Waits and Measures

Meet the least powerful men in Washington

Jim McCracken is in pain. Only 10 days removed from knee surgery, he's been on his feet for three hours, and his joint is throbbing; he's also more than 1,000 miles from home, stuck in Tulsa during a heat wave that will eventually prompt USDA Secretary Dan Glickman to declare parts of the state disaster areas. But McCracken is on a mission. Like the several dozen other exhibitors who have come to this year's National Society of Professional Engineers convention, he's got something to sell.

And although he's loath to admit it, McCracken has one of the toughest sales jobs around: He is pushing the metric system.

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"Come on in," he beckons in a near-constant patter from his post in front of the United States Metric Program's display booth. "Lots of good stuff here." He motions toward a table crammed with pamphlets, conversion tables, and rulers. McCracken's associate, Gerry Iannelli, and their fellow metric enthusiast, Don Jordan, are poised to engage anyone who shows the slightest bit of interest in their wares.

Dick Case, an engineer from Greenwich, Connecticut, strides up and points to the "Toward a Metric America" banner adorning the booth's maroon-carpeted backdrop. He slaps McCracken on the back. "I'm delighted to see a booth with that title on it," Case exclaims.

"I'm a computer guy," notes the engineer, and regales McCracken, Iannelli, and Jordan with his account of working at IBM while it was converting to the metric system back in the 1970s. "I tell people that if you're worried about international competition, then you need to know metric." McCracken, Iannelli, and Jordan are all smiles.

"You're preaching to the choir!" McCracken says with a lift in his voice.

"But I need that once a week," Jordan chimes in.

"It keeps us going," McCracken sighs.

Morale is not high at the United States Metric Program. Iannelli, McCracken, and a secretary make up the entire operation, which is housed in five rooms in a government office building, plopped down among the car dealerships and chain restaurants of Gaithersburg, Maryland, about 25 miles outside of Washington, D.C.

Iannelli, a smooth-faced man in his 60s, is the Metric Program's director; McCracken, who with his graying dirty-blond hair and mustache looks like a softer Tom Skerritt, is the program's metric coordinator. Jordan, a math professor at the University of South Carolina, does not work for the federal government, but he is something of a metric apostle. He has a thick Southern accent and the swagger of a golf pro, and he has brought both to Tulsa to lend Iannelli and McCracken a hand. The three men don't have much in common, save for their shared desire to see the metric system become the standard system of weights and measures in the United States. Currently, the United States is one of only three countries in the world that have yet to adopt the system (Liberia and Burma keep us company).

In the 1970s, the metric system was already becoming the world's common language. (Not that getting that far was particularly easy -- metric advocates point out that the system was invented in the late 17th century.) Even England -- which gave us the inch-based system -- not to mention Canada and Australia, had decided to go metric. The United States' metric conversion seemed imminent.

In 1968, Congress authorized the Department of Commerce to undertake a three-year study of metrication. In 1971 the study, straightforwardly titled "A Metric America: A Decision Whose Time Has Come," recommended that America convert. In 1975, Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act, which established the United States Metric Board, a panel that would oversee the country's transition to the metric system. Schools began to put more of an emphasis on teaching children the metric system, and for adults, newspapers and magazines offered metric primers. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms required that liquor and wine labels include the volume in liters or milliliters; the Department of Agriculture toyed with the idea of weighing fish and poultry by the kilogram instead of by the pound; and the Federal Highway Administration geared up to change highway signs from miles to kilometers. Metric advocacy groups -- some of whom had been promoting metrication since 1916 -- were so confident that change was coming that they magnanimously promised to let football fields remain 100 yards.

But metric advocates overestimated America's willingness to give an inch, and ironically, the bicentennial brought with it an allegiance to the English system of measurement. Motorists rebelled at the idea of highway signs in kilometers, weather watchers blanched at the notion of reading a forecast in Celsius, and consumers balked at the prospect of buying poultry by the kilogram. Some even cautioned that metrication was a communist plot (the fear being that Russian tanks would have an easier time finding their way around if highway signs were in kilometers). Officials at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center actually sued the government, claiming that "the West was won by the inch, foot, yard, and mile." Perhaps more significantly, organized labor opposed the conversion, worried that workers would have to learn a whole new system of weights and measures. By 1982, the anti-metric forces had clearly won the battle. Ronald Reagan eliminated the Metric Board, officially putting metrication on the back burner, where it has remained ever since.

This, of course, has frustrated metric advocates. And in Tulsa, the Metric Program's booth attracts a steady stream of that frustration. "Boy, the government really set you guys back," commiserates John Tevis, an engineer from Olympia, Washington. (McCracken reminds him gently, "We are the government.")

An engineer who works on government missile contracts sidles up to McCracken to share his disappointment. "We're going backwards," he says, complaining that his group has decreased its use of the metric system. "We're doing it less."

McCracken can only nod his head glumly. "That's depressing to hear," he says. But he quickly brightens, as if gripped by a sudden realization: "The Goodwill Games are going on, and all the Goodwill Games are being done in metric."

In its original incarnation, the metric program focused primarily on government procurement matters -- that is, making sure that federal agencies complied with government directives to use the metric system whenever possible. The idea was that the government would use its purchasing power to spur conversion in the private sector, and eventually the country would switch over.

But under Iannelli, who became the Metric Program's director in 1994, the office has focused less on procurement and more on outreach, with the goal of cultivating public support for metrication. Iannelli, who worked in advertising before he began his career in government in the 1970s, recognized the ineffectiveness of the procurement strategy. The government ran the "danger of building a metric island in the government," he says, "in a nation that is a nonmetric island, if you will, in a metric world."

And, much to the consternation of some of the hardcore metric advocates, Iannelli also saw the folly of pushing metrication too quickly. He bristles at those metric advocates who still press to change highway signs over to kilometers, recognizing the backlash that idea sparked in the 1970s. "They're looking at that as the means to get people to learn it quickly," Iannelli says. "And I'm saying, No, you're just going to irritate people and scare them off." Iannelli even ended the Metric Program's campaign to require other government offices to use A4 paper (which is 210 by 297 millimeters, rather than the familiar 8¸ by 11 inches). "It was just this eagerness, 'Oh, wow, here's a symbol,'" he says, throwing up his hands in mock surprise. "[But] it's not that great a symbol in the sense that you and I, seeing [the A4 paper] for the first time -- it wouldn't scream 'metric' at us. It would simply scream, It doesn't fit in my three-hole binder!"

"It was one of the greatest PR challenges I've ever faced," says Brittney Vincent of the public relations firm Cohn & Wolfe, hired by Iannelli in 1996 to work on a six-month campaign to promote the metric system. The challenge was made all the more formidable when the Metric Program considered, but never pursued, a corporate sponsorship for the 1996 summer Olympics (which uses the metric system exclusively). Late that summer, the Metric Program's attempt to capitalize on the similarly metric Paralympic Games, an Olympic-style contest for athletes with physical and mental disabilities, fizzled as well. As the Metric Program's assessment of the publicity campaign succinctly puts it: "The media were not interested in stories about the metric system during the Paralympics due to the high volume of human interest stories generated by Paralympic athletes."

The campaign did pick up steam after the Paralympics. In the days surrounding the national Metric Day (October 10 -- the 10th day of the 10th month), the Metric Program won a good deal of media coverage, including several wire service articles about the metric system and a slew of television and radio appearances for Iannelli. But the PR effort's six-month term was too short to make a dent in the public's indifference toward the metric system. According to Lynn Duran, another person who worked on the metric account for Cohn & Wolfe, switching the whole country to a metric system would take a "pretty big" shift in public opinion. Duran suggests that the Metric Program back stunts like running a metric ruler down the side of the Washington Monument to celebrate Metric Day. She also says it should sponsor a "Schoolhouse Rock" video on the metric system, and the creation of a Saturday morning cartoon show called "Metric Man."

"Imagine if we did create 'Metric Man' for Saturday cartoons," she says. "Then you'd have millions of Metric Man costumes running around on Halloween."

In 1997, iannelli helped organize a metric week for eighth-graders at a girls' school outside of Washington, D.C., and he lured a Michigan State University drama professor out of semiretirement to restage a play, Metrics Can Be Fun, that the professor had written in the 1970s. More significantly, Iannelli hit the convention circuit to bring the metric message to the people. "I do not want to call metric meetings," Iannelli says. "You're not going to get big crowds on the metric system."

So Iannelli goes to the crowds. He takes the Metric Program's display to gatherings of people with any plausible connection to the metric system: math and science teachers, nutrition educators, exporters, and, as in Tulsa, engineers.

Because most of the people at these conventions are already predisposed to like the metric system, the metric display usually gets a positive response. "You don't get very many people who come in ready to pick a fight with us," says McCracken. In Tulsa, there is some shaking of heads among the engineers who visit the metric booth -- but it is done more in sadness than in anger.

The booth draws only one person who could be described as anti-metric. Patrick Brown, an exhibitor from Towson, Maryland, practically doubles over in laughter when he sees the metric booth. "They ought to close that office down," he tells me. "And they sure as shit shouldn't be here. That's a joke." (Brown later said he would not actually want to shut down the office.)

When I relay Brown's comments to McCracken and Jordan, McCracken tries to shrug them off. "He probably doesn't know that much," McCracken says. "He probably doesn't realize that he uses the metric system every day." Jordan just gets angry, slapping a meterstick into his open palm and begging me to point Brown out to him. I decide it's best to keep his identity to myself.

Granted, Jordan is a bit unusual in his passion for the metric system. (He commissioned an artist to create a painting, christened The Magnificent Seven, of the seven basic metric units anthropomorphized as cowboys.) But even McCracken and Iannelli admit that the metric system has taken on a personal meaning. Iannelli endured his neighbors' snickers when he plastered a "Measure Up, Go Metric" bumper sticker on his Cadillac, and McCracken confesses to taking pride in the fact that health-conscious consumers, obsessing over grams of fat in Big Macs and Whoppers, are unwitting metric converts. "That's something new to our language that has only been done in metric," he gushes.

Metric advocates love to dissect the failure of the 1970s metrication effort in the United States. They point to the fact that no national time table was ever set for the transition, and they carp that the 1975 Metric Conversion Act called only for voluntary conversion rather than mandating it. Others complain that some of the 17 members of the Metric Board were actually anti-metric and worked to sabotage the conversion. Jordan blames it on Vietnam. He argues that just when metrication was getting a head of steam behind it, the Vietnam War escalated and stole the country's attention. "Compared to war, converting to the metric system is trivial," he says.

Then again, it's possible that Americans will never assent to metrication, so long as the metric system is closely identified with the government. "The American style has never been to impose radical changes after state commissions decide on their superiority," says Edward Tenner, a visiting researcher in the history of science and technology at Princeton University. "Americans even hate seeing dual mile and kilometer road signs. The metric system has been a casualty of its identification with political authority."

If that's true, then metrication's current prospects should be better than ever. At its early '80s peak, the Metric Board was an independent agency with a staff of more than 30 and an annual budget of $2.7 million. The Metric Program is merely an office in the Technology Services division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which itself is a part of the Department of Commerce. It has a budget of about $600,000. When I asked a staffer at the anti-pork outfit Citizens Against Government Waste -- a group that's never met a government program it hasn't wanted to eliminate -- if it had ever gone after the Metric Program, he told me he wasn't aware of such a move. "But we may have called for its elimination somewhere," he added. He checked his records, which proved otherwise. "I guess it's not on our radar screen," he said diplomatically.

About two weeks before the convention in Tulsa, McCracken, Iannelli, and I go to lunch at a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall near their office. Over the course of the meal, McCracken touches on the realities of a government career, noting that the Metric Program is just a small piece in a huge bureaucracy. But they both convey how surprised and flattered they are that I'm documenting their work -- and how they hope that my article might advance their cause. "We're trying to build awareness," Iannelli explains.

When the fortune cookies come, we break them open and share the results. Iannelli's reads: "You will be recognized and honored as a community leader." McCracken draws: "You'll make a change for the better."

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