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A history of the
U.S. Metric Association

USMA establishment

The U.S. Metric Association (USMA), which was originally called the American Metric Association, was organized on 27 December 1916 at Columbia University, New York. A group of businessmen, educators, and consumers met at that time, holding its meeting as a separate portion of the 1916 annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). USMA became an affiliate of AAAS and has continued this affiliation with AAAS to this day.

A copy of that first meeting's minutes (PDF, 5 MB) states that a Dr. H. V. Arny acted as chairman. The main speaker at the meeting was Madam Montessori, the famed Italian originator of the Montessori teaching system which is still used throughout many countries. She explained (via an interpreter) how the metric system is used in Italy and stated, " . . . the advantage of the metric system over other systems is shown by its simplicity and the ease which it gives to accomplishing all research work."

George F. Kunz, of Tiffany's jewelers was USMA's first president. Dr. Samuel Stratton, Director of the U.S. National Bureau of Standards, was a member of its executive committee. The Association's original offices were in New York City and, for many years, its annual meetings were held in conjunction with AAAS meetings. Since Congress is given the responsibility to direct the measurement system that the U.S. uses, USMA's officers and members constantly work toward getting the government's approval of a U.S. transition to using only metric system measurements.

Relatively little of USMA's early presidential history was recorded. Among the more notable presidents was Dr. John T. Johnson, who joined the Metric Association in 1926 and served as president from approximately 1935 to 1961. He was very active in promoting the metric system and compiled the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 20th yearbook, The Metric System of Weights and Measures, in 1948. Refer to the September-October 1997 Metric Today for more about J. T. Johnson.

The 1960s

USMA's first newsletter was published in April 1966, featuring the fact that Britain had announced, in 1965, that it was beginning a 10-year program of converting to metric system usage. That newsletter, now called Metric Today, has been published every year since that first edition. It began as a quarterly newsletter and in 1979 became a bi-monthly publication. The USMA also published a metric style guide, earlier, which has been updated periodically ever since.

Over the years, USMA's officers and members have worked, as U.S. citizens, with congressional legislators on drafting (and setting up for a vote) a large number of bills regarding U.S. metrication. Some of these bills died before they came to a vote and some were defeated in Congress. In the mid-1960s, USMA officers and members worked hard toward getting a Metric Study Bill to become a public law. This bill finally was passed in 1968. It mandated a study to evaluate the feasibility, costs, and benefits of U.S. adoption of the metric system of measurement. The study yielded a 300-page study book and 12 reports (issued as books). Each book was a sub-study report of one facet of metric conversion. These reports covered the following subjects: international standards and trade, civilian government agencies, manufacturing/non-manufacturing, education, consumer, engineering, Department of Defense, and testimony of nationally represented groups. USMA officers and members attended the meetings and testified during the gathering of data for these books.

USMA also continually coordinates with [and receives reports from] the U.S. government's representative to the Committee International des Poids et Mesures (CIPM). That representative works on the CIPM's Comite Consultatif des Unites (CCU) which handles drafting and revisions to the international metric standard called the International System of Units (SI). This international standard is published and updated or revised by the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM).

In 1968, because of the increasing interest in the adoption of metric by the U.S., the Metric Association formalized its compilation of metric-related publications from magazines and newspapers as the Bibliography of the Metric System, first produced in hard copy only. This effort was expanded in 1972 into an official NASA publication Information on the Metric System and Related Fields. In 2001 it became available on CD-ROM as USMA's Metric Bibliography, and the bibliography continues to be updated as new references are collected.

The 1970s

On 8 May 1973, USMA became incorporated in Colorado as a non-profit organization. Its Articles of Incorporation state that USMA is incorporated for the purpose of promoting the use of the metric system of measurement as the United States' only measurement system. When various metric bills were discussed by legislators or were introduced in Congress, a number of USMA's officers and members were invited to testify during the discussions.

The U.S. government set up a panel and several committees to explore the 12 areas covered in the books resulting from the 1968 Metric Study Bill, with the purpose of making a recommendation. In 1971, the results of the panel/committee study were published by the government in a book entitled, A Metric America: A Decision Whose Time Has Come. This book further emphasized the value of going metric. USMA continued working with government officials and groups interested in metrication to promote the mandating of a changeover to the metric system.

USMA was the prime mover in convincing the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to co-sponsor a metric conference. A number of other scientific and educational organizations joined in to work on this 7-8 September 1973 conference which turned out to be the largest metric conference ever held. Over 1000 registrants attended the first day, and 700 registered for the second day's metric workshops. Among the speakers were U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Betsy Ancker-Johnson, the heads of several large companies and organizations, and top educators.

In the 1970s, when Australia and New Zealand were in the midst of converting to metric system usage, several USMA officers traveled to those countries to exchange metric materials and ideas. Heads of both the Australian Metric Conversion Board and the New Zealand Metric Advisory Board visited USMA and attended its annual conferences. The USMA president and a group of members traveled to South Africa and conferred with the its Metric Advisory Board at the time that nation was converting its measurement system to metric. In addition, when Canada started its conversion to metric usage, USMA's officers coordinated with members of Metric Commission Canada.

On 23 December 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, which finally gave official federal sanction for the U.S. to convert to using the metric system. However, the 10-year deadline (for conversion), which was in the original bill that was ready for the U.S. Congress to vote on, was somehow dropped from the final version of the bill. So no deadline was set for making the U.S. transition to metric system usage. In 1975, President Ford sent USMA a ceremonial pen to commemorate the signing of this metric law.

This 1975 metric law did provide for a 17-member U.S. Metric Board (USMB) to be established to "coordinate the voluntary conversion to the metric system." The Board was given no power to mandate metrication, but was directed to plan and coordinate metric conversion. Two members of the USMA were nominated by President Ford, in 1976, to serve on the U.S. Metric Board. However, President Ford's term expired before the U.S. Senate approved Ford's nominees. Therefore, new nominees were named by President Jimmy Carter when he took office, but the USMB was not appointed until late in 1978.

After passage of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, USMA began its coordination with government agencies to help in their conversion to SI usage. Since then, USMA's president has been traveling to Washington D.C. several times a year to work with agency officials and other groups in an effort to accelerate the transition to SI. During the 1970s and early 1980s, USMA officers and members gave a large number of metric educational workshops to government agency personnel, educators, technical groups, and consumers. In addition, USMA personnel were interviewed on numerous television shows and radio programs during this period.

In 1979, a USMA officer was appointed, by the Governor of California, to serve as Engineering representative on the newly formed California Metric Conversion Council. That same year, USMA inaugurated its Certified Metrication Specialist (CMS) program. This program provides the title of CMS [or Certified Advanced Metrication Specialist (CAMS)] to candidates who submit proof that they can correctly use the modern metric system (known as SI for Systeme International d'UnitÚs). The candidates must show past involvement in metric system activities and are required to pass an examination which shows a good knowledge of SI. Handsome plaques are presented to the successful candidates.

In 1982, the USMA president was invited to make a metric presentation on SI vs the older version of the metric system to Brazil's government standardization personnel. During that visit to Brazil, a speech also was made to several hundred employees at that nation's Aircraft Industry facility. One year later, USMA hosted representatives from those two Brazilian groups. USMA's president arranged visits (for the Brazilian officials) to various industrial plants where metric products were being manufactured. The Brazilians were given presentations on metric unit usage by officials at these plants. In addition, these visitors were taken to a large medical facility in the Los Angeles area, where they were given briefings regarding that facility's just beginning to use SI in procedures where metric normally was not used in hospitals, at that time.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, USMA worked with pro-metric groups and citizens to get several metric bills introduced. But these bills either were defeated or died, without a vote, when the congressional year was over. However, the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 finally was passed and signed by President Ronald Reagan. USMA's president and its executive director were present at President Reagan's signing of the bill. This bill amended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 to " . . . designate the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce."

From the late 1970s to early 1980s, the U.S. Metric Board held some meetings in various U.S. cities, but did little to forward the transition to metric. In 1982, President Reagan retired the USMB, stating that it had served its purpose. After disbanding of the USMB, a Metric Program (MP) Office was established under the Department of Commerce. Its duties were to provide metric information and respond to queries on metrication. USMA's president attended many meetings of the MP office and worked closely with its personnel. In 2002, this office was reorganized and now is designated as the Laws and Metric Group. USMA continues to coordinate with this new Group.

For many decades, USMA has worked to promote metric usage with a variety of the nation's scientific, engineering, educational, and consumer organizations (plus a variety of government groups and individuals). Since 1983, USMA has been participating, annually, in The International Science and Engineering Fair for students by providing awards to those whose entries show the best use of SI. USMA has continued working with the nation's educational organizations, furnishing SI data to schools and educators, and participating in the conferences of these groups. When National Metric Week [the week that includes October 10 (10/10)] was initiated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, USMA began annual support of this celebration. Over the years, many members have successfully petitioned the governors of the U.S. states in which they live to issue Metric Week proclamations for each year.

USMA held annual conferences in different U.S. cities for many years. These conferences featured groups of top government/industry/education/consumer representatives as speakers and included booth space for vendors to display their metric wares. Beginning in 1989, USMA's annual metric conferences were held in Washington D.C. and were jointly sponsored with the U.S. Department of Commerce. These conferences terminated in 1995 when a new director of the Department of Commerce's Metric Program (MP) Office canceled the plan.

The 1990s

In the early 1990s, a group was formed called the Construction Metrication Council (CMC). It consists of personnel from government, the building industry, and consumers. USMA's president is a member of the CMC Board of Directors and has worked very closely with the CMC, attending its meetings, exchanging ideas, and working toward a metric transition in the construction industry. The CMC issued a bi-monthly newsletter for many years, then changed its issue to quarterly. Also founded in the 1990s was the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Metrication Clearinghouse to coordinate implementation of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) on-going transition to SI usage. USMA worked with, and furnished metric data to AASHTO and the FHWA. The goal of the AASHTO Metrication Clearinghouse was to "facilitate the adoption of the metric system by highway agencies and their suppliers by gathering, organizing, and sharing information in a timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner."

Also in 1990 the first version of an index to all past issues of Metric Today was compiled. Later, all past issues were also scanned and made available as PDFs on CD-ROM. Both the index and PDF Archive continue to expand as other historic metric newsletters are scanned and indexed. These products are available for a fee to anyone interested in doing research on the metric system in the U.S.

In 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed an Executive Order which notified government agencies that they must have their [1975 Metric Act] metric conversion plans completed and approved by the end of that year. Because the 1988 amendments to the Metric Act allowed some loopholes in government agency metric conversion, a few of the agencies achieved conversion to metric in some areas of their operations. However, other agencies used the loophole to do very little, if any, converting. At that time, USMA also began working with the U.S. President's Export Council to help promote metrication.

In 1993, USMA researched and published the Metric Vendor List book which contained information on about 1300 companies that sold metric-unit manufactured products, parts and components. That book was updated periodically, and now is in its 7th edition (out of print), which lists over 2200 companies. The current Guide to the Use of the Metric System [SI] Version, USMA's style guide, is in its 17th edition. In 1994, USMA issued a book to help companies convert to metric system usage. It is called Guidance for Companies Considering Converting Their Operations to Using the Metric System, and has been updated three times (now out of print). Also published was the Freeman Training/Education Metric Materials List book. This 330-page book listed hundreds of places where books and other metric-teaching materials could be obtained (also out of print). USMA also published a series of fliers on various aspects of metrication. Some of those fliers are still available for download from the Puzzles and Quizzes page..

In 1994, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act which provided federal funds to the U.S. states for improving education (including metric education), and increasing the number of teachers with a substantive background in the metric system of measurement. During this period, USMA worked with government agencies on changing the nation's Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) to include a requirement for adding metric units to product labels. The result was a law mandating that both metric and inch-pound units be given on labels of products that are under the jurisdiction of the FPLA.

In 1996, a USMA member developed a website for USMA. An e-mail Listserver (Mailing List) also was established for the use of those interested in metrication to exchange ideas and to discuss any aspect of the metric transition. The website provides a large variety of metric system information and is considered the best available site devoted to the metric system. In 1997, the Los Angeles Times announced that it had selected the USMA site its "pick" as a site "offering a guide to what's new, timely, useful, and interesting on the Web."

A U.S. primary metric standard was approved for industry in 1997 with the merging of the two metric standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Membership in these two groups included USMA members, who worked on this project. They continue to work in the committees charged with updating and revising this U.S. industry national metric standard which is called the American National Standard for Use of the International System of Units (SI): The Modern Metric System (known as IEEE/ASTM SI 10TM 2002).

USMA worked with members of the Department of Commerce's National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) in 1999 when it passed an amendment to its Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulations (UPLR), which allowed the option of using metric-only units on labels of those (state-regulated) products that come under the NCWM jurisdiction. To date, more than 40 states have adopted the NCWM's UPLR directive.

The 2000s

In 2000, USMA's president worked with a committee of the IEEE Standards Association on proposed revisions of the SI 10 document. The president of USMA also participated, with members of the (then) NIST Metric Program Office, in a national radio show, and also was interviewed on a number of other radio programs in the 2000 to 2003 period.

USMA's members and its president worked with NCWM and pro-metric groups to work towards a law that will allow companies to label their products in metric-only units, as an option. Currently a bill is being reviewed (by government departments and agencies) which would allow companies to use only metric units on labels if a company prefers metric-only labeling. To date, this bill has not been approved by all government groups that require its approval, so has not been submitted to Congress. The USMA president also kept in close contact with the Construction Metrication Council and industrial and educational organizations to promote carrying out of the USMA goal to make this a metric nation.

While outward signs of metric activity in the U.S. were slowing in many minds, USMA members and officers continued to publish articles about metric, gave talks about metric to both local and national groups, wrote letters and provided interviews for media outlets, worked with schools on metric activities, and reviewed books about metric as requested by authors. The need for metric training materials continues to be met by supplies available from USMA, including new posters created by USMA members. USMA's Guide to the User of the Metric System [SI Version] continues to be updated and is a user-friendly alternative to larger and more complex metric guides on the market.

After 40 years, Metric Today received a facelift and USMA received a new logo made possible by donations from members. The newsletter is now available as a PDF to members via a member-only page on the USMA website.

USMA's website expanded to include several new pages: one with a succinct compilation of U.S. metric system laws; another showing metric road signs seen in the U.S., another showing consumer products sold in the U.S. with rounded metric labels. A regular series of webmaster columns in Metric Today highlights what is new on the USMA website, and a long Going Metric Pays Off series of articles were later placed online as reference material for companies considering switching to metric.

USMA's PR Director worked actively towards the goal of having all U.S. states in agreement with national UPLR provisions. This activity will help with the adoption of an FPLA amendment allowing metric-only labeling of U.S. consumer products. Other members worked towards preserving the historic metric signs on Arizona's I-19 that were being threatened. USMA officers also meet occasionally as a Board of Directors to coordinate their activities, including both elected and appointed officers with specific responsibilities.

The 2010s

USMA's president continues to coordinate with government officials and other groups regarding a U.S. metric transition. USMA's officers and members are dedicated to promoting metrication, and its office provides metric materials and help to many people who seek information about the metric system of measurement.

For years, USMA has helped many companies in converting their measurement systems to metric, furnishing training aids and also providing the names of metric experts who could be hired as consultants to help in the conversion. It played a role in the U.S. auto industry's changeover to metric units. Its officers and members have been interviewed on a myriad of radio and television "talk" shows and have made metric speeches before hundreds of groups. USMA members also have donated their services as judges at many science fairs and other student competitions. A number of countries have sent delegates to visit USMA's offices to view its materials and hear a presentation on its work and plans. It will continue to pursue its goal of making the United States of America join the rest of the world in using only SI as its official measurement language.

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Updated: 2011-08-27