Board was abolished in 1982 due to its ineffectiveness and to public apathy.
In 1988, Congress again addressed the need for the U.S. to adopt the metric system in the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, which designated the metric system as the "preferred system of weights and measures for the United States trade and commerce." It also required that all federal agencies use the metric system in procurements, grants and other business-related activities by 1992. The Act concluded that implementing the metric system of units would strengthen industrial and commercial productivity, effectiveness in mathematics and science education and American competition in the global market.
The Federal Government doesn't mandate metric use in the private sector. These segments in the U.S. are on a voluntary conversion program, which means that individual groups and industries can decide whether or not to convert to the metric system and set conversion timetables to meet their own needs.
There have been some marked advances towards using the metric system, such as in the automobile and tool industries, but it doesn't appear that the public is any more interested today than it was in 1975. A generation has passed since the "metric movement" with little success in complete implementation. We've had road signs show both miles and kilometers for years now, but you don't hear many asking: How many kilometers do we have to go yet? We have kilometers per hour on our speedometers, but I don't think many persons check a car's 0-96 performance. We also get the daily temperature reading in Fahrenheit and Celsius, but most have trouble imagining a nice day at the beach at 30C.
We're teaching students in grade school and high school about metric measurement, but there is no need to use it outside of class in everyday activities that still are nearly all based on the English system of measurement. Engineering and science students in college learn both systems of measurement and how to convert from one to the other, but once in industry, they might be involved in solely one system or the other depending on the field and/or organization. The problem is that one still never thinks strictly in terms of the metric measure, but generally is required to convert from one system to the other. For those of us who have English units ingrained, well, we'll just have to deal with dual units for the time being and convert when they aren't provided.
Industrial Heating can't force the implementation of the metric system any more than the Federal Government can. But, as an engineering trade magazine with an international distribution, we must meet the needs of engineers, scientists and managers both in the U.S. (where the English system of units still predominates in many areas) and overseas (where the metric system is the standard). We get editorial material containing solely English, solely metric and a combination of units of measurement. But we don't want you to have to do the conversions. So, until the metric system is the sole system of measurement in the U.S., (which is not likely to happen in my working lifetime), we've made it our policy to provide both systems of measure where appropriate.