Zach Rodriguez tries to practice what he preaches, which is why he reprogrammed his mother's oven to display 180 degrees Celsius, rather than 356 degrees Fahrenheit.
The 19-year-old college student from San Antonio wanted to make a poundcake. But he is a firm believer in the metric system, so baking in Fahrenheit wouldn't do. He "metricated" the oven using "a complicated, nonintuitive sequence of button pressing," he says.
Mr. Rodriguez is a member of a small, committed group of U.S. metric devotees—the vestige of a once-mighty crusade to get Americans to abandon ounces and inches and a boiling point of 212 degrees in favor of the metric system, where everything is based on the number 10 and water boils at 100 degrees.
While these true believers continue to press other Americans to see the light, some, like Mr. Rodriguez, insist on living metrically, no matter what.
Mr. Rodriguez says his metric cake was delicious. Less enjoyable was his mother's reaction.
"What's wrong with the oven?" she yelled to him from downstairs as his stepfather thumbed the manual to figure out why the oven could no longer be set to the 400 degrees Fahrenheit they needed to roast a chicken.
The keepers of America's metric flame are the roughly 300 members of the U.S. Metric Association. By most measures, their efforts in recent decades have failed.
Since the 1970s—when the metric association had about 900 members and President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, a law intended to convert the U.S. to metric—the U.S. metric movement has made little progress in getting the general public to adopt the gram, liter and meter.
Now, there are scant mainstream efforts in the U.S. to metricate beyond a few fields such as science, medicine, alcohol and the illegal-drug trade. While the 2-liter soda bottle has become standard and many doctors' scales include metric and standard U.S. measurements, most of America lives in inches, feet and pounds. The U.S. is now pretty much alone among developed nations in eschewing metric measurements, commonly referred to as the International System of Units, or SI.
"Popular opinion in this country is antimetric in that it often perceives the metric system as a joke," says metric-association Vice President Paul Trusten, a 60-year-old Midland, Texas, pharmacist.
The association, pushing metric since 1916, aims to change that. Members regularly write to government agencies urging metric-system adoption. It approves Certified Metrication Specialists, who are considered qualified to advise companies and government agencies on going metric. "If we are considered keepers of the flame," Mr. Trusten says, "it's because the rest of the country is in darkness."
Still, even the popularity of TV shows and cookbooks from foreign chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson who use metric recipes doesn't seem to have swayed the U.S. populace.
Metric proponents continue to press other Americans to see the light. Some seek hope in tiny triumphs. There is the Maybelline eyelash lengthener, for example. USMA member Howard Ressel, a Rochester, N.Y., engineer, saw it on television early this year, with ad copy touting "4 mm of measurable extensions!" (Or about 0.16 inch for the uninitiated).
The ad showed companies realize U.S. consumers can digest metric, says Mr. Ressel, 50. A Maybelline spokeswoman declined to comment on the ads.
In June, Mr. Rodriguez alerted members to a box of store-brand cornflakes from H-E-B Grocery Co. in Texas: Its nutrition label used the metric "kilojoules" alongside the customary "calories," used to denote the amount of energy contained in a serving. "The fact that it's there at all, sharing the stage with kilocalories, with kilojoules as the primary unit, is delightful," he wrote. An H-E-B spokeswoman said she had no information on the kilojoule notation.
Metric mavens are more used to getting the short end of the yardstick. Mr. Trusten, the association vice president, last year issued a "call to arms" for members to write to then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce John Bryson and urge him to press companies to adopt the metric system. Association members say they got no response. A Commerce spokeswoman says the department can't find any such letters.
While they wait for converts, purists go to great lengths to convert their own lives. Mike Payne, a pilot from Potomac Falls, Va., says he paid about $100 to have a Honda dealership replace his Civic's speedometer with a dial featuring kilometers-per-hour in large type.
Pierre Abbat, a Charlotte, N.C., computer engineer, stayed strictly metric when designing a house this year. His plans for the 20.6-meter-long building call for 20.32-centimeter-high cement bricks (8 inches) and plywood sheets of 121.92 x 243.84 centimeters (4 feet by 8 feet).
He just needed a metric-only tape measure. Many are printed with inches and centimeters, but those wouldn't do since the inch marks just get in the way.
Mr. Abbat, 48, was glad to find a made-in-U.S.A. metric-only model on Stanley Black & Decker Inc.'s website. He wrote to the company. A representative told him the tapes aren't for sale in the U.S. Most of the other tapes he found online also had nonmetric measurements.
Stanley makes metric-only tapes in New Britain, Conn., says Tom Chang, Stanley's tape-measure product manager. "We ship to Europe, we ship to Asia, we ship to Latin America," he says, but despite his sales force's efforts, U.S. stores won't stock them so "they don't get sold in America."
Mr. Abbat turned to metric-association members for advice. One said he got a metric-only tape from a Russian railway worker; another bought his in Germany. Mr. Abbat finally found one on a boating-supply website. Metric is natural for him, he says: "I've been measuring in metric since I played with 16mm Legos as a kid."
The metric association's Mr. Trusten says he appreciates members who use the system in everyday life whenever possible.
Often, it isn't. When Mr. Payne, the pilot, wanted to buy a trailer, he called nearly every trailer maker in the country "and insisted they send me a brochure or anything they may have that gave dimensions and weight in SI metric units." None obliged, and he says he won't buy a trailer until one does.
For 10 years, Robert Bullard, a New Smyrna Beach, Fla., building engineer, took only clients who let him draw plans in metric, rather than the U.S. system known as "customary" measurements that stem partly from archaic British units. "I despise the English system," he says. "I said, 'I'm drawing a line in the sand.' "
But five years ago, he had to give an inch: He couldn't afford to lose any business, so he began accepting projects with some standard measurements. Plans he drew for a drainage pond this year, for example, call for 40.64-centimeter-long masonry blocks but had to be based on U.S. government-produced maps with elevation in feet, since the federal authorities doesn't use metric for topographic measurements. Compromising his principles, he says, makes him feel "rotten."
Mr. Rodriguez, the metric-cake baker, says that although he left his mother "frazzled," he remains convinced he must stay true to metric measurements.
"If you were to roll over and say 'oh, that's at least 5 pounds,' " he says, "then they won't change, and what have you done to help?"
Write to Justin Scheck at firstname.lastname@example.org