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
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
“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."