Out of America: New World imperialists stand firm

WASHINGTON - It does not sound much: just a new provision of a law bearing the unelectrifying title of the Fair Packaging and Labelling Act. But with it, the walls of this planet's last stronghold of gallons, feet and Fahrenheit have suffered another breach. From this week, a range of US consumer products, from soap and shampoos to lavatory paper and light bulbs, must use metric measurements.

Depending on your point of view, it is either surreptitious socialism - what one commentator called the creeping 'Brussels-isation' of America - or a belated blow for common sense. Either way, the slow march of metrification continues.

Judging by appearances, you wouldn't think so. For the newcomer from Britain, a country only lately and imperfectly weaned off the Imperial standard, the weights and measures in use here are nostalgic, yet disconcerting. Yes, the pint and the quart are alive and flourishing, while the survival of the gallon at the filling station is profoundly reassuring. But the same gallon of milk or orange juice still seems a wanton extravagance, enough to slake an army's thirst.

Happily, America has stuck to miles (with exceptions like markers on Interstate 19, south of Tucson, close to metrified Mexico). But a warning saying, 'lanes merge at 2,500 feet' induces panic. The figure of 5,280 comes to mind. Wasn't that the number of feet in a mile - or is it acres per square mile, or square yards per acre? But there are compensations, not least the superiority of Fahrenheit, abandoned by the rest of the world.

Zero Celsius is merely chilly; zero Fahrenheit is cold. And while 100 Celsius merely denotes where water boils, 100 Fahrenheit conveys real heat, or fever. Electronic temperature display signs tend to use both measurements, though. The surprise is that the metrifiers have not carried the day long since.

After all, they have been around almost as long as the Republic. Hardly had the French adopted the system at the turn of the 19th century than President Thomas Jefferson, that most rational of men, proposed that America follow suit. The idea was rejected on the grounds it would interfere with trade with Britain. In 1866, however, Congress placed the metric system on equal legal footing with the 'English' system, and in 1893 went further by decreeing that all US weights and measures be defined metrically.

Jimmy Carter learnt that lesson the hard way. Under his presidency there was an official Metrification Board. 'Think Metric' signs briefly appeared along highways, while at least one big oil company, in a fit of misguided idealism, started selling petrol by the litre instead of the gallon. An irritated populace was swift to make the connection. America's fortunes did not boom in the Carter years. The assiduous promotion of that foreign contrivance, the metric system, somehow only added insult to injury.

Ronald Reagan quickly realised that one way to have the country walking tall again was to stop funding the Board. All that remains today is an unassuming Office of Metric Programmes, buried deep inside the Commerce Department. Under a 1988 act, the federal government is still supposed to go over to the metric system: but only 'where feasible' and certainly without fanfare.

A few bold souls did stick to their metric guns, among them the National Geographic magazine. It found that references to kilometres, kilos and litres produced more hate mail than any single issue except evolution. And so matters stand. Only three countries in the world have not gone metric: the US and those two other global powerhouses, Liberia and Myanmar (or Burma).

But quietly, the metric tide advances. It will never be complete - what hamburger chain would dare promote a '112-grammer'? But in other fiercely competitive markets, grams and kilos have long since won the day. Whoever heard of New York drug dealers pushing cocaine by the tenth of an ounce, or the half-dram?

Legitimate importers and exporters, too, have long had to think metric. Consummate politician that Bill Clinton is, he won't risk votes by talking about it.

Suggested Topics
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album