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Metric Movement Fizzles, Putting US Companies at Disadvantage

October 17, 1986

CHICAGO (AP) _ The campaign to convert Americans to the metric system has fizzled, putting U.S. companies at a disadvantage when they try to compete overseas, government and business leaders said Friday at a U.S. Metric Association conference.

″Our economy is suffering because countries don’t want to buy our inch- pound products when they can buy metric products from West Germany, Japan, Taiwan and other countries,″ said Valerie Antoine, executive director of the association and an engineer with Litton Industries in Los Angeles.

The United States is one of three countries that haven’t converted to the metric system, said Gerald T. Underwood, director of metric programs for the U.S. Commerce Department.

The others are Burma and Brunei, part of the island of Borneo in Indonesia. ″Frankly, the people abroad just shake their heads in disbelief,″ Underwood said as the two-day conference opened.

″The thing I’ve observed from my travels abroad is our competitors are ... pleased with our slowness to convert because it gives them a competitive edge.″

Underwood was among 60 government officials, business executives and educators at the conference seeking to revive interest in the metric system, which uses the gram, meter and liter as the basic units of weight, length and capacity. The system is based on the number 10.

The ″inch-pound″ system has no numerical base: there are 16 ounces in a pound, 12 inches in a foot and four quarts in a gallon. Different conversion formulas must be used to shift to metric measures, depending on whether weight, length or capacity is being determined.

″I’d say almost any product you want to produce - if it isn’t in metric, you’d have trouble selling it abroad,″ said Tom Ferrell, president of Los Angeles-based Ferrell’s Fasteners, which produces metal clips sized in metric units.

″Many countries have restrictions against importing goods that aren’t in metric.″

The first challenge of the U.S. inch-pound system came in 1886, when the federal government made it legal to manufacture products using metric measures, Ms. Antoine said. The association was formed in 1916.

In December 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act promoting a voluntary switch to metric measurements.

But the campaign has fizzled, due mainly to resistance from consumers, she said.

″People don’t even realize they’re using metric now. They’re buying soda and wine in liters. Yet they’re afraid they’re going to get cheated if we switch to the metric system because they won’t understand it,″ she said.

Some larger, multinational companies converted quietly to stay competitive abroad, Ms. Antoine said.

But consumer opposition has kept many small- and medium-sized companies from switching, said Underwood. And he said he believes public resistance has contributed to the decline in U.S. exports.

″I don’t want to leave the impression that metric is the key or lynchpin to this,″ Underwood said. ″But the resistance of American corporations to change to metric is an indicator of our unwillingness to accommodate foreign consumers.″

Nicholas Melas, president of the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago which co-sponsored the conference, predicted American consumers won’t switch unless they have to.

″I’d say the voluntary system hasn’t gotten us anywhere and so it needs to be made compulsory. If it isn’t made compulsory, it’ll never happen.″

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