By The Metric Maven
One day while surfing the web I ran
across this rainfall graph which was produced by the Australian
Government. I longingly look at the rainfall amounts in mm, and would
like to see millimeters used for rain and snow in the US. As one
advocate I know said: Australia is “Metric Heaven.”
discussing the success of metrication in Australia with another metric
advocate, I quickly noticed he had looked at me in earnest, and almost
pleadingly said “How did they do it?” His vocal pattern seemed to
indicate that Australia had somehow solved a hyper-dimensional Rubik’s
Cube while locked inside a trunk falling to earth to obtain metric.
Australians are an English speaking, democratic society, and were able
to become metric. The US claims to be the same, but is unable to change
The story of Australia’s metrication is well told in the book For Good Measure
by Jan Todd. This book was published in Australia in 2004 and is a
nostalgic look back on the history of the Australian metric change-over
that is now becoming a distant memory.
In the 1970s Australia decided it would
convert to the metric system. Australia would choose Alan Harper
(1913-1991) to shepherd the change. Here is what historian Jan Todd has
to say about this man:
Alan Harper was
Australia’s metric man. From research scientist at NSL to Secretary of
the NSC, he would next don the mantle of metric missionary and then head
a metric conversion board. His goal was to convert the nation to the
sole use of metric measurements. The all-pervasive nature of measurement
made it a massive task, with all the minutiae of life put under the
microscope and myriad decisions required on all implements—big and
small, monumental and mundane—from the tiniest screw to the largest
tanker. For that reason it had been avoided for decades by Britain, and
therefore by Australia
Those in the know
agreed that Alan Harper made it happen. His major opponents were
tradition, comfort and apathy, as well as a little fear.
On May 29, 1968 an Australian Senate
Committee concluded to unanimously to adopt the metric system
exclusively as soon as possible. The majority of Australia’s trade was
with metric countries. It was a clear, practical, economic decision.
Then government inertia took hold, there
was uncertainty as to what department of government would take charge,
which lead to political paralysis. The Metric Conversion Act was finally
accepted and a Metric Conversion Board was assigned the task. Alan
Harper was the obvious choice to head it. He was a rare combination of
brilliant physicist and administrator, who had a passion to bring the
metric system to his country.
Harper realized that in countries where
the metric system was implemented quickly and decisively by the
government, conversion had gone well. In countries which allowed the
process to shepherd itself (such as in Britain) momentum was lost.
The process was to be voluntary, but
pressure would be applied using strong legislative initiatives, and
there would be significant penalties for non-compliance. Harper also saw
that metrication should take place over as broad a spectrum of society
and industry as possible all at once. This would immediately
create a metric environment for as many citizens as possible, with no
islands of imperial ecosystems to hinder the transition.
Communication with the public was of
paramount importance in order to enlist them, and make Australians
understand the changes. Perhaps the most important aspect of metric
conversion was to use it as an opportunity for commerce to reexamine
current industrial practices, and to streamline, simplify, and
rationalize industries and practices. The Metric Board would act to
shepherd and facilitate to this end, not to dictate details.
Alan Harper had a very effective partner
in this undertaking, one John Norgard. He had the industry contacts
which would smooth out, and help coordinate the metric conversion. The
two complemented each other like salt and pepper. Norgard approached the
heads of all the countries newspapers and asked them not to take an
editorial stand against metric. Only once was this promise violated.
The Metric Board enlisted an army of
specialists in multiple fields to help with this broad transition. They
would act as liaisons on behalf of the nation in the coming transition.
Despite some wavering by the Government during the decade, the
transition remained firm
Weather reporters started to convert in
1972, and were finished two years later. Dozens of industries followed
suit. Strangely, the conversion of women’s bras and biscuits (crackers)
proved to be stumbling points. The number of fasteners used by a Ford
plant, were reduced by a factor of four after metric conversion. The
implementation of metric threads reduced the hodgepodge of bolts by 88%
and nuts by 72% “In just one item, an inventory of 10,000 fasteners
before metrication was cut to only 2500.” According to Todd:
in state legislation was making life easier in certain areas, especially
in roads and building regulations. And rationalizations had been
possible in many industries. The change to metric threads cut the
variety of bolts from 763 to 93 (88 percent), nuts from 1368 to 387 (72
percent) and machine screws from 1248 to 300 (76 percent). BHP’s
rationalization of rolled steel sections almost halved its range, while
its flat sections were reduced from around 500 imperial lines to 160
The public demonstrated considerable
anxiety concerning the single day changeover of all road signs and
traffic rules. This was to take place on July 1, 1974. There were
terrifying warnings of mayhem that would take place. In a non-event
reminiscent of the Y2K bug, the ocean remained blue, and the cars on the
freeways traveled as easily as they always had. When voluntary
conversion time tables were violated, legal actions were taken to
enforce the changes. The most important mandate was no use of dual units,
they were not allowed. Pat Naughtin, an expert on metric usage and
conversion states simply “Don’t dual with dual!” Direct metrication
takes about a year, allowing dual units can inhibit conversion for
The best path to direct metrication is
the use of millimeters. Centimeters should not be used or encouraged in
any way. No industry has converted with centimeters. The Australian
metric conversion was nearly 75% complete by 1976, and by 1980 the
committees had essentially finished their tasks.
As Jan Todd summed it up:
conversion process had shown how a centralized, coordinated national
program of measurement change could work. With strong government
commitment, full legislative backing and a national body dedicated to
developing policy and leading implementation, even a federation of six
unruly states could be brought into uniform order.
Meanwhile in the United States of 1975
hearings were underway in October of 1975. Person after person appeared
and testified that a voluntary metrication with no real government
involvement and without penalties would work effectively. The hearings
took notice that Australia’s metrication was successful. Their
assessment was that Australia is “Currently moving rapidly toward a
strongly metric environment—more quickly and easily than expected.” (pg.
To my amazement The American Bar Association seemed to understand the importance of the Australian experience:
The reason why the
Australian Post Office is converting its internal operations is to avoid
becoming a customary island in a metric ocean with all the permanent
training and recruiting problems which would be incident to that status.
Sports were selected
as pacesetters because it was recognized that their early conversion
would be a most effective way to generate public familiarity with metric
usage on a widespread basis.
So that the U.S.
Metric Board may have a pole star to guide it rather than to be left to
fend for itself without adequate congressional direction…[we recommend
these changes to the law]
Yes, sports were converted, and
considered a vanguard to pave the way for metrication in Australia. The
American Bar Association (ABA) realized that the American metric
legislation of 1975 made “no change to existing law.” They suggested
stronger wording be introduced into the bill.
Esther Peterson of Giant Food also understood the importance of following and learning from the Australian example:
The Australians have
given us a fine example of a smooth transition to metric which involved
the public all the way. The primary aim of The Australian Metric
Conversion Board was to overcome public apprehension. Dual labeling and
conversion exercises were avoided for a “think metric” approach. The
consumer was saturated with metric information. Special target dates
were set for each sector—speed and road signs, temperature, clothing, et
cetera—so the consumer knew what to expect and when. The board
published booklets, distributed posters, showed films, gave speeches,
and utilized the media. There were very few cases of unfair practice in
the marketplace, because no-one dared to cheat the consumer with a
metric-sensitive press watching every move.
The success of the
Australian metric program was also enhanced by a strong initial and
sustained support by the Australian Government. We need that same kind
of support from all branches of our own Government. Many agencies have
already begun to prepare for metric. All need to move ahead.
The most important
point here is that the Australian legislation utilized a metric
conversion board which kept their public informed right from the
beginning. Today, a little over 5 years after legislation was passed in
Australia, the conversion process is almost completed.
Esther argued that “guidance in the form
of Federal Legislation is needed, We need a uniform approach in order
to implement a smooth and total conversion in all areas…..where
standards are set and followed, target dates are met, and uniformity in
practice exists.” Her wise words would fall on deaf ears and the
vacuous metric legislation would not be strengthened.
The Australian notion of a “voluntary”
metrication appears to have been lost on Dr. Ernest Ambler who was
Acting Director of the National Bureau of Standards:
They have taken
great pains to emphasize education. Not only education with regard to
the technical details of the metric system, but also with regard to the
public information aspect of the conversion. They have taken great pains
to tell the public what is happening, when it is happening, and why it
So the public information aspects have been an important factor.
I would say that these are the main features of the Australian experience and plan that we might well emulate. Mr. Chairman.
Senator Inouye. Was it mandatory or voluntary?
Dr. Ambler. It was voluntary, certainly, Mr. Chairman; voluntary, but well coordinated and managed.
He seems to believe that all of the
metrication in Australia just happened, and the government just stood
back and offered some advice as the country changed. Everyone could just
do what they wanted to become metric. The current NIST director has an even more lax attitude toward metrication.
Detractors appeared to attack the
credibility of Australia’s metric conversion methodology. Donald Peyton
of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) had this to say:
Senator Ford. Thank you Mr. Peyton
Representative McCauley and Professor Johnson what kind of timetable
would be desirable—the minimum and maximum. Do you have a recommendation
as to what target dates and number of years we should plan for
Well, frankly, Senator, having worked in the field where you have to
get a reasonable consensus to be effective, we have concluded that
mandated time spans long or short, really are counter-productive. I’ll
tell you why. In the United States, you have an entirely unique
situation. People have been talking about Australia, comparing a nation
of 13 million people to one of our size, and the concentration of
industries is like comparing a high school football team with the Green
Bay Packers. With all the things you have to coordinate and all the
different facets, we really believe that the flexible approach of H.R.
8674 without mandated times is preferable, the major reason being if you
give some people 10 years, they are going to take 10 years, but there
are other segments that are going to be ready to go and they shouldn’t
be held up.
Well Mr Peyton, it appears that your
fictitious High School team won the Superbowl and the Green Bay Packers
have yet to win a single game when it comes to your metric simile. Your
statement is 37 years old now, and just as incorrect and naive.
Alan Harper did not appear at the 1975
Metric Hearings. But after the verbal testimony there is a long written
section entitled: “Additional Articles, Letters and Statements.” Nine
pages in (pg 177-178) we find:
Congress of the United States,
House of Representatives,
Washington, D.C., October 7, 1975.
Hon. Warren G. Magnuson,
Chairman, Semite Committee on Commerce,
Dirksen Building, Washington, D.C.
Dear Mr. Chairman: I understand that your committee will be having hearings on metric conversion legislation on October 8 and 10.
correspondence from Mr. Alan Harper, Executive Member of the Australian
Metric Conversion Board, points out the difficulty in considering a
voluntary conversion plan.
If possible, I would
like to have Mr. Harper’s letter inserted in the hearing record for
consideration by members of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Thanks very much.
Donald M. Fraser.
• • •
Metric Conversion Board,
St. Leonards,N.S.W. 2065, September 23, 1975.
Congressman Donald M. Fraser,
Congress of the United States,
House of Representatives,
Dear Congressman: Thank
you very much indeed for sending me the pages of the Congressional
Record containing your statement and the report of the debate on the
Metric Conversion Act, H.R. 8674.
I was, of course,
aware of the passage of the Bill in Congress and of the very gratifying
voting figures but it was not until I read the Record that I realized
just how strongly the Bill was supported on the floor of the House and
that there was no spoken opposition to it.
Initially the event
did not receive in our Australian papers the publicity it deserved (a
brief announcement is attached) so I endeavored to rectify this with
comments for the press, a copy of which is also enclosed. This was taken
up in some of our major newspapers.
The treatment given
by the papers to this decision in the House of Representatives was in
marked contrast to “Metric Bill Rejected” headlines used by the papers
when the previous Bill was defeated. I think this is symptomatic of the
general metric climate in Australia now, that it would be big news if
USA decided not to go metric but merely a normal development, not worthy of headlines, that a Metric Bill has been supported.
Nevertheless, we can
make very good use of the presumptive passage of the Bill, of the
strong vote in favour of it, of the many “quotable quotes” in the text
of the report of the speeches and of the fact that there were no
speeches opposing it with those who still refuse to acknowledge that USA
is well and truly on the metric path. Our small but vocal “Australian
Anti-Metric Association” has lost another handful of feathers from its
plumage and must be finding it increasingly difficult to remain
Our operation is
still proceeding very well. I hope to send you our 1974/75 Annual Report
shortly which summarizes the position not only for the past year but to
some extent for the five years since the Metric Conversion Board was
appointed. In most of the technical areas conversion is either complete
or headed for completion. More intractable are the sectors involving the
public in the use of metric units in affairs calling for some
decision-making—even if only as minor as deciding whether to buy one or
two kilograms of sausages. While one can go a long way in these sectors
with a wholly voluntary conversion, we have come to the same conclusion
as South Africa, United Kingdom and Singapore that in such activities
some degree of control of trading practices is necessary if a prolonged
period of consumer confusion and trader disadvantage is to be avoided.
It is, of course,
not possible to mount a wholly voluntary metric change in the sense that
every individual has a free choice. Consider the conversion of
statutory speed limits and other changes calling for embodiment in
legislation. “Voluntary” in this context has to be taken to mean that
the choice of a program and plan for conversion in a sector is made
voluntarily by national leaders in that sector but thereafter it is
supported by all the pressures that can be marshalled, through
procurement, legislation, appropriate amendment of technical standards,
adherence to the program by government and large organizations and so
Unless your Metric
Board can enlist such support for the programs developed voluntarily,
the agreement accorded many of these programs may in the event prove too
fragile to ensure their implementation and aspects of your metric
operation which provide their own incentives will get out of kilter with
those needing some additional stimulus for their accomplishment.
By accident of
history Australia is currently several years ahead of USA in metric
conversion so I believe we can offer useful experience in situations in
which there may be some parallel between the circumstances in our two
countries. Please be assured we will be keen to make this experience as
fully available as possible. I think the North American-Australian
Metric Conference held here last April, in which you were unfortunately
unable to participate, was a good indication of what we have to offer.
With kind regards.
A. F. A. Harper,
Alan Harper seemed to understand that US
metrication authorities like Ernest Ambler of NBS interpreted voluntary
to mean “to just do your own thing” in this epistle. Clearly Harper
realized that the US had produced legislation that was a 10 kilogram
turkey. Alan Harper clearly states that by voluntary, he meant it will
be voluntary for industries to decide how they want to become metric. It
is mandatory that they become metric, that is not voluntary as persons
in the US misrepresented.
To mirror what had been done in the US, with that of Australia would be this:
- Pass legislation invoking Section 8
Article 5 of the US Constitution and make metric the exclusive
measurement system of the US. Because it is Federal law, it would
supersede any local State and County laws. The existing weights and
measures infrastructure, which is tasked with enforcing and regulating
weights and measures, would now switch to metric. The laws which
currently enforce the use of Olde English would now be brought to bear
to enforce metric. In 1975 The American Bar Association argued that
legislation was not required and this could be directly ordered by the
President who could create a “Measurement Czar.”
- The change to metric would not be
optional because existing agencies would now enforce metric as the
exclusive system as they had USC, but the way in which metric would be
accomplished would be “voluntary,” meaning the government would not
impose methods on the industries of the US. They could all decide for
themselves how they would comply with the law. A metric board would be
set up based on that created in Australia and usher along the changes
and attempt to smooth the changes along. The board would break all of
the US economy up into categories like those created by Australia and
then appoint committees as they had done. They would negotiate M-Days
as the Australians did for different industries and hold them to
in Australia: A Review of the Effectiveness of Policies and Procedures
in Australia’s Conversion to the Metric System by Kevin Wilks (1992) would be an invaluable initial guide to help US industry convert. A downloadable copy is available under the metrication resources tab.
In April 1979 Mr. Harper was asked in
person by a US Metric Board member if Australia could have accomplished
what it did, had it been working under metric legislation similar to the
U.S. Metric Conversion Act of 1975
“No” was his emphatic single word answer.
Alan Harper was right about metrication
in Australia and in the United States. Thirty two years after Australia
completed their metric conversion, the US has not even begun to untangle
itself, if it ever does, and the Green Bay Packers still use yards. In
Australia their signs are in metric:
Parking Ramp Clearance Sign in Australia -- Photo by Mike Joy