• U.S.

A Letter From The Publisher, Jan. 24, 1977

3 minute read

Within the next decade, Americans will be learning a new language in their kitchens, factories, automobiles and local bars. The metric system of weights and measures, already used in nearly every other country around the world, is being slowly adopted in the U.S. Although the switch is voluntary, Congress passed a law in December 1975 that encourages all Government agencies to change to metrics over the next few years. Since liquor, food, drugs, the interstate highway system and weather forecasts are regulated by the Federal Government, few areas of everyday life will remain untouched by the conversion.

Beginning in this week’s issue, TIME will try to help its readers learn the new metric language. All articles in the Science and Medicine sections will include measurements in both the International System (metric) and in standard English equivalents.

Most U.S. scientific and medical endeavors already use metrics, so the writers and reporter-researchers in the two sections are well prepared for the switch. Medicine Writer Frederic Golden has always kept a calculator in his desk to help him transform figures from one system to the other. For those less well equipped—or well informed —confusion can create problems. Science Writer Peter Stoler recalls A Day’s Wait, a short story by Ernest Hemingway: “The hero is a small American boy who gets the flu. and the doctor measures his temperature at 102°. The child had gone to school in France, where he had been told that nobody could live with a temperature above 44°. So he believes he is going to die.”

Other less traumatic mix-ups are bound to arise as Americans trade in their historic furlongs, acres, bushels and pecks for the more rational, if less poetic meters, hectares and liters. Some conversions, though, will be learned more quickly than others: getting a traffic ticket for driving 50 miles per hour in a 50 kilometer-per-hour zone will probably help drivers adjust to the new system. And a few changes will be happy ones. Leon Jaroff, editor of the Science and Medicine sections, reminds us that “if your weight is 166 lbs., the scale will read only 76 kilograms. That somehow makes it less disturbing.”

Certain terms, of course, may become quaint, but will always be irreplaceable. Pound cake will remain just that, no matter how many grams the ingredients weigh. A miss will never be as good as a kilometer; no Texan is likely to wear a 38-liter hat. In some cases, neither form of measurement matters much. The day that hell freezes over, whether it happens in Celsius (0°) or Fahrenheit (32°), it will still rate a TIME cover.

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