- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2015

For a movement whose forward progress seems to be measured in centimeters these days, Donald Hillger is happy to welcome any champion he can get.

The Colorado State University meteorologist and newly-elected president of the United States Metric Association said Thursday he was surprised and “very pleased” by the full-throated endorsement of the metric measuring system by former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee as he announced Wednesday he was entering the 2016 race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Mr. Chafee remains a very distinct underdog to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the race, and his call for Americans to drop feet, pounds and gallons in favor of grams, meters and liters got at least as much media attention as some of his more serious policy critiques.

Despite the long national resistance to changing over, Mr. Chafee said it was time to be “bold.”

“Believe me, it’s easy,” he said. “It doesn’t take long before 34 degrees is hot. Only Myanmar, Liberia and the United States aren’t metric, and it will help our economy.”

Mr. Hillger said he was surprised by Mr. Chafee’s stance, and acknowledged it’s been a long and arduous struggle trying to get Americans to, in his words, “complete” the switch to the metric system.

“I say ‘completing’ because it is happening behind the scenes and a lot of things are now in metric, even if many people aren’t aware of that,” he said.

Mr. Chafee’s endorsement is one more small step in the right direction, he said.

“Right now we don’t have the government support to do this. It’s up to Congress to set the weights and measures of the United States,” he explained. “Other countries that have switched to metric … had a coordinated plan and deadlines and followed through with them. We don’t have that.”

Previous congressional attempts to integrate the metric system include the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and the 1988 Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act, both of which were met by resistance by American consumers. According to Mr. Hillger, the changes didn’t take root because they were optional, which he called “unfortunate.”

Metric advocates repeatedly note there are real economic costs to the U.S. from being an outlier.

In 1999, NASA infamously lost a Mars climate orbiter due to a failure to coordinate on units. While the agency’s engineers used metric, according to protocol, the contractor worked in the “imperial” system. The resulting failure of the probe cost taxpayers over $655 million. U.S. shippers and packagers face extra costs when preparing one set of products measured in metric for export and a second in Imperial for domestic consumption.

In response to a 2013 “We the People” petition to the White House to replace the Imperial system with the metric system, Patrick D. Gallagher, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, argued there are benefits to being a “bilingual nation” and that the metric system has already made major inroads without being mandated.

“We measure distance in miles, but fiber-optic cable diameter in millimeters,” he wrote. “We weigh deli products in pounds, but medicine in milligrams. We buy gasoline by the gallon, but soda comes in liter-size bottles. We parcel property in acres, but remote sensing satellites map the Earth in square meters.”

“Ultimately,” he added, “the use of metric in this country is a choice and we would encourage Americans to continue to make the best choice for themselves and for the purpose at hand and to continue to learn how to move seamlessly between both systems.”

But Mr. Hillger said his group’s biggest enemy is “inertia” and the fact that people don’t like to change, even if they don’t realize how much simpler the metric system is.

“They’ve learned a system over time that is complex, far more complex, and they’re willing to continue that for lack of adopting something that’s even similar.”

One of the earliest proponents of employing a decimal-based measuring system in the United States was none other than the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. While serving as the nation’s first secretary of state in the 1790, Jefferson “submitted a report proposing a decimal-based system with a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar names for the units,” according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unfortunately for Jefferson, the system was never adopted.

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