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Inching Toward Metric in the U.S. (about time, peo

Inching Toward Metric

We Americans pride ourselves on being among the world's most
progressive and enlightened societies. And yet, we have clung
stubbornly to our outdated standard of English weights and measures
while the rest of the world has gone metric. Today, we are one of only
three nations still using this system. (The others are Burma and
Liberia.) Even the English don't use English measures any more (the
pint of ale notwithstanding).

Well, like it or not, the United States is moving toward the
world metric standard. It's a simple economic necessity. If we're going
to sell American products on the world market, they will have to be
manufactured and packaged according to the world's prevailing standard.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission adopted a new
rule requiring product labels to carry metric equiva- lents to pounds
and ounces. That rule becomes fully effective Nov. 8 to give
manufacturers time to use up their stocks of old labels. The Food and
Drug Administration is expected to enact a similar regulation soon
covering food products, drugs and cosmetics that fall under its

Many American manufacturers have been doing this for years. I
looked under my kitchen sink and found a container of dishwasher
detergent marked "5.8lb 88oz 2.5kg." Most wines and soft drinks already
come in 1- and 2-liter bottles, and people who take prescription
medicine are usually given their doses in milligrams. So it's not as if
the metric system were entirely foreign to us.

Metric is essentially a decimal system. Units of weight, length
and volume are multiplied and divided in 10s rather than halves,
quarters, eighths and so on. A thousand grams is a kilogram.
One-thousandth of a gram is a milligram. Distance is measured in meters
(think of it as a yard plus three inches). Divide one meter by 100, and
that's a centimeter, and by 10 again for a millimeter. Multiply by
1,000, and you have a kilometer (five-eighths of a mile). Fluid measure
is a little confusing because when you divide a liter by 1,000, you
have either a milliliter or cubic centimeter (they're the same thing).
There are names for the units of 10 in between those units, but don't
worry about that. Nobody uses them in day-to-day life.

Like most Americans, I'm more comfortable with the old familiar
measurements. But I have to admit that metric system does have some
practical advantages over the English system. For one thing, it
eliminates the confusion over ounces. There are 16 avoirdupois ounces
in a pound, 12 troy ounces in a pound and 64 fluid ounces in a
half-gallon. Same word, very different meanings.

I've also found it somewhat easier working with metric
wrenches. If the 10-millimeter wrench doesn't fit the nut, then I can
go up to an 11 millimeter or down to a 9 millimeter. But if the
seven-sixteenths wrench doesn't fit, what's the next size up or down?
It's a half-inch up or three-eighths down. Yes, I can do the arithmetic
in my head, but I still have to stop and think about it.

Of course, it doesn't really matter if I like metric or not.
It's inevitable, and we will all have to get used to it -- eventually.
But don't panic. The federal law requiring conversion to the metric
system has been on the books since 1988, and we're still years away
from giving up the old English system.

If you have any questions or comments, please write to David
Horowitz in the Consumer Forum+ (go FIGHTBACK). COPYRIGHT 1994 CREATORS
To the best of our knowledge, the text on this page may be freely reproduced and distributed.
If you have any questions about this, please check out our Copyright Policy.


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