The metric system

I'm often seen as something of a numbers man by colleagues around here. Because economics reporters often deal with statistics, they are meant to be good at arithmetic.

A calculatorIn fact though, in the absence of a calculator, my arithmetic is not very good at all. I lie awake in terror of being caught in one of those on air "Stephen Byers" moments, making a basic error in a rudimentary multiplication. (Mr Byers, you might remember was the school standards minister when he was asked on Radio Five Live what eight times seven was, to which he replied 54. It was perhaps an unfair question as most people's cognitive functions fail them under the pressure of live radio).

But I can tell you this. There are two numbers I find it very easy to multiply by: one and ten. I virtually never make a mistake with those.

And indeed, with a little care I find 0.1, 100 and 1000 pretty straightforward too.

I'm sure that others must be the same as me, which is why it is surprising that there is not more will in our country to finish the job of metrication.

In truth, we are mostly there with one gaping exception: distance. We just can't wean ourselves off miles, feet, inches and yards.

But wouldn't our lives ultimately be easier if we did?

An Irish road sign, in kilometersDriving across long distances in Canada I found that kilometres are not particularly difficult to master. Of course, the distances sound very large (the "Calgary 470" sign makes it seem a longer drive than "Calgary 294"). But the good news is you make much quicker progress in kilometres as the numbers go down much faster.

Some people regard the imperial units as more intuitive than the metric system: the number twelve for example, has a particular appeal for those dealing in small, whole integer quantities because you can divide it by 2,3,4 and 6 and easily multiply it by 2 or 3.

Which is why we sell eggs in dozens or half dozens. And in fact that's why the French sell eggs in dozens and half dozens too (as they do snails, I'm told) despite their long metric history.

But 12 is a not a very good way of talking about units that are broken into fractions, where the advantages of base 10 assert themselves more strongly.

A group of people protesting against the introduction of metric systemAnyway, the intuitive appeal of the number 12 would only be a strong argument for the non-metric system if most non-metric units were built around the number 12. But they are not. And even in the most striking case where they once were, the 12 penny shilling, few people yearn for a return to it.

As it happens, when it comes to distance, both systems have a similar-ish short measure (inch or centimetre); a medium measure (yard or metre) and a distance measure (mile or kilometre).

But the overriding advantage of the metric system is that its three measures all build on each other in a simple way, whereas there's really no logical connection between the three non-metric measures at all. A yard is 36 inches; a mile is 1,760 yards.

The non-metric answer is to have an intermediate unit, the foot, which sort of works in tying inches to yards, but doesn't help tie yards to miles.

All in all, it's pretty obvious that the metric system is easier once you've mastered it.

And as an example of its simplicity, take the hectare. Few of my generation seem to know that this basic unit of area is defined as 100 metres by 100 metres. It couldn't be clearer once its been explained, and then you can work out there are 100 to the square kilometre.

The end of a 100m (not 70 yard) Olympic raceInstead, we persevere with the acre, which most of us have a vague sense of, but few of us can properly define as 69.6 yards by 69.6 yards. (If they ran a 70 yard race in the Olympics, we would all have a more precise idea of the area embraced within an acre - but unfortunately they don't.)

I wouldn't want to exaggerate the benefits of having basic units and sub-units of a measurement system that relate to each other in consistent ways. We can express time in days or years, and there is no simple conversion between the two. And we can talk of area in square yards, or in acres making no attempt at all to flip between one and other.

And using imperial units doesn't stop us using base ten or sub-units of tenths. We can use calculators to add up miles with decimal places, as easily as we can kilometres. It is more common to talk of a marathon as being 26.2 miles than 26 miles, 385 yards. In fact, we can deal with inches or miles in 10ths and 100ths without relating them to each other at all. Why not?

But it is clearly more helpful if the different units we use for short and long distances lock together for one good reason - the fractions of the bigger unit then have an obvious natural interpretation in terms of the smaller unit. And we don't need to grasp as many units at all. And we can convert between different units without using a calculator.

This is all obvious really. So why do we not make the change to kilometres right now?

First, there's obviously a bit of admirable British scepticism of grand, idealistic designs. Metrication is perhaps seen by some as another kind of worthy and impractical initiative like Esperanto. Good idea but we can get on with real life now.

But that's not stopped the old empire dumping imperial measures, and moving to the de facto global standard: metric units.

A young girl waves an EU flagPerhaps more significant in our reticence to finish the metrication job is a bit of "not-invented here" syndrome in our view of these things, exacerbated by our suspicion of too many things being imposed on us by Brussels.

Ironically, though, in many respects our view of metrication provides the best example of the British not rejecting a French imposition, but imitating French attitudes towards globalisation. Holding out against global norms and insisting on doing things our way, however inconvenient it is to ourselves.

Given that our language has done us so proud in this latest era of globalisation, it's odd that when it comes to numbers, we have such an anti-globalist view of things.

As it happens, I think the real reason we don't change is not that we dislike the fact the French invented it, nor that we have a tendency to behave like the French in facing globalisation. It is that in any given year, heaving ourselves through the transition to metrication is a difficult process.

It was jokingly argued when we switched to decimal currency, that as the change is most confusing for older people, we should wait until they die before proceeding. We can delay and delay as long as want on this count.

But it really comes down to a basic question - whether the cost of a switch-over is more than outweighed by the long term benefits of moving to the new system.

Upfront cost versus longer term benefits.

Economists are pretty familiar with this kind of choice: any investment has this basic structure. And economists have the tools to take a detailed look at investment proposals to decide whether the long term benefits are large enough to justify the initial payment. Some investments are worth proceeding with. Others are not.

So, if we view metrication as an investment, should we not take just such a detailed look?

Before we decide to stick in perpetuity to the system we've got, would it not be a good idea for someone to take a close look at really how costly it would be to switchover and what the benefits are, rather than leaving it to the mere default choice of doing what we always do?

Comments   Post your comment

i think the link between the metric units is less important than you describe. If I'm working with shorter distances I'll work with cm and m, or with feet and inches. If I'm working on longer distances than I'll use miles for preference, km if I must. But I wouldn't ever try to relate the two - I know that there are 1,000m in a kilometer, but the fact that this shelf is a meter long has no relation at all (in my mental model) to it being 1/1000th of a kilometer. The two are entirely separate, just as I would never watch the second hand tick and think "Well there's another 86,400th of a day gone"

Having said that, I'm all for full metrication, just give it a little while - I was living in the US when weights in shops went metric, so I'm still struggling with that!

  • 2.
  • At 11:16 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Marco wrote:

At primary school I was only taught metric units, on the basis that everything else would shortly become obsolete. When was this? 1969.

  • 3.
  • At 11:17 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Chris Wills wrote:

As a Physics teacher I wonder why there doesn't seem to be more of a push towards a metric distance system. All school children are taught that speed is measured in metres per second and kilometres per hour (m/s & km/h) from year 7 through to year 11. In Physics lessons (which all children are taught in years 10 & 11 as part of the National Curriculum Science syllabus) confusion often occurs when miles per hour are mentioned. Generations of young adults are more than conversant with m/s and km/h tham mph and it seems obvious to me that eventually we will change.

  • 4.
  • At 11:18 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Chris wrote:

Why don't we just go the whole hog and introduce Metric Time too?

Alright so it would a bit tricky and we'd have to change the definition of a second but the benefits would definately outweigh the cost.

Just something for people to think about.

  • 5.
  • At 11:20 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Michael Stirling wrote:

I couldn't agree more with the idea of switching to the metric system, and I'm sure the British public would adapt to metric distance measures as they've done with say, the Celsius/Centigrade temperature scale, for example. Not to mention the obvious benefits of metric volume measures over imperial ones. Why order just a pint of beer when you can order a whole litre??

  • 6.
  • At 11:24 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Paul wrote:

Acres aren't necessarily square - it is easy to remember when you know an acre is one furlong by one chain.

However, I agree the metric system is approaching universality, and so we must adopt it. But why stop with length, area and weight? We must metricate time as well. The day should have 100 hours, so that an 8 hour day becomes much easier to work.

  • 7.
  • At 11:29 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Peter Mountford wrote:

An acre is a chain by a furlong, not 69.6 yards squared as suggested. Couldn't be simpler!

  • 8.
  • At 11:30 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Chris M. Dickson wrote:

I blame the politicians. Not politicians of any specific party, all politicians who are constrained by the four-to-five-year cycle of re-election - nobody wants to be responsible for something that will lead to four or five or ten or twenty years of pain and possibly not get them re-elected afterwards even though after (or coincident with) all the pain there will be identifiable long-term benefit.

Of course, I wouldn't want to take this to its logical conclusion and not have the politicians re-elected every four or five years; there's also an argument that changes made at the moment to make the UK (and, indeed, much of the world) emit less but at the cost of increasing household expenses come firmly into the category of accepting short-term pain for long-term gain. This may be much more palatable to the British palate because there's broadly cross-party agreement, to a greater or lesser extent, and global agreement that such measures are necessary.

What would an "upfront cost versus longer term benefits" analysis be of a global genetic modification process to give children born after, say, 2050 an extra finger on each hand in preparation for switching from base ten to base twelve from 2075 or thereafter to make metrication more palatable and divisible still?

  • 9.
  • At 11:45 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Paddy wrote:

One point you did not mention 1 cubic metre is equal to 1000 litres and 1000 litres of water weighs 1000 kilos or one tonne. This should be very useful in the oil industry where I work unfortunately we produce oil in barrels (158.98 litres per barrel) from wells drilled to a depth in feet, specify drill pipe in inches ( a standard size is 9 5/8 inch diameter) supply chemicals in US gallons (3.78542 litres to the US Gallon)which we have often bought in $/pound, and of course measure temperature in fahrenheit! This is at the insistance of the US oil industry - who describe these units as English! The first thing you get when you start in the oil industry is conversion tables.

  • 10.
  • At 11:54 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Stephen Phillips wrote:

USA still uses (a version of) the imperial units. And they are still the only country to have landed someone on the moon.

Keep the imperial measures! Dump metric!

  • 11.
  • At 11:54 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • adrian tallentire wrote:

The problem is that to most people the gains are non existant. Sure there might be a reduction in costs of some goods and services but this will not be noticeable.

Only the scientists and engineers really benefit from the metric system and we are all so numerate that converting is a non issue in any case.

I dont care one way or another, I simply want an easy life and change gets in the way.

I just wish Britain would make up its mind. This halfway house is confusing and often unhelpful.

For example, distance is still measured in miles, but petrol is sold by the litre. Meanwhile fuel economy is still reported in litres per 100 kilometers or miles per gallon.

Let's pick just one system and stick to it!

  • 13.
  • At 11:59 AM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Miland Joshi wrote:

You say that Esperanto is 'impractical'. Consider the problem of finding sufficient translators in an organisation like the European union and you might concede that it is a very useful bridge language. That does not mean that it can be learned without some effort. If you have any curiosity about it, you may wish to glance at and click on 'introduction'.

Plenty of countries have signs in 2 languages. It can't be beyond us to have both metric and imperial signage can it?

  • 15.
  • At 12:11 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Ben Turner wrote:

I am a Brit who has lived his entire life in Belgium and I was brought up with metrics in school.

Two years ago I walked Hadrian's wall path. We bought maps detailing the area at a scale of 1/25000.

It was at this point that it dawned at me what a monster of a system imperial units are. If i measured the distance from point A to B as being one centimetre on the map, it would be 250 meters (25000 centimetres).

However a small tapemeasure came with the map that only indicated inches. If the distance from A to B on the map was one inch, howmany miles would that be? Howmany yards? Howmany feet?

Quite mindboggling.

  • 16.
  • At 12:13 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Stefan Szulc wrote:

I think the main issue with the metric system is within the construction industry. All machines producing building materials, bricks, doors, window frames etc. are constructed to the imperial system. These would be extremely expensive to alter or replace. There is also the question of what is the corresponding measurement in the metric system. For example an 8' x 4' sheet of plywood converts exactly to 2.4384m x 1.2192m, not easy to remember even if you round it up to 2440mm x 1220mm. This is only one example and there are thousands more to change. My personal opinion is that change will be extremely expensive and not particularly beneficial. Britain won't change until America changes.

  • 17.
  • At 12:22 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Martyn Bowler wrote:

We have been very half hearted over metrification. We should have done it in one fell swoop - money, weight, distance. I say what hasn't moved over should now do so.

  • 18.
  • At 12:30 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • pxr5 wrote:

Go and ask a good french butcher how long to cook a joint of meat for...he will most likely tell you the time per pound, even though the meat will be sold by the kilo.....

"You say that Esperanto is 'impractical'. Consider the problem of finding sufficient translators in an organisation like the European union and you might concede that it is a very useful bridge language. That does not mean that it can be learned without some effort. If you have any curiosity about it, you may wish to glance at and click on 'introduction'."

Miland, we do have a 'bridge' language. It's called English. It's the global language of business and the internet.

  • 20.
  • At 12:36 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Merrall Sims wrote:

The author cites France, but this a poor example for the Syst�me Internationale, which is the preferred version of metric. Instead of using metres and newtons, and then multiples of 1000 (as I learned during my UK engineering degree more than 20 years ago) they use all sorts of silly intermediate units (cm, decanewtons, hectopascals, etc) that remind them of the old cm-kgf version of metric. Pipe fittings are also in inches here (due to US reconstruction after the war apparently). Its clearly difficult to get everyone to use one system!

  • 21.
  • At 12:39 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Steve wrote:

Inches are useful, centimetres are effectively banned (notice that things are specified as e.g.'800mm'). 'Two foot seven and a half inches' is something you can visualise. That's how humans work, we need systems which stack up smallish numbers, not having laser vision. Plus my thumb is an inch wide - don't turn us into robots as the French Revolutionaries would have preferred.

  • 22.
  • At 12:44 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Harry wrote:

Surely living with both is not too much of a hardship for us to put up with! I am a child of metric but i can still relate to imperial for distance for example. Of course when it comes to selling the market can (if it were allowed to) cater for customers by listing in both metric and imperial. On road signs though having metric and imperial alongside would probably be more confusing then beneficial. Nowdays we all have calculators on our mobile phones and calculations and conversions are not too much of a stretch. Far from forcing one system or the other on everybody i am quite happy to live with both. I am sure over time metric will prevail, and in the mean time is being fluent in both not a competitive advantage trading with nations who use imperial?

  • 23.
  • At 12:45 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Nic Brough wrote:

I notice that London Underground now use metric time - "minute" on their next-train display boards obviously means "100 seconds"

  • 24.
  • At 12:50 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Paul Johnson wrote:

Interesting point from Adrian Tallentire about how engineers and scientists are the ones who stand most to benefit, yet they are the most numerate so should be able to cope. That's true, except doing cross-border projects using both systems at the same time is a nightmare and asking for mistakes.

Incidentally with having a software background I actually find working in Base 16 (hexidecimal) easiest - lets switch to that!

  • 25.
  • At 12:53 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Adam wrote:

I recently rented an allotment from my local council, and was intrigued to discover that the official size of my allotment is 16 rods. This is intriguing for 2 reasons: not only did I not know that anyone still measured things in rods, but more importantly a rod is a measure of length, not area, yet my allotment is definitely 2 dimensional.

  • 26.
  • At 12:55 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Andy R wrote:

The problem with the argument about opting for one measurement system over another is that it relies on the assumption that accuracy is required. In reality, most circumstances can be satisfied by approximations and people will choose a measure that suits them. Thus, to quote the example, one hectare is "about two football pitches". Also, how do we free ourselves from other anachronisms within the metricated world, eg. exactly how many bytes in a Mb or Gb?

When accuracy is demanded, most professions default to a small, appropriate unit and have lots of them. So engineers, typically, measure in mm and will happily quote 25000mm rather than 2500cm or 25m.

Any measure is just that, a measure: it makes not a jot of difference to the actual entity being considered and real world rounding will always be apparent for the everyday layman. So the relative benefit of any system will be impossible to define with any precision. How ironic!

As for metric time: 1 year = once round the sun, 1 day = once around our earthly axis. These seem pretty good base units to me. Easy to relate to, who cares if I have to think a bit harder if I want to convert between 'em.

  • 27.
  • At 01:04 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Graeme in Paris wrote:

The French use dozen today - not because they are (like us Brits, contrary Marys). It's because 'dozen' is a French word. When a waiter asks you in Paris for how many eggs or snails you want, he asks "douze ou six". There is no mention of dozen or specifically that the snails are being counted in a particular way. As for the US - anything to do with hi-tech engineering is all done in milimetres. Only household plumbing and construction and all that - anything to do with whining Joe Public - is kept in Imperial measurements.

  • 28.
  • At 01:07 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Pete' L' wrote:

I would suggest that the business case for moving to metric is that until the UK does it is stuck with trying to cope with both systems and any replication / conversion effort this entails. My understanding is also that the UK adopted the MKS (Metre/Kilogramme/Second)system where all units thereafter are derived (Newtons, Pascals etc.)
The UK however loves an eccentric, and seems to cling to antediluvian conventions like a 'worry blanket'.

  • 29.
  • At 01:12 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Melanie Ayre wrote:

I'm british and living in France for a year. I find that every time I think, in English, that something is a hundred yards away, that I then translate this as being a hundred metres away. The strange this is, this conversion works pretty well most of the time!

  • 30.
  • At 01:14 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Chris Harding wrote:

The key here as Evan touches upon is "intuitive". I hear people commentating on rugby Matches now describing someone as being however many centimetres tall and however many kilos in weight and I can't relate to it at all until they explain that the individual is 6ft 6in and 17 1/2 stone..It's how intuitively people in the UK have come measure and assess, especially in a tactile physical way, unlike the more abstract notions of distance.

I have no idea what the cost of conversion in all areas to a metric system would be but I'm only 33 and still think almost entirely in imperial measurements, so I'm guessing the aggravation factor for the population as a whole probably makes it not worthwhile. Even at my reliatively young age though I notice a generational difference. If I ask in a supermarket for "2 pounds of..." most (young and admittedly quite often foreign) staff assume I'm talking about money not weight and I do confess to once vandalising with grafiti a restaurant menu which tried to sell me a 453g gourmet burger...I mean, how on earth can you get a sense of something from the number 453?

  • 31.
  • At 01:15 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Tedgo wrote:

Britain officially went metric in the early 1970's. Industry moved over quite rapidly, for instance 6 plus thread systems (as in nuts and bolts) were replaced by one. There where many advantages to this sort of rationalization. Most cars have long been metric and in the building industry boards are often actually 2.5 meters 1.25m.

Its only on the high street that there is inertia to change, its typical of the British resistance to getting on with anything new.

I was in South Africa when they went metric at about the same time as the UK, almost overnight all the road signs changed.

In a way we are slipping backwards, engine oil always came in 5 litre containers, now they are often sold as 4.55 litres, ie a gallon.

  • 32.
  • At 01:15 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Rob wrote:

You should know by now the British way is never the simplest way.
At least we can say we're more intelligent than those crazy Europeans with their simple measurements!

I'm British, I use inches, feet, miles, acres, pounds, ounces and pints, and I'm damn proud of it!

  • 33.
  • At 01:16 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Tony Harvey wrote:

I fail to see what the problem is with the acre. One acre is 10 square chains - a chain (22 yds) is the length of a cricket pitch, 10 chains is a furlong (one eighth of a mile), a measurement that is familiar to all race-goers.

One acre can, therefore, be visualized as a strip of land one furlong in length, the width of a cricket pitch or, if you prefer, 200 metres by 20 metres is close enough to make no real difference.

It's not that difficult living with both systems (I was weighted in hospital last week and I estimated it in kilos - sadly I was a little on the generous side though I'm sure my clothes added 10 kilos - and the nurse spoke in stones and pounds. We both knew what we were talking about.

However it is odd that despite having being taught the metric system at school in the 1970s we still use both as a matter of course.

But here's an interesting fact. If you wonder why '12' became the base of counting in the imperial system, use your thumb to count the sections of your other fingers. 3 on each, four fingers = 12. So the imperial system (at least for dozens etc) is the result of the need to count quickly using our fingers to caluculate sums involving anything up to 24. It's actually better in many ways than including the thumbs and only being able to count to ten.

  • 35.
  • At 01:31 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Robin Johnson wrote:

I don't hold out much hope. After all, how long has the UK struggled to get the hang of the 'twenty-four hour clock'?

  • 36.
  • At 01:33 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Catherine wrote:

I lived in Sweden for a year... and you know what, not a problem with any of it, it took me perhaps a week to get used to converting things into kilometers.
I do admit I like the intutive nature of imperial but really it just isn't practical, America may have landed on the moon with it, but they still managed to loose the Mars Climate Orbiter due to imperial/metric conversion mix-ups. But what the heck the project only cost them about $230 million!

  • 37.
  • At 01:34 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • E I Richards wrote:

If we move to metric think how much money will be made by speed cameras as everyone gets confused with the difference of m/ph to k/ph. More worryingly though will there be an increase in crashes and in turn deaths?

  • 38.
  • At 01:36 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Shugmeister wrote:

Slow news day Evan?

  • 39.
  • At 01:37 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Barry Coidan wrote:

As far a I can see it it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. Frankly I'm 100% for keeping the UK imperial. What next Evan? Driving on the wrong side of the road.

Mind you the US crashed one of its Mars rocket confusing inches with centimetres. That never happened to Dan Dare.

  • 40.
  • At 01:38 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Tim wrote:

'Two foot seven and a half inches' is something you can visualise. That's how humans work, we need systems which stack up smallish numbers, not having laser vision

'Two foot seven and a half inches' is something you can visualise only because you're used to imperial measurements. It means nothing to me as someone who's used to metric. If you said '80cm' or '0.8 metres' then I could visualise it as a bit less than half my height, no laser vision required.

There is nothing instinctive or 'visual' about imperial. Far from it in fact: What if the person you're building that 'two foot seven and a half inches' shelf/frame/whatever for decides they want it a quarter bigger. With metric it's simple in-your-head arithmetic to work it out (100cm, 1m), in imperial you'd better get out your calculator or pen and paper.

  • 41.
  • At 01:49 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Jane, leeds wrote:

I think the real reason is that Imperial measurements are instilled in the language-"A miss is as good as a mile", inching our way, pinch an inch, a six footer (referring to a tall person) etc. I use both systems, but some I am unable to relate to, such as imaging a person who is 183cm tall (a six footer!)

  • 42.
  • At 01:49 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • David Hughes wrote:

I use the most appropriate system. Moderately interested in history and architecture, I wouldn't want to know the metric size of features built in imperial or earlier measures: it's irrelevant. Two bugbears of mine: gardening books that carefully convert ounces per square yard separately, so you get some meaningless rubbish like 57.3g per 0.96sqm (made up figures); and the victorian predilection for calling 600mm gauge railways like Ffestinniog 1 foot 11 1/2 inches!

  • 43.
  • At 01:54 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Duncan Stott wrote:

Metric systems DON'T have small/medium/long measures, they have just one measure with an appropriate prefix. Kilo = +3 noughts to the unit, Milli = -3 noughts etc. Prefixes are standard across all types of measure (distance, volume, weight etc.)

"When accuracy is demanded, most professions default to a small, appropriate unit and have lots of them. So engineers, typically, measure in mm and will happily quote 25000mm rather than 2500cm or 25m." - Andy R

I disagree, I'm an electronic engineer, and we always use the most appropriate prefix. So for resistors, a 100000 Ohm (Ω) resistor is 100kΩ.

The sooner the better for decimalisation. It is a far superior system.

  • 44.
  • At 01:54 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Peter Hamilton-Scott wrote:

If the will to succeed migrating to full metrication needs an excellent source of reference then you can do no better than read about the way Sweden implemented it.

Perhaps if it was a British invention and not a French one we'd be using it more universally than we are now. Imperial units are arcane and no longet fit for purpose. You only have to listen to weather reports to appreciate this. How often does the presenter quote in degrees Celcius but almost sheepishly quotes Fahrenheit as well?

  • 45.
  • At 01:56 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Mike T wrote:

Andy R: "how do we free ourselves from other anachronisms within the metricated world, eg. exactly how many bytes in a Mb or Gb?"

MB and GB (note the capital B for Byte rather than lower case b for bit) are binary (base 2) not metric (base 10). 1024 written in binary is a nice round number: 10000000000, where as 1000 equals 1111101000.

  • 46.
  • At 01:56 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • James wrote:

The imperial system is dreadful and I wish we'd ditch it all and just go metric for everything.

At school in the 90's I was brought up using the metric system. It's all in 10's, 100's and 1000's. Very easy.

But if someone asks me what an acre, chain or furlong are, I haven't the foggiest. I'd much rather do it in hectares and square kilometres.

I bet 90% of the British public couldn't tell you how many yards are in a mile. But much more would be able to know there are 1000 metres in a kilometre.

If the Republic of Ireland can convert their road signs and distances to metric (in 2004), then so can we.

For God's sake let common sense prevail and ditch the old-fashioned mess that is the imperial system and bring in the nice, easy metric system.

  • 47.
  • At 02:02 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • tim thomas wrote:

Of course, the fact that many older cars do not have speedometers in kph, that railways are measured in yards, chains and miles (and all the design paperwork will be in imperial measures - requiring expensive redrafting to be in compliance with safety rules etc) - the sheer cost of replacing every single roadside and track side sign, the fact that no house plot would ever be exactly x.xx metres thanks :D

  • 48.
  • At 02:05 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Geraint Johnes wrote:

We Brits are most adeptly schizophrenic when it comes to temperature. We are all comfortable talking about a hot day in Farenheit (temperatures hit the 80s) but about cold days in Celsius (temperatures as low as -5). Two completely different scales, yet everyone seems to know what everyone else means. This is a quite remarkable achievement, and is clearly the basis for the doublespeak practised so admirably well by our politicians.

  • 49.
  • At 02:07 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Caroline, Southend, UK wrote:

My son recently returned from school having been meansured by the nurse, saying he was 168cm tall. My immediate response is that he can't be that tall - I am 175cm & he is at least five inches shorter than I am.

  • 50.
  • At 02:21 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • John Smith wrote:

The biggest problem with the measures 'issue' is that we're in a horrendous hybrid. I, and most people under 30, know of exactly two imperial measures - the mile and the pint. I have no idea how to use a degree Farenheit, and weight only makes sense in grams and kilograms. (I've heard of a stone, I haven't a clue what it is).

References to imperial measures are, simply useless, because nobody's beeen taught them for decades. Metric measurements are more logical, more straightforward, and far more intuitive (do you not think in base 10? I know for sure I don't think in base 12). The sooner we finish converting officially, the better for all.

  • 51.
  • At 02:21 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Robin wrote:


so has economics become a science under Evan's guardianship and not a social science?

this is an absurd discussion. when was metrification the 'de facto global standard'? Has Evan never been to the USA?

the assumption that a full discussion of this matter could lead to some kind of universal truth is a typical economist's error. lot's of money will be spent and nothing will be discovered other than that some ways of doing things are better than others and vice versa. But in the interim the tax payer will have funded this pseudo-intellectual nonsense.

it's a shame that the current government thinks the best way to advance our nation is to make all school children stay until they are eighteen instead of to learn some slightly more intricate mental arithmetic than the ten times table.

what can be shown by the medical profession, who are far more scientist than any economist will ever be, is that doing mental arithmetic into one's old age can stave off age related deterioration of brain function. I can't think of a better reason to silence the Metrification Staasi.

now, do we need another expensive investigation to prove that one or will Evan accept the views of the medical profession?

  • 52.
  • At 02:23 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Clive G wrote:

Andy R (comment 26), a day is not as easy to define as that - you've defined the sidereal day which is 23 hours 56 minutes. It takes another 4 minutes for the same part of the earth to face the Sun again. AND the earth wobbles a bit on its axis from time to time so we need leap seconds... anyway this is off the point of metric time which was in fact actually tried in the French Revolution. Unfortunately the 10 day week proved rather unpopular for some reason.

  • 53.
  • At 02:23 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Al Smith wrote:

"Paul wrote:

Acres aren't necessarily square - it is easy to remember when you know an acre is one furlong by one chain."

That made me laugh! Says it all about the imperial system.

How long is a furlong? Let me guess it's 71 leatherlongs except on Wednesdays when it's 37.1 fleecelongs and when you're wearing jeans it's 83 denimlongs.

A chain, which chain - the one attached to my bathplug or is it the security chain on my front door perhaps it's the length on the chain attached to the anchor of the HMS Absurdity?

  • 54.
  • At 02:31 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Paul Wright wrote:

What the UK has to do is make up its mind about which system to use. I went to primary school in the mid 70s and was only taught in metric; so in many ways the old imperial measures are meaningless, unless I can compare them to something I now like cms, and metres etc. What we now have is the continuation of imperial measures, but a population who if younger than 40 years of age who have little concept of what they actually mean.
You only have to look at Australia, a very similar country who went completely metric, at about the same time as it decimalized. Now everyone copes well with metric measures.
PS What is a furlong or a chain?

  • 55.
  • At 02:37 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Andy R wrote:

Glad to see I got some reaction

Re. 43 Fair comment, I showed limited focus on construction/fabrication type industries. I agree, some professions use the correct SI conventions. (Incidentally, I work in electrical power systems and we generally quote fault level in kA.)

Re. 45. Thankfully, I already know the difference. (Typo on the B capitalisation, thanks for correcting.) The point here was that the M and G prefixes from the SI system infer base 10, so there is inherent inaccuracy with potential to confuse just as badly as any metric/imperial difference. And how often does the 'error' really create a problem?

Personally and professionally, I work with both types of measure and believe that horses for courses applies more strongly than any sense of right or wrong, better or worse.

  • 56.
  • At 02:41 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Brian E wrote:

Mike T: "MB and GB (note the capital B for Byte rather than lower case b for bit) are binary (base 2) not metric (base 10)."

That was the case at one point, but it was a misapplication of the (base 10) SI prefixes and very few people used them way - causing confusion and lawsuits. Since 1999 we've had MiB and GiB for the unambiguously binary prefixes of byte. (formerly an IEC standard, now IEEE 1541-2002)

  • 57.
  • At 02:53 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Andy R wrote:

If the government really wants to take us metric, especially on the roads, it has to sweeten the pill. How about abolishing speed cameras?

That would solve the problem of accidental penalties caused by driver confusion between KPH/MPH, improve road safety by letting drivers look out of the window instead of constantly monitoring the speedometer, and get all drivers to willingly accept the conversion.

I'm 34 and run a business building office fitouts. I was educated in metric and the only imperial measures I really understand are the inch, the mile and the pint.

Everything in work life is metric, carpet, paint, tables etc all measured in mm or cm. Of the 40 or so people that do work for me, they all work in metric.

My local supermarket is metric (well apart from some of the milk) my gym is metric, my GP is metric and when I go mountain biking on weekends, the maps and trails are marked in KM. Some have miles in brackets.

Since the 1960's we have had a metric education. British business is metric. British science is metric. It took countries like Australia 3-5 years to fully convert.

It well past the time when a politician should have shown leadership and set dates for our road signs to be converted to metric.

On safety grounds this move is long overdue. How many drivers are there on our roads with no idea what a mile is? How many British drivers are there elsewhere is Europe driving cars that do not show how fast they are going in KM?

  • 59.
  • At 02:56 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Huw Clayton wrote:

Very strange, all these people in their 20s and 30s who say they are clueless about Imperial. I was taught metric at school in the 90s, and yet nobody I've ever met uses it, of my own age or any age. Maybe because it has no convenient base reference, maybe because it's imposed by that gang of idiots out in the sticks (London) who have no concept of life in the real world. But I think frankly it's most likely to be for the same reason that I never use algebra now, despite having been a prodigy at mathematics - it was taught in a place I loathed and detested (school) it's of no use to me in daily life (I am now a historian, not a mathematician or geographer) and I couldn't care less what system I use providing it's the same as the one used by people around me. It's like the ability to speak a different language - I speak German in Germany, Welsh in Wales, and English practically everywhere else, depending on who is listening and what they will understand.

Incidentally, of course, a knowledge of imperial measurements is immensely valuable to a historian, given the recent nature of metric in this country, but that wouldn't explain why for preference I claim travel expenses in miles and buy vegetables by the pound!

  • 60.
  • At 02:57 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Al Smith wrote:

Oh regarding the computing MB / kB confusion, In 2000 International Electrotechnical Commission established a set of units for computer memory/storage.

kB should be KiB - kibibyte (a contraction of kilo binary byte).

MB should be MiB - mebibyte (a contraction of mega binary byte).

So they have tryed to solve the problem, but the terms aren't used widely enough.

  • 61.
  • At 02:58 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Albert wrote:

All the Imperial units are task specific, evolved quantities human beings find convenient to secure from nature and to fashioning into artefacts; enough land for enough corn for enough bread for enough slices.

The metric system was intended for making complex quantity calculations easier for human beings in the sciences. We use it everywhere only because technocrats in bureaucracies find it task specific convenient we do so.

Information technology does not use either system. It uses nothing but noughts and ones to powers of 2, and, around the world, it now has in place billions of very expensive conversion circuits and sub-routines that let its inputs and outputs appear in whatever kind of unit system you want. EG: Excel > Insert > Function enables numbers in logarithmic form, and Format > Cells > Fraction lets you use fractions if you prefer.

The irony is that even as we ever more tightly constrain ourselves into using one narrow universal system for everything, our information technology is giving us the ability to work on any problem we like, using any symbol system we like, anywhere we like, whenever we like.

  • 62.
  • At 03:00 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Carl wrote:

As an Irishman (and an engineer), I've really enjoyed these posts. For me there are three things that I understand best in imperial (the height of a person, the weight of a person and a speed limit), but otherwise I'm metric all the way. That includes litres of milk, 250g packets of butter and kilo bags of sugar.

I was amused by James's (comment 21) remark about "'Two foot seven and a half inches' is something you can visualise." That is something I really have to think about. I guess that it's 'two and a half rulers and a little bit'. Whereas 800mm means something to me (as does 795mm and 811mm for that matter).

Also thanks to everyone who explained what a chain, furlong and acre are.I know know that they are 20m, 200m and a quarter of a hectare respectively.

Finally, one question. When will Britain standardise its currency to the Euro?

  • 63.
  • At 03:12 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Joe wrote:

The main reason I can think is that the government can't afford to change all the road signs in the country unless they get us to pay for it as usual. And unfortunately the government won't make money from the conversion unlike when prices went up after we convert from pounds shillings and pence and from gallons to litres.

  • 64.
  • At 03:13 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Seavy Carr wrote:

Hi from Ireland. We had our road signs changed to km over a year ago, ditto food labelling in kg/g/l/ml. It takes a couple of weeks to get used to it, and we oldies seem to be coping - the youngies learn Imperial Measures as part of their history lessons! Metric time would be easy if someone could tell me how they intend to work it out. Are we talking about a specific substance under a certain pressure and temperature, 1 cubic cm of distilled water/ice freezing/melting at so many ml per hour at Planet Earth sea level, environmental circumstances permitting? That wouldn't exactly be "rate of change" in cosmic terms. The measurement of time is a human invention relative to humanity and our planet. Where are those incredibly intelligent aliens who have the ultimate answer?

  • 65.
  • At 03:14 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Miland Joshi wrote:

"we do have a 'bridge' language. It's called English. It's the global language of business and the internet."

This is fine for people having English as a first language, but most humans do not. English is a passport to an international elite rather than a bridge. Esperanto was in fact intended as an international second language. But it would be good to have the view of a professional translator as to the value of Esperanto as a bridge language, relative to English.

  • 66.
  • At 03:37 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Barrie Anderson wrote:

Mr Evans comments on British resistance to going metric in distance.

I have a collection of Ordinance Survey maps, some dating back 50 years to when I was a Scout. My favourite ones are the new ones that are no longer "1 inch to 1 mile" but 2 centimeters to one mile".

At least we're moving in the right direction !

Barrie Anderson.

  • 67.
  • At 03:39 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • James Manning wrote:

Evan, what's 13 x 5?

  • 68.
  • At 03:43 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Barrie Anderson wrote:

Why does a hundredweight have 112 pounds ?

Easy. It's got to be divisible by 14 (pounds in a stone) !

  • 69.
  • At 03:46 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Nicholas A wrote:

The sheer volume of comments is interesting - why is it that metrication generates so much heat (and so little light)?

The truth is that Britain is pretty much metricated. With very few exceptions, food is sold in metric quantities; commerce and industry use metric units; schools and universities teach in metric units; our legislation uses metric units - it is difficult for anyone to find examples of where Imperial units are used extensively in a material sector of our economy. As far as I can tell, the last surviving use of the old Imperial units is motoring - and even that is moving towards metrication. Fuel is sold in litres, and shorter distances on road signs are increasingly shown in metres. It is the mile that is the hardy survivor - and I doubt that the costs of changing our roadsigns (speeds and distances) would outweigh the benefits.

  • 70.
  • At 03:51 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Dave F wrote:

Metric measurements became legal for use for trade in the UK in the late 1800s, it took 100 years to get rid of the old Imperial ones.

Will it take so long for distance? I hope not!

  • 71.
  • At 03:57 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Tom S wrote:

Andy R & Mike T - there is some disagreement with MB and GB as measures. The disk manufacturing companies measure them metrically (i.e. base 10, 1MB = 1000kB = 1000B) so the disks sound bigger.

Once you plug your 300GB disk in and have it ready to use, see how much space there is free - 279GB! Why? because the rest of the computer industry uses base 2 measures, so 1MB = 1024 kB = 1024 B. This adds up to quite a difference once you get to the huge size of hard disks today.

  • 72.
  • At 04:06 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Mike Curran wrote:

It's already happening by stealth, which seems typical of things today. The new cycle way (route no 12) going past my house has the distance in kilometres to the next village. No indication of where the cycle way actually goes to though!

  • 73.
  • At 04:22 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • John from MK wrote:

Let's reflect on what it would really mean to go metric, by which I hope we mean SI. It's not just mass and length - it's also weight and engine power in kW, and weather forecasts in SI units of pressure. And avoiding all the pseudo-metric units like grades of paper - 80 or 85 gsm, which should be kg, for consistency.

Having considered all the options, I rather like our quaint mix of imperial and inconsistent SI/CGS units. One only has to correspond with US citizens to realise how different their measurements system is, with people weighed in pounds (not stone), engine capacity in cubic inches, and goodness knows what else.

What would happen to football goals, currently defined as 8 feet by 8 yards??

Now, let's move on to temperature - how about standardising on Kelvin, rather than Celsius? That will really upset the applecart.

  • 74.
  • At 04:24 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Leon Guyot wrote:

Metric is a European invention.

When I was at school, I had to learn Imperial, then we were told to forget it and learn Metric.

I have since emigrated to the USA, and am now back with 'standard' which is of course just like Imperial.

Personally, I much prefer Imperial.
It is just so 'human' in scale.

I always hated metric, I still hate metric.

Yes it is logical, and sensible.
But the way that the humble greengrocer was treated by the officious little jobsworths from the government, just for selling apples by the pound! That was appaling.

We are British, we should be proud of that, and not just follow along and do what everyone else does.

Scrap Metric, bring back Imperial.

  • 75.
  • At 04:26 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Tim wrote:

Good points. But the reason we don't have a more 'sensible' system for measuring days and years is that they're tied to astronomical cycles, rather than being arbitrary units invented for our own calculatory convenience, like miles and metres.

I suppose it would make our lives easier if one complete Earth orbit took place in precisely 100 rotations of the planet, but we'll have to wait several hundreds of millions of years until we arrive at that happy circumstance.

  • 76.
  • At 04:38 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Scott Latham wrote:

There is nothing patriotic in campaigning to "save" or "defend" the pound, mile or pint nor treacherous for wanting a better system.

The fact is that, as Evan says, decimal/metric systems are ultimately easier to use.

By the end of a week's holiday in France we are all dab hands at evaluating values in Euros and distances in kilometers; if the UK changed over we would be masters by the end of the year.

  • 77.
  • At 04:57 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Keith wrote:

The problem is that some units can never change, rendering 'Metrication' a theoretical concept.

Time has been mentioned, but there's also the question of 360 degrees in a circle.

Also we cannot simply destroy all buliding and machinery that happended to be built before the 1960s, so 'imperial' parts will be needed for a few centuries yet.

  • 78.
  • At 04:58 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Peter wrote:

I was taught the metric system in 1967/68. Why 40 years down the line are we still arguing over a 'no-brainer' - metrification is nothing to do with Brussels - it has much more to do with common sense!

  • 79.
  • At 04:58 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • David M wrote:

Well said, Evan!

Can't those people claiming that the imperial system is "intuitive" see the irony of their statements? I especially liked the example of somebody whose attempted 'explanation' of the acre required me not only to have to learn no less than three new measurements, "chain", "furlong", "yard", but then also somehow find room to remember how they all related to each other (and that's just for defining one type of measurement). As Evan points out, once you know how long a metre is, every other distance or area measurement comes naturally from there.

Something else that many contributors seem to forget is that practically everybody under 40, including myself, learned the metric system at school, so metric is our native system, it's imperial that's "foreign" (and let's not forget that every foreigner living in or visiting the UK bar the Americans also uses the metric system). So while the older generation can perhaps visualise 6 feet, having learned that system, I find it much easier to visualise 180 cm. A few months of playing/learning with metre-sticks, kilogram weights, litre jugs of water at primary school is all that I needed to learn. I wonder how much longer it would have taken to try to learn and remember the myriad of imperial measurements instead? I'm sure the older generation who were taught in imperial are insulting their own intelligence if they don't think they can learn the simple metric system quickly. After all, they manage just fine when they go abroad on holiday!

  • 80.
  • At 05:02 PM on 16 Apr 2007,

Really what real diffence doe's changing fully to a metric system make to our everyday live's.
If you buy anything from the USA you will still have to convert Metric measurement's back into Imperial, and vice - versa anyway.
So what is the Point of this exercise?

  • 81.
  • At 05:11 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Toby wrote:

Converting to make things simpler is just another way of dumbing down society.
If you want to improve your mental arithmetic then the more exercise you give your brain the better. Making things simpler will just make us all more stupid in the long run.

  • 82.
  • At 05:15 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Dave Greening wrote:

I dont really mind what system we used, I was taught both but never really adopted either fully. I just worry about standardising all these things in Europe. I like the fact that France is differnt to Germany, which is different to Italy and the Uk etc. I enjoy drinking from a different shaped/sized glass in each country and hearing different languages. Why do we all need to be the same?

Vive le difference!

  • 83.
  • At 05:26 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Brian Campbell wrote:

An acre is 10 chains (22yards) by 10 chains. Its one of the few units in the Imperial system that has a metric basis. Ten cricket pitches by ten cricket pitches. Easy to visualise.

  • 84.
  • At 05:33 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • S. Scharf wrote:

Switch to metric. It's easier once you get used to it, and you get used to it quickly.
I'm a Canadian who has lived in both the UK and in France. There was nothing more confusing for me than to have to figure out my weight in stone! (It's simple to convert between kg and lb; 1 kg = 2.2 lb).
In Canada we are mostly metric but we also use imperial measures out of necessity because our next-door neighbour (the USA) still uses it. There is something ridiculous about buying butter or cheese in 454 gram packages (i.e. 1 lb, because the container sizes are generally standardized between the two countries) but at the same time, with labels in both imperial and metric it becomes easy to learn how the two systems relate. I see no reason why the UK can't measure a pint of beer in ml and keep the same size glass.

  • 85.
  • At 05:39 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Alan Thomas wrote:

If the decimal system is easier to use that is a reason to retain the Imperial systems of measurement. Britain has lost too much of it's character in the 'uniformalisation' of the country in order to force it to comply with some perceived standards. I wish that pounds, shillings and pence were still the currency.

  • 86.
  • At 05:54 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Stewart wrote:

An acre makes good sense, if you are horse pulling a plough.
One Furlong x 1 Chain (220yd x 22yds)= 4840 sq. yd.
So it would make more sense (for horses and farmers) if one Hectare was calculated 10m x 1000m. I'm told it's more efficient for horses that way, fewer turns at the end of each furrow per acre ploughed. Perhaps if we went back to imperial measurement and horses, instead metrication, square fields of 100m x 100m and duty free Diesel fuelled tractors we could also solve the global warming problem?

  • 87.
  • At 06:04 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Mike wrote:

In my work I understand and use the following conversion factors easily: (I write from memory)
1.609433 - miles / km
4.543 - gallons / litres
10.763 m2 /sqft
0.568 pint / litre
1440 minutes in a day
and lets not forget:
GBP - Euro = changes daily!

  • 88.
  • At 06:24 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Dave Webb wrote:

Everybody should learn to fly and then they would really know what mixing up units is all about: in aviation visibility is expressed in metres; speed in knots (nautical miles per hour); height in feet or "flight levels" (units of a hundred feet);and distance traveled in statute miles. It seems to work OK in practice, but the confusion over whether to refuel in litres, gallons or lbs has led to a few near catastrophies I think!

  • 89.
  • At 06:56 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Martin Vlietstra wrote:

Many British people regard the metric system as “foreign”

When the metric system passed from French to International control in the late nineteenth century, new prototype metres and kilograms were manufactured. Where were they manufactured – in ENGLAND! The prototype kilogram is still in use, but the prototype metre was retired in 1960 in favour of a scientific experiment that could be performed in principal, by any scientist anywhere on earth.

Finally, where did Newton, Kelvin, Joule, Faraday (after whom Farads were named), Watt and Gray live – in the UNITED KINGDOM! Indeed, more British scientists and engineers have been honoured by having SI units of measure named after them that scientists and engineers from any other country.

  • 90.
  • At 07:11 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Duncan Barrigan wrote:

As I science student who has grown up with the metric system, I think it's frankly bizarre that some people honestly believe we should go back to a completely imperial system. Imperial is only useful for giving an idea of a quantity we can see or feel, it's undeniably useless for any kind of complex calculation (anything beyond the basic finger-counting level others have mentioned earlier).
I do totally agree with 76. that there is absolutely nothing patriotic about campaigning to save the imperial units - it's the simply a manifestation of the same old human resistance to change, pure and simple. That said, I personally have no problems with our current, quaint mixture and don't particularly care either way on this one.

  • 91.
  • At 07:33 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • John Turnbull wrote:

I like the metric system. But the UK adopted SI units, NOT the French metric system, yet its so annoying to see "centimetres" still in common usage. It should be millimetres or metres, nothing else. If you like more, then it does become confusing!

  • 92.
  • At 08:06 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Ionium wrote:

Sorry but I missed the point of this article...

"Which is why we sell eggs in dozens or half dozens. And in fact that's why the French sell eggs in dozens and half dozens too (as they do snails, I'm told) despite their long metric history."

Why fix what wasn't broken?

  • 93.
  • At 08:38 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

Born in 1975, I learnt metric at school, and imperial (lengths, at least) from my parents. In general, I'm not too bothered whether we 'complete' metrication for everyday life (miles/km etc).
What is important is that we are not forced by law to quote the metric conversion of what is really (and necessarily, for backwards compatibilty) an imperial measure. This typically happens in engineering, with things such as drill sizes. 7/32" needs to be quoted to 6 significant figures (5.55625 mm) to be correct... yet the more managable 5.56mm or even 5.556mm may not be sufficiently accurate to guarantee the correct fit.
By the way, even the "toy" construction industry -Lego bricks- are based upon imperial measures!

  • 94.
  • At 08:43 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • P Fletcher wrote:

One great advantage of the imperial system, is that it requires mental effort and agility, helping the brain to grow and remain flexible. Of course it is easier to use the decimal system. The penalty though, is that many become mentally slower and lazier.

The old measurement systems can be a pleasure to use, as indeed are the binary, octal and hex' numbering systems of the IT industry.

We are told that in time we become used to the metric system, and indeed this is true. I now think of temperature entirely in deg C. The thing is though, I cannot see what possible advantage this is to me.

  • 95.
  • At 08:45 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Jim wrote:

it may not affect your main argument, but surely eggs are sold in dozens and half dozens because they fit into a rectangular box. Fives and tens would waste shelf space thus costing producers or retailers money!

  • 96.
  • At 08:48 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Terry wrote:

Britain truly is a halfway house as some posters have already said there should be one system not this halfway house and correct me if I am wrong but EIRE have already switched to Kilometers plus I know they took the EURO. One other thing that has not been mentioned the majority of nuts, bolts ansd screws are already metric look at all those old and odd sizes the Empire gave us!!

  • 97.
  • At 08:52 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Nick wrote:

Geoffrey Howe supports the metric system. WHat better argument could there be for retaining Imperial measurements?

  • 98.
  • At 09:00 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • suzy ford wrote:

There is too much similarity in metrics, for instance things are all in kilo....s. do you really want a kilometer of sausages?
And where do you put all those dots and noughts when calculating, its very easy to go overboard and put in a couple too many.
After more than 30 years of metrics teenagers don't know even their three-times-tables. Gives an enormous advantage to us 'oldies'!
Metrics make for easy, and therefore lazy calculations. It's nice to be able to run rings around youngsters.
Go for it, by the time the bad effects show up in the seniors those of us who knew better things won't be around.

  • 99.
  • At 09:37 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Chris wrote:

There is some logic in converting our counting systems to base twelve, although to would be mind numbingly confusing to start off with. Two new symbols would be required for ten and eleven, but 10 in base twelve would be the number currently known as twelve. 100 would correspond to decimal 144 (a gross in old money), but 144 is directly divisible by 2,3,4,6,8,9,12,16,18,24,36,48 & 72.
I believe that "intuitive" translates to "what you are used to" in this discussion.

  • 100.
  • At 10:01 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

The award for understatement of the year has to go Chris when he says the introduction of metric time would be "a bit tricky".

It definitely would not be worth the cost. Just think of all the clocks and other devices which would have to be replaced and systems reprogrammed. I'm sure the enormous confusion caused by such a change would eventually die down and we'd be left with a system which works and everyone understands.
Hang on a second - we've got that already.

  • 101.
  • At 10:10 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • patrick rengger wrote:

I grew up in the UK in the 70's and was taught metric, and have now lived in Canada for twenty years. Canada went completely metric decades ago, and everything is officially metricated, yet the most personal measurements, hieght and weight, people still use imperial - someone is six feet tall and 180 pounds.
Also the kilo is only useful when divided by factors of ten, a pound is much easier for real human work like dividing food on a table. It's easy to divide a kilo in half, but what about dividing by 8, a pound on the other hand, is 16 ounces and so eight 2 ounce portions.

  • 102.
  • At 10:39 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Mike wrote:

Why not learn both? Shouldn't be too hard for the numerate person and good for the brain. See it as languages. We are told we should learn at least one foreign language - maybe the same should apply to measuremnets.

  • 103.
  • At 10:57 PM on 16 Apr 2007,
  • Art Gordon wrote:

Easy to get the hang of, but thereby lies the danger. It is too easy. When Canada went metric, on the assumption that the US would also (it didn't), I was working in a large Engineering organisation. Following the change over the number of computation errors sky rocketed, and while they did subsequently decline they never dropped to previous levels even, I believe, amongst those who had only been taught the metric system. To be blunt the Imperial system requires the user to be able to think and recognise errors.

  • 104.
  • At 12:17 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Blaise Egan wrote:

The DTI is the lead agency on metrication and they have done an appallingly bad job of managing the changeover. The legislators have also done an appalling job of implementing the European direction on metrication, in that product descriptions are left out completely, only things sold by units of quantity are covered. A friend bought some fishing line and was charged a price per metre. He asked what weight it would take and was told 100lb! Air conditioners are now sold in shops and their power output is quoted in British Thermal Units per hour instead of kilowatts, which are far better understood. Not only that, but BTUs per hour is confusingly abbreviated to "BTU".

  • 105.
  • At 12:43 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • John Seares Murray wrote:

In 1862 during the reign of Queen Victoria a government Select Committee recommended that Britain should change to the metric system.

They also recommended decimal coinage- and we've mnanaged that OK, if a little late. So, a bit of history:


“France was the first country to relieve itself from its barbarous multiplicity of weights and measures by adopting a uniform system. Louis the XVI invited, by a decree, all the nations of Europe, and particularly the King of Great Britain, to confer respecting the adoption of an international system of Weights and Measures. No response being given by Britain to this invitation, France devised what is called the Metric system; the most simple, convenient, and scientific system of weights and measures in existence”.

Remember, that’s a British report. However, ignoring cross channel ideas is nothing new, even if it would be to our advantage.

“The silent influence of usage has baffled the decrees of legislation; and we are still far distant from the uniformity at which we have so often, yet so vainly, aimed. Our neighbours, the French, and many other nations, have only one system of measurement, founded on the mètre, which is a near approximation to the English yard.”

“There appear to be three modes of proceedings before us:

to retain the present system:
to create a separate decimal system of our own, distinct from that of other nations;
or simply to adopt, in common with other countries, the Metric decimal system.

But there were some doubts that the Metric System could be understood by “the working man” so the committee asked some of them:

“Your Committee examined, on this part of the subject, more than one working man. There is abundant testimony to the ease with which working men acquire the Metric system. "In the works I carry on" (said a Mr Dickson, working at Dunkirk) "I employ about 1,000 persons but they very soon get acquainted with the Metric system." Mr. Richard Wyse has been engaged on railways in France, Belgium, and Savoy. He states that he very soon understood the Metric scale, and found it much easier to comprehend than the English scale of yards, feet, and inches. "The English workman," he says, "gets the weights very quickly.”

Little opposition was to be expected to the introduction of the Metric system from wholesale dealers, the committee said.

“It is probably from the retailers that the principal obstruction would arise....
“To the small retail traders of France the ease with which it is acquired and its extreme simplicity are a great advantage. "The marchands, or small traders," says Mr. Dickson, "can very often scarcely sign their names," yet, owing to its simplicity, "they get on remarkably well with the Metric system;" "there is nothing so difficult to a man of imperfect education as to take an invoice of 10 tons 3 qrs. or 7 cwts. and 18 lbs., at 25s. and 11d. the cwt.;" though he "can readily understand it when it is put into kilogrammes and francs .
“It is remarkable that the foreign witnesses concur in stating, that no nation which has adopted the Metric system has failed to derive the greatest benefit from such adoption, or, after adoption, has shown any desire to abandon it.

“After full and careful consideration of the evidence, your Committee have arrived at a unanimous conclusion, that the best course to adopt is, cautiously but steadily, to introduce the Metric system into this country”.

  • 106.
  • At 12:46 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Helen wrote:

Furlongs are far more useful units of distance than miles - and far simpler to convert to/from kilometers. In horse-racing - a 5 furlong sprint? - 1000m, the Epsom Derby - 1.5miles = 12 furlongs = 2400m, easy! We still buy & sell horses in Guineas too.... (& Euros!)

  • 107.
  • At 05:10 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Ian wrote:

The real problem these days is not what system of units we use but the fact that many people are unable to do even simple arithmetic. (Or check their facts first.)

Being brought up in the 50s/60s I know that most people had no problem using a system of coins based on 12 and 20, weights based on 16, 14, 20, distances based on 12, 3, 22, 10 (and 8). Shop assistants tallied the bill in their head before racking it on the till and then working out change in their head too. Customers did the same .... to make sure they weren't fiddled.

I worked quite happily in the 'cgs' system until the 'mks' system became the norm. Kilobytes, megabytes and gigabytes based on powers of 2 (1024) have proved no problem and I have switched to them being based (quite rightly) on 1000's as is the case now. (Kibibyte, mebibyte and gibibyte are the correct versions based on 1024 now.)

Converting between systems isn't a problem for anyone who can do some simple arithmetic - with or without a calculator.

Most "Imperial" units are based upon real-world usage. A foot is used because people paced out smaller distances with heel-to-toe counting. A yard happens to be (roughly) the distance from the nose to the end of the hand - the way a tailor would stretch out and measure cloth. And that's about 3 times the size of a foot. (Do some research and see why a fathom is 6 feet ... and why it is called a fathom.) A mile is called that because it was a thousand paces for the Roman soldiers - 1000 in Italian is ....

It goes on - though I'll refrain from pointing out why the much-maligned Fahrenheit scale is better for discussing the weather than Celsius/Centigrade.

The metric system is a mathematically derived system that has few useful day-to-day values. As such it has many advantages in calculations but few in real use.

If I said my colleague was a bit over 1.6m tall - would you immediately think she was tall or short? (See end for Imperial version.)

And yet, I don't really care which system is in use. I will happily use whatever is current for the field of activity because I'm not afraid of simple arithmetic.

The vast majority of "younger" people I come across these days cannot say that. Even with calculators or electronic tills they do not have a 'feeling' for what they are doing. They are often incapable of realising that they have pressed keys incorrectly and that the answer in front of them is just foolish. Instead - it's on the machine and it must be right.

And therein lies the problem.

I expect that will unleash some criticism .... should be fun to read.

As for my colleague, she is 5' 3" tall - I'd classify her as slightly short.

  • 108.
  • At 06:43 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Louis E wrote:

The mere fact that the metric system has never been adopted anywhere except through governments banning people from using the systems they liked better should give its advocates pause.

Simplistic soullessness may be convenient for those least skilled at mathematics,but a system with tradition and character will always win if allowed to!

  • 109.
  • At 09:27 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

It seems silly people defending a set of units. If we changed to a single set of units now (my personal preference is metric) in ten years pretty much everybody would be coping with them. The biggest danger is having two sets of units - I ruined a perfectly good casserole dish by assuming a recipe meant Celcius, when it meant degrees Fahrenheit...

  • 110.
  • At 09:44 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Ian Kemmish wrote:

I remember all those mental arithmetic lessons at primary school, all based around the need to be able to navigate around a complex system of measurements. How many rods in a three and a half perches, and all that?

I contrast that with a recent survey which revealed that 50% of the population don't know what 50% means.

It seems that there are excellent fringe benefits to using complex systems. There may be even more benefits to being made to learn both, as I was, as you then have to learn about approximations too (Quick now: what travels at one foot per nanosecond?)

If people were better at mental arithmetic, they might not get ripped off by store cards and loan companies so frequently. Or "accidentally" incur those bank charges for breaking the terms of their agreements....

There are some cases of time metrication which Evan fails to mention. When you have your car serviced, your dealership calculates in 1/10ths of an hour - such that an exhaust change might take .6 of an hour and you would be billed accordingly. I believe some aspects of the law industry do the same. My copy of Quickbooks allows me to calculate time in metric.

He also fails to mention the ludicrous measure of fuel consumption now used - litres per 100km. Miles per gallon is eminently sensible and easily convertible in one's head. Knowing that one's car uses 8.6L/100km is useless since one then has to reverse-calculate.

  • 112.
  • At 11:04 AM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Pyers Symon wrote:

Pity we weren't born with 16 fingers and thumbs. Working in Hexadecimal - hex to its friends - is far more natural. I use Hex in my computer work all the time.

  • 113.
  • At 12:30 PM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Graham Checker wrote:

I see that the Europhile BBC - including Evan Davis - is going to impose metrification on us whether we like it or not.

I'm constantly hearing BBC Guardianistas quoting "kilometres" and "hectares" on news items - steadfastly refusing to quote common Imperial units which everyone understands.

Why on earth should we harmonise our units system just to make it easier to those who struggle with Maths?

Acres, Furlongs, Miles, Feet and Inches are part of the heritage and culture of Britain and I see no reason to ditch them to satisfy the EU or the mathematically challenged.

The world is already boringly mundane and harmonised as it is.

Let's not ruin what distinctiveness we have left.

  • 114.
  • At 12:34 PM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Graham Checker wrote:

Ah, I've just noted that the blog owner censors remarks before allowing them on here. No wonder there's such "support" for Evans idea in the comments here.


The BBC is obviously afraid of a free and open debate.

Wouldn't be surprised if neither of my comments get posted as I've made a criticism of the BBC - and Evans point of view - in them.

When will the BBC wake up and listen to points of view it disagrees with?

  • 115.
  • At 12:55 PM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • adrian tallentire wrote:

As I said in my first post, to most folk this debate doesn't matter.

One commentator admists that he doesn't have a clue what an acre is. But does he know what a hectare is?

Probably not because it doesn't matter. For most folk inches or mm, metres or yards are simply a measure of distance, the tape measure shows both. Few people do even moderately complex calculations. For example scaling a cake recipe by a factor of 2 or 3 is no hassle in either system. Scaling a chemical reaction by a factor of 1.257 is a hassle in imperial but only highly numerate scientists and engineers do that kind of thing.

The Mars lander was lost because one group of people who had forgotten imperial interfaced with another who had never learned metric.

So understanding both is actually useful and Britain is in that unfortunate transatlantic bridge position again.

  • 116.
  • At 01:46 PM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Tim wrote:

Why do people persist in telling us that the metric system is better because it's all in base ten and consequently easier to calculate etc.
Who do you know that would ever be bothered that there are one thousand metres in a kilometre? Nearly everyone uses a calculator anyway.

The imperial system is intuitive and the units have developed to suit a need and are easy to gauge - what could be more simple than measuring a short distance in feet i.e. the length of a human foot.

In fact who do you know that would ever express their height in anything other than feet and inches?

The metric system is not intuitive and the only units vaguely useful are the ones that approximate to imperial units i.e metres and yards.

The usual pro-European suspects would have us believe that we should have one system throughout Europe but at the same time we are encouraged to learn foreign languages, surely in the name of harmonisation the time has now come to have one european language - English. Can you see the French acepting that?

  • 117.
  • At 04:14 PM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Bob Medley wrote:

"And I would roll 804.67 kilometers......."

Sounds bonkers

  • 118.
  • At 04:43 PM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Matthew wrote:

The metric system is clearly the more efficient system, in the same way that eating jars of baby food is a more efficient way of ingesting nutrients. Practical, but not very interesting.

In addition, using kilometres over miles is not difficult but of absolutely no advantage to the average person.

Please don't relegate our measurements to an industrial process.

  • 119.
  • At 07:59 PM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Malcolm Higgs wrote:

Evan, I’m with you as, I suspect, are more and more Brits with homes in France and Spain. It seems the silent majority are voting with their feet. However UK should also switch to diving on the right at the same time as adopting metric distances. Ok! I know this will have short term costs but provides two opportunities. It gives the dinosaurs something other than metrication to moan about taking the heat out of the important change but also provides a long term and permanent opportunities for car price reduction by reducing manufacturing complexity. Too late I know for the UK motor industry which was also killed off by the dinosaur’s conservatism.
Next comes the Euro – Come on Evan! This is you biggest challenge and you know it makes sense.

  • 120.
  • At 08:58 PM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • Matt C wrote:

Anyone who's saying imperial are "more intuitive" are not in fact saying they're 'more intuitive', they're saying 'they're what I was taught and I'm too lazy to look at the other system'. The colleague's height? My instant reaction was "For a woman? Slightly on the short side". When he translated that into the 'intuitive' imperial, and announced she was "slightly short", I'm taking it on faith he was even referring to the same height.

Acres, "Furlongs" (Seriously? Before this debate, never heard of them, and for the first few references could only assume people were talking about the species "Furling" from Stargate), feet and inches simply aren't used anymore outside the US. The old need to get used to that.

  • 121.
  • At 01:01 PM on 18 Apr 2007,
  • Elisabeth wrote:

I grew up in Australia and absorbed some imperial measures from my (English) mother. When I moved to the UK a few years ago I found I rapidly gained a much better sense of buying food by the pound (when I could)than I possessed for buying it by the kg.

When I'm doing science, I like to use metric. When I'm doing other everyday things, I like imperial. The different systems serve different purposes. Someone mentioned about school children learning to use m/s - yes, for the purposes of physics, m/s is very useful. But I've a degree in physics and if I want to correlate m/s measurements with everyday life I convert them.

There is one measurement I've come across over here that's been (partly) metricated here and not in Australia - that's the use of mmHg when reporting blood gas partial pressures (quite important in medicine). It just so happens that key numbers for this fall in the range 0 - 100 mmHg but 1-8? kPa? - much more intuitive interpreting over the wider range than using decimals. I have seen some attempts to change over blood pressure readings (120/80 would be, at a guess, something like 10/6.5 ...)

  • 122.
  • At 06:13 PM on 18 Apr 2007,
  • John Seares Murray wrote:

How is it that all the rest of the world (except of course the USA - excluding the military and scientific)has managed all this time to make cars, houses, dams, clothes, anything- using metric measurements? Are they ALL out of step except us?
The only reason we're stuck with old Roman imposed measurements is because successive governments since Victorian times are too timid and frightened of the vocal "keep the British Imperial at all costs" minority. The tabloid press panders to this anti-metric minority (see Daily Mail "Metric Martyrs" campaign). It's nothing to do with the EU either as it started back in 1862, continued in 1965, 1975, etc.
The commonwealth countries (or ex-Empire if you like) now use metric- They started the change-over after but got there before us. So did the Irish, romantics all.
Let's stop this silly backward looking "it was good enough for granny" mentality and decide to use just one system- metric, like 99% of the world does; not because it is easier, but because it's international.

  • 123.
  • At 07:43 PM on 18 Apr 2007,
  • Mike Dixon wrote:

It is not really about metrification but about standardization. The distance between London and Edinburg or Barcelona and Madrid would obviously still be the same whether measured in miles, kilometre, or whatever. (However having lived in a metricated country for ten years, 15 miles to the next service station on a British motorway seams a very long way when you need a pee!)

Seriously, modern Standards were invented in Britain with the Whitworth Thread for engineering nuts and bolts. This has now developed to the point where a modern car may be assembled in, say Britain, from sub-assemblies from France, Germany and Belgium, each in turn made from parts from a dozen countries, there I go again. We do if fact buy eggs in half-dozens. The French of course have it both ways, you can buy a pound of butter which is actually half a kilo.

For supporters of the metric system, I've attached a link to the Number 10 website petition calling for the continuation of metrication.

Well done Evan on speaking out on such an emotive issue!

Many respondants here are missing the issue... ok, so many people can visualise feet and inches, but this is because they're used to them. Others, like myself, prefer metric. But at the end of the day the way we use measurements these days is just bad and, although people don't see it, hurts consumers.

For instance, I regularly buy take-away food from a local shop which sells bottled coke in 0.5 litres bottles but in cups in oz - how am I supposed to do a price comparison? I've complainted to Trading Standards but they tell me this is legal.

When I'm driving and I see a sign that says "Road works 800 yards" how can I tell how far this is? My odometer is marked in 1/10 mile but 1/10 mile is not 100 yards, it's not 200 yards! Even if the signs were in feet like in the USA it would make no difference. My only comfort is knowing that 9 times out of 10 the distances are actually in metres, only because in a metric country it's illegal to put metres on a road sign!

If the government would make it legal to show metres and km on road signs and make it legal for pubs and milkmen to sell in litres then we'd move some way towards people getting used to metric... and that would make changing easier. It wouldn't cost as much as the anti-metric bunch make out because much of the conversion could be done as part of normal sign replacement (no, not speed limits before anybody complains!)

And if Ireland, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and more can do it, why can't we? All of these countries also had older people - it's patronising to say that tghe British public is any less intelligent than the public in any of these other countries!

Oh... and one last thing. Don't tell me we need to use the same units as the USA because we don't... fl oz, pint, quart, gallon, ton, all are different in the USA!

Evan Davis, BBC economics editor.
I'm glad that you support the SI /metric system. I wish it was BBC Policy to use only the official measurement system of this country which is the SI /metric system. If Imperial units were archived and the government decided to go fully metric it would significantly reduce the confusion that exists because of the two systems. Unfortunately not all the editors, producers, and presenters at the BBC have the wisdom to use metric units and 'Think Metric'.

  • 127.
  • At 10:08 AM on 19 Apr 2007,
  • Tim wrote:

Interesting that Matt C in post 120 states that anyone who says the Imperial system is more intuitive is "too lazy to look at the other system" yet fails to give any reasons or supposed benefits for changing. This attitude is quite typical amongst the pro metric fraternity who seem to be saying that we should change just for the sake of it.

  • 128.
  • At 02:50 PM on 19 Apr 2007,
  • Katharine wrote:

What is the fuss about? I was taught Imperial in school (70's and 80's) but use a mix of the two in real life. I buy milk in 2 litre cartons but check the price by looking at the price per pint. My height and weight I do in metric (feet and stones) but my suitcase I do in kilos.
I measure things in centimetres (ie room sizes and furniture) However if I am looking at a larger area I prefer to know what it is in feet - I can visualise this better. I cannot visualise what an acre, furlong, kilometre or any of the other larger measurements are.
I travel in miles and work out the cost of mileage by the £pound.
I am sure that there are a lot of people like me who mix and match depending on what suits us best.
If it aint broke don't fix it. Why waste money changing signs etc when people use a mix of both anyway. I have not heard of anyone where their defence was I thought it was in kilometres not miles, so leave the signs alone. Use the money to do something better instead - ie pay for medicines, schools or even reduce taxes (ha ha)

Katharine's post (number 128) just goes to show what confusion has been caused. She says she was educated in Imperial in school in the 70's and 80's... if she was in the UK she would have been taught metric.

She then goes on to say she does weight and height in metric then says they're feet and stones which are imperial!

She also says she buys milk in 2 litre cartons but compares prices in pints. How?

Then she says she thought the signs were in km.

Completing conversion would clearly stop her (and many like her) being confused. It would actually save the UK money in the longer term because we'd all know what system we were using and it would be the same as the rest of the world! (And again, no the USA don't use imperial!!!)

  • 130.
  • At 07:24 PM on 19 Apr 2007,
  • Murphy wrote:

We should just use one system whatever that is.
Where it really really annoys me is the tempreature.
You can see length and feel weight but when they say the tempreature is 34 something and 75 something else I don't know whether put on my thermals or my bikini let alone the nuances of it.
Your much better off just sticking your hand out the window.

  • 131.
  • At 08:37 PM on 19 Apr 2007,
  • Bruce wrote:

At last a sane article on measurement on the BBC website!

I learned imperial at junior school along with "old money". Both made maths miserable as the simplest calculations were needlessly complicated. From this you will know I am well into middle age...

In about 1970 at secondary school it was a tremendous relief to get books with decimal currency and metric units. It beggars belief that in Britain we have reaped the benefit of the former while dragging our feet on the latter. I had to wait 30 years after learning metric before I could ask for cheese or meat in grams...what about joined up government? What a waste of education!

I strongly agree that holding out against metrication is taking a "French approach" to globalisation. Common standards allows things like phone networks and kitchen units to fit together.

One point is missing in the article namely that Britain's scientists have made substantial contributions to the metric system. This was sadly missing from my schoolbooks but you can find a good article on this "British secret" at

  • 132.
  • At 10:51 AM on 20 Apr 2007,
  • Bob wrote:

The sort of people who support the metric system are the sort of people who drive foreign cars and are proud of the fact.
In this country we are constantly under pressure to make sure that no one is discriminated against hence you will see councils etc. bending over backwards with information in numerous foreign languages whilst at the same time only giving dimensions/weights/distances in metric.
Surely this discriminates against the older members of society who we are told make up a growing proportion of the population and to whom the metric system is largely meaningless.
In all of these posts no one has given a valid reason as to why we should adopt the metric system.

  • 133.
  • At 02:58 PM on 20 Apr 2007,
  • John BS wrote:

My daughter is learning to drive – she has no comprehension of what distances mean in miles feet or inches – I gave her a rough rule of thumb:

1 Yard = 1m
6ft-6ins = 2m (road width signs)
1mile = 1500m (1,5km)
1/3mile = 500m
1/2mile = 750m etc. etc.

Miles per hour are just a question of reading a speedometer. I have a digital speedo and when abroad just switch it from miles/h to km/h.

It is more confusing for visitors to England as whilst we have dual measurements on speedometers and are conversant with both systems, drivers from abroad will not have any knowledge of English measurements nor have miles/h shown on speedometers – confusing at best – and a potential danger, especially for lorry drivers where width and height restrictions are more important.

The argument that switching raod signs needs to be deferred until ‘the majority of road users are conversant in metric does not wash – I am 53 and was taught metric at school and find metric measure much easier to understand whereas younger drivers just do not comprehend imperial measures – so really the opposite applies – we have the majority who understand metric (whether they like to admit it or not) with a growing proportion of drivers you really do not undertand imperial measure used on road signs. It’s crazy!

I also agree with that the BBC could help matters by using metric more in reporting, weather etc.

I am sure there will be a lot of anti European rhetoric form the Daily Mail and Murdoch’s papers but is this a good reason for staying in the dark ages?

  • 134.
  • At 09:11 PM on 21 Apr 2007,
  • Tim Bentley wrote:

Despite all the differing opinions about which units people like or dislike etc. the fact is the debate is virtually over. Go into your local Tesco and find a product that has not been designed,manufactured,packaged and labelled using metric units? I'll be surprised if you find a single one.
There is really only one metric debate left and that is the metrication of road signage.This is despite the fact that our roads been designed and maintained in metric for about 40 years.It would appear that many of the writers on this site do not know
how long established the use of metric units is in the country. I am almost 55 and have spent my entire working life since the age of 17 working in metric units. Let's finish the job once and for all and complete the change-over as soon as possible.

In the 1980s, Ford supplied its Escort cars to its continental European markets both from its UK and from its German manufacturing plants. Dealers and workshops on the continent needed a double set of tools: a set of Imperial tools to repair Escorts imported from the UK, and a set of metric tools for German-built Escorts.

  • 136.
  • At 11:30 AM on 23 Apr 2007,
  • Ben M wrote:

Throughout my education in the 1970s and 80s I was taught in metric units. When I joined the navy and trained as a marine engineer, everything was taught in metric.

But when I was drafted to an elderly nuclear submarine following the end of my apprenticeship, I discovered that the entire vessel used imperial measurements. Degrees Fahrenheit, inches, gallons, pounds per square inch etc etc.

Nowadays, I use metric measurements except when dealing with nuclear engineering. Then I go back to thinking in old money. I reckon that most engineers and scientists can cope fairly well in either system.

  • 137.
  • At 06:56 PM on 24 Apr 2007,
  • dave wai wrote:

When you all arguing about imperial and metric system out there, we at Hong kong and Mainland China also have different weight system. When we talk about one catty ( we both use that language), here in Hong Kong, we meant 16units, whereas in China, they are 10 units.By the way, One catty in China is half kilo. We in Hong Kong one catty is 14 ounzes!

  • 138.
  • At 08:19 PM on 24 Apr 2007,
  • Tim Bentley wrote:

If anyone needs a good example of why we should go fully metric and drop imperial units completely then they needed to look no further than the BBC's coverage of last Sunday's London Marathon.I've never witnessed such a mish-mash of metres,miles and kilometres. One minute the commentators were metric,then imperial,then both, whilst the on-screen text was trying to keep up with them.This was a perfect case of the BBC trying to please,but actually confusing their viewers.Surely,everyone by now is used to all athletics being measured in metres and kilometres.How many decades has it been metric in the UK? Does the BBC think we haven't yet quite grasped it and don't yet understand what a kilometre is? The media must take a lot of the blame for our measurement muddle by clinging onto outdated imperial units. Just look at the weather forecast on a hot day when all of a sudden the F word suddenly makes a come back!

  • 139.
  • At 02:20 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Helen Cheng wrote:

I grew up in Hong Kong which was a British colony until recently. When I was in school, coverting from the imperial system to the metric system was a large iniative by the government, which I believe, has been quite successful. I have been living in the UK for 6 years and I still haven't grasped the imperial system, especially when it comes to distances. There seems to be a lot of policies that the British government felt was essential to implement in its (ex-)colonies but didn't feel the need to implement in its own land. E.g. throwing rubbish on the streets, spitting and j-walking are/were all subject to penalties in HK, but people in UK seems to do these "illegal" acts everythere, anytime...

  • 140.
  • At 03:47 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Alan wrote:

I'm reasonably comfortable using either Metric or Imperial measures, having lived in countries that have both.

However, for me, Metric has the advantage purely because it's consistent - a litre is a litre no matter where you are. A British pint is 20 fluid ounces, or 568 ml. An American pint is 16 fluid ounces, or 473 ml, but that's only a wet pint. A dry pint is something else entirely.

And the "cup" - 250ml in Australia, 240ml in the US, 180ml in Japan... again, it's the metric that's consistent.

  • 141.
  • At 06:58 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Hugo Moreira wrote:

Well i´m from Portugal and we use the metric system for a long time, i belive it´s easy to use and better than the imperfect imperial units. Did you know the metric system has its calculations taken out of mathemathics from the lenght of light take a look in wikipedia and compare to the imperial units, they became simply obsolete because they are based on an inacurate mesurements that´s why almost all the nations of the planet adopted the metric system only UK colonies and the US still use this old and imperfect system.
You should change, it will seem difficult at start like the euro seemed to us, now its normal and we dont even think about the old coin, and old values, the same thing will happen when you convert to metric units at first it will be thought, then in 2 years time it will seem regular, change and join the rest of the world or stay with the imperial units in the old imperfect past it´s your choice, but before you decide see in what the metric system is based on and see the origin of imperial units and you will see that the metric is much much, better and brings much more advantages than the imperial units.

  • 142.
  • At 03:04 PM on 27 Apr 2007,
  • Kenneth MacArthur wrote:

Russell Long asserts that "knowing that one's car uses 8.6 l/100 km is useless", but I genuinely cannot understand why.

If I am about to embark on a trip of a couple of hundred km, say, it is very useful to know that I will need roughly 17-18 litres of fuel in my tank for the trip, and that this fuel will cost me, say, 16 GBP.

Compare that to knowing the miles per gallon figure for a car. What use is that at all? Do I actually really care about or have any useful purpose for the information that my car will travel 27.4 miles if I feed it with one gallon of fuel?

The only thing that can possibly be said about mpg is that it is useful - for people who are already familiar with it - to compare the fuel consumption of one car with another.

The idea of measuring fuel consumption in litres per 100 km wasn't just thought up out of thin air. It happens to be a very consumer-friendly and accessible way of communicating how much fuel a vehicle uses.

For the sake of U.S. students' competitiveness in the scientific world; for the sake of U.S. trade; for the sake of all future generations of U.S. citizens who would be able to benefit from its coherency and simplicity, the U.S.
must change over to the metric system as its primary system of measurement, and do so soon.

Paul Trusten, R.Ph.
Public Relations Director
U.S. Metric Association, Inc.

Dear Evan Davis,

Congratulations on your excellent article on the metric system and the problems with its adoption in the UK.

I am intrigued by your observation:
"But it really comes down to a basic question - whether the cost of a switch-over is more than outweighed by the long term benefits of moving to the new system."

I know of few studies that have explored this question in the last 100 years.

Jos. V. Collins did some work on this question in 1915. He concluded in an article called, 'A metrical tragedy', that a 'Total annual loss of $315 000 000' could be attributed per year to non-metrication in the USA at that time. (Note: if you allow for inflation between 1915 and now, then Collin's figure for annual losses becomes $6 100 000 000 per year in 2005). I did not calculate the total cost from 1915 until now.

In an article, 'The Case for U.S. Metric Conversion Now' (1992, December 9) Richard P. Phelps stated that:
'It (USA education system) teaches two systems of measurement in the schools and, the confusion from learning two systems aside, there is a cost to the time spent in teaching two systems. A full year of mathematics instruction is lost to the duplication of effort.' This means that each year in the USA 8.52 billion dollars is wasted in teaching old pre-metric measures in schools.

When the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) surveyed its members about metrication in 1980 — after 15 years of British metrication — they found that
'... the extra cost of continuing to work in dual systems of measuring was around £5 000 million every year'.

For companies on which the survey was based, increased production costs were equal to 9% of the companies' gross profit and 14% of their net profit when compared to fully metric CBI companies. To put this into perspective: in 1980 £5 000 million was roughly half the cost of the entire UK National Health Service; in today's currency, 5 000 M£ is equivalent to about 12 000 M£; and the net saving from 1980 to 2006 is about 110 000 M£ – plus compounding interest.

I have also had a look at the costs of non-metrication in the USA. My estimate is that it costs the USA about 1.15 trillion dollars per year to use dual measures.

As they say in the USA: A trillion dollars here, and a trillion dollars ther, and pretty soon it adds up to real money!

You can find further details on these investigations at:


Pat Naughtin
Geelong, Australia

  • 145.
  • At 11:52 AM on 30 Apr 2007,
  • Arthur Gibson wrote:

How is it that Belgium is allowed to have three official languages, but we can't have two systems of weights and measures? Most of us are 'bi-lingual' to some extent, and what harm does it do?

  • 146.
  • At 12:32 PM on 30 Apr 2007,
  • Colin Cowie wrote:

I was born in 1971, and was taught metric in school exclusively, yet all during my child-hood it had no relevance whatsoever as soon as you walked out the school gates. All retail commerce was in pounds and pints (ounces when buying sweets!), and all personal measurements in feet and inches, stones and pounds, and all large distances in miles. Obviously things have changed, most of us now measure temperature in Celsius, and we have been forced to buy our loose produce in kilos. Nobody has taught imperial in schools for a considerable period of time, yet we persist in using it, especially in the areas of personal measurements and long distances. This must therefore be because we like using it!
As my mother did with me, I find myself translating into imperial for my son when he comes home from school with some measurement or other, and I fully expect that at some point in time he will use imperial measurements when outside of school/work and metric when at school/work, just like most other people.
Why is there this imperative to change? We have brains more than capable of performing the rough and ready conversions required between imperial/metric in everyday life. The notion that the metric system is 'better' to use by people in every aspect of their lives just because it has a scientific basis and a base 10 numbering system is ludicrous. People are not logical creatures. We often use contradictory words/phrases in the same sentence. It therefore is quite in-keeping with human nature to use feet and inches when it 'feels' right to do so, and metres/millimetres at other times.
Finally, what's the point of having all these different countries in the world if we're all going to do everything the same. Where's the fun in that?

  • 147.
  • At 05:37 PM on 30 Apr 2007,
  • Martin wrote:

How condescending the politicians and media are to suggest that Joe Public can't cope with the imperial system. Perhaps it is they who cannot fathom it?

  • 148.
  • At 09:17 PM on 30 Apr 2007,
  • Ken the Brummie Cyclist wrote:

I agree about the scale problem.

I want to keep the mountain bike I'm building under 25lbs. Bikes are weighed in pounds as standard. However all the components are weighed in metric. How can I tell how much those cranks or that stem are contributing to the total? It is ever so slightly inconvenient.

Worse are the tube diameters. Why am I shopping for a 27.2mm seatpost? Because my seat tube has an OD of 1"1/8.

I think we should all adopt the Birmingham Wire Gauge, especially the French.

  • 149.
  • At 10:15 PM on 30 Apr 2007,
  • Reg Cook wrote:

Imperial baloney ! Under my chin I measure 1.5m, width of my hand is 100mm, handspan is 200mm, I pace 3/4 of a metre each normal step. 40 paces is 30m. You can start by learning to live with your own body measurements.

If you were helicoptered to the geographic North Pole with your canoe, walked the ice pack to open water, then paddled down to the Equator, and divided the distance that you have travelled by 10 million the answer is One Metre.
The Earth is 40000km in circumference thro the Poles.

The Specific Gravity of water is one. One litre of water weighs one kilogram, a thousand litres is a cubic metre, and a cubic metre of water weighs one metric tonne. Hideously simple. But Brits with a water tank in the roof space should be aware that there is one tonne of water sitting there above their heads. Water freezes at 0°C, density inversion is at 4°C, and it vaporises at 100°C. Body temperature is 37°C. What is more simple than a scale of 100 ? Why would you prefer a scale of 180 between freezing and boiling ?

When were car engine capacities last quoted in cubic inches (except in the USA) ? Everybody knows what a 2 litre car can do, have a 3.5 litre and you are a bit of a show-off.

The kilometre is a human scale unit of measure, you can see someone at a km distance, you cannot see anyone one mile distant. I am grateful for a previous contributor who defined an acre in cricket pitches, just try cricket on a German or a Swede, for example, to see how well you are understood. An acre is 4047 square meters. (or approx 2.4 acres = 1 hectare) A USA township (36 sq. miles)is 93.24 km², just to confuse the issue.

The speed of light used to be a neatly rounded 300000 km/sec, but has now been revised to something like 301000, almost as difficult as 186000 miles/sec.

At least the metric system owes its basis to logical scientific data and not to the length of Henry VIII's foot or other anatomical data.

  • 150.
  • At 11:37 PM on 02 May 2007,
  • Tim Coombs wrote:

Thanks for a good read ... and a smile, perhaps through recognising that these days I am now significantly nearer than I was to being one of those old folks you refer to who would be happy for metrication to be intoduced if only 'they' would wait till 'we' had all died off!

Thought you might like to know that your article has sparked some interest (and compliments) on the NCETM website (National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics) ...

Good on yer!!

  • 151.
  • At 01:53 PM on 03 May 2007,
  • Jos wrote:

A metre is as random a measurement as a yard. Napoleon's scientists made a mistake when they estimated the distance from pole to pole. And, No, Mr Evans, I don't find imperial measurements difficult to work with (but I guess I am more numerate than you). Should we change things because the innumerate cannot handle measurements? You lesser beings use pocket computers anyway.

One thing you did not mention was time. Not decimalised, is it? Days in the year, in the week, in the month, hours in a day, and horrors - 12 hours before noon and 12 after. This will never do! But it certainly fits well with miles and speed for most people - a mile a minute @ 60 mph.

As for the acre, it was never a square so why make it so. Ignorance? Think of a furlong (know what that is and why?) and multiply by a chain (or a cricket pitch) - that is an acre. I don't expect foreigners to understand it , but we should - it is a part of our heritage. And it certainly ain't difficult to understand or visualise. All our measurements were/are based on ease of use - not an arbitrary measure and all associated measures based on a multiple of 10 or 100. The foot is a useful measure for many things - there is no equivalent in metric - just a very large number of small measures (mm or cm).

Still, no doubt you will get your way eventually. The forces of ignorance and crassness have long been in the ascendancy in what was once a green and pleasant land

  • 152.
  • At 01:59 PM on 04 May 2007,
  • Graham Murrell wrote:

Well said, Evan!
I remember at school in the early '60s, wrestling with the two measurement systems and conversions between them, being reassured by teachers that we would be the last generation to face this. I have been appalled to see my own children were in exactly the same position 30 years later.
I recall the ease with which the nation made the transition to decimal currency in 1971, and this should have given the authorities confidence to push on with metrication. Instead, we have seen half-hearted progress such as the retail trading regulations which result in nonsenses such as curtain fabrics in 42-inch widths being sold off the roll by the metre.
I fear there is no-one in authority interested in championing this issue, so we'll just have to muddle on!

  • 153.
  • At 11:59 AM on 07 May 2007,
  • Stuart wrote:

Anyone under 40 has learnt the metric system at school, but keeping the imperial distance and liquid measures is a cultural issue.

It doesn't take much brains to convert KM to miles or vice versa. Most foreigners travelling from the EU to the UK are far more concerned with staying on the right side of the road, especially first thing in he morning when there are no other vehicles on the road and your partner is speaking to you in your own language! And vice versa for us driving abroad, sory poor French truck drive the last shopping trip I made!

Come on BBC the pint is an institution, as is the single of spirits. The mile is now known by us all. As to the litres to drive 100KM,which ever size car you are looking at - it is the one that does the least litres per 100 km that is the most economical, period. Plus most drivers don't check their tyres often enough and this extra drag reduces the best in the class to equal to the worst with its tyres fully pumped. On the note of pumped up - emotive journalism is lazy journalism - Mr.BBC writer. If pints don't suit you any more how about spending some time in the EU where higher unemployment means you will be able to measure the distance to the dole so much more to your liking.

  • 154.
  • At 02:14 AM on 08 May 2007,
  • Darryl wrote:

Its typically British to do half the job. Just mkae your mind up and use one system or the other - don't use bits and pieces of each and alienate everyone.

And, as for the argument that it is too difficult to change. Britain is supposed to be a first world country and have an excellent education system. Third World countries have changed over and educaed their people - if Egypt and Turkey can do it, are the British saying they are dumber and have a lesser education system than these countries?

Just get on with it and stop whinging about it!

  • 155.
  • At 05:57 PM on 09 May 2007,
  • Julian Rowden wrote:

Now that the EU have said that we do not HAVE to adopt metric measurements, perhaps it is ironically just the time for us to go ahead and do so. It really never had anything to do with the EU. Metric measures began to be introduced here started here in the 1960s, before we joined the EU, and have been adopted by almost the entire English speaking world (Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Ireland)

Among large countries, only the backward looking US has failed to introduce them.

We invented the world language (English) and expect everyone else to speak it, surely it is not too much to expect us to adopt the world standard weights and measures?

And what is an Eastern European lorry driver supposed to make of a road sign that imposes a height limit of 9'6''? Or follow our speed limits?

Thanks, Evan, for raising this issue - failure to adopt metric measures is not Euro-sceptic, it is insular, dangerous and stupid.

  • 156.
  • At 07:20 PM on 09 May 2007,
  • Oliver Harrison wrote:

The metric system has been used for all calculations in school, colleges and Universities since the 1960s. In a couple of decades there will be very few people left that were not taught metric at school. It would take a very long time for me to find someone who did not understand metric in my college.
I am 16 and if I did my Chemistry, Maths or Physics homework in imperial units, converting my answers to make sense would take longer than the calculations themselves. Scientific formulae only work in standard units.
It is far more useful to me to measure speed in m/s, so that I know that I will travel 4 metres in one second, for example, rather than 8.9 miles in one hour. I 'weigh' 60 kilograms, not 8 stone 10 pounds. What is a pound anyway, or a stone? How many pounds or ounces are there in a stone? I haven't a clue. A kilogram is a bag of sugar. That is 1000 grams, or one litre of water, or 1000 cubic centimetres of water. It is far easier to remember scales and to convert between mass, volume and length in metric than Imperial.

One final thing - I thing that when we convert to metric, the speedometer dial in cars should show km/h and m/s - 'one metre per second' is an easy speed to contemplate, and is useful in short distances, whilst km/h is useful in evaluating long journey times.

  • 157.
  • At 08:54 PM on 09 May 2007,
  • Zane wrote:

Being from the US I obviously still prefer the standard, English, Imperial system...whatever you want to call it.

The reason that I prefer it has nothing to do with history or convenience, but that it is so much easier to talk about measurements in Imperial units. Say these out loud.

Mile, Inch, Foot, Pound, Yard, Acre, Ton, Ounce, etc...

Every unit is one syllable and most are only 4 letters long.

Compare that to the tongue-tying theatrics of having to break every perfectly good unit of measure into mili, centi, deci, deca, hecta, and kilo.

Nothing is wrong with meter, liter, and gram, but it is a pita to speak the 3 to 5 syllables required for even a simple measurement.

Come up with some good short mono-syllabic words for millimeter and kilometer and kilogram that have the same numerical value and then we can talk about full conversion.

  • 158.
  • At 09:07 PM on 09 May 2007,
  • Richard Marston wrote:

Whenever there is a conversion job to be done then there is an opportunity to make money – why else do we still have the Pound when others in the EC have the Euro?

Personally, I think I use the imperial unit of measure as kinds of colloqiualised terms, used in casual speech; but always kilometres for technical / professional communication.

I design books for a living and this area is a real hybrid of imperial and metric systems: metric pages sizes that have their origins in traditional (imperial) paper sizes, ink tints that are specified in percentages, but font sizes that are measured in 'points' = 72 points = 1 inch. etc etc.

  • 159.
  • At 10:55 PM on 09 May 2007,
  • nick wrote:

An interesting article, but any new system of measurement needs to have appeal before it is adopted. The metric system is either superior or inferior, depending on what type of measurement is being considered and the context in which it is used.

Ultimately, the best units are those that allow people to communicate with each other and interact with the world most effectively. Age therefore plays a part, and the % of the population that is comfortable with metric units logically will continue to increase until around 2060.

While decimalisation makes things easier (for some) it has undoubtedly contributed to the decline in numeracy and mental agility. How many schools now fail to teach the 12 times table? With what justification? Does metrication mean we never need to multiply by 12? Of course not.

In 100 years there will still be 60 seconds in a minute, 12 hours in a day and 360 degrees in a circle. Horses will still enter the final furlong - why? Because that seemingly odd unit of length actually makes sense in that environment. In science, the Curie will still be more popular than the preposterous Becqueral.

Metric and non-metric units will co-exist for a long time yet.

  • 160.
  • At 12:07 AM on 10 May 2007,
  • Ian Pratt wrote:

As Ali G once said "Who's ever bought
a kilogram of anything ?"

  • 161.
  • At 04:03 PM on 10 May 2007,
  • Tim wrote:

Julian Rowden (comment 155) doesn't seem too bothered about foriegn drivers that can't be bothered to swot up on other countries regulations. I do. If a foriegn driver speeds or destroys a bridge because his lorry was too tall then might I suggest he doesn't drive here?

Also, would the 'Change for Change sake' brigade care to explain whether or not computer code would also be subject to the metric mafia. It is presently duodecimal, that's right - the dreaded base number 12!

If it ain't broke...

  • 162.
  • At 03:53 AM on 11 May 2007,
  • Huw wrote:

To demonstrate how times have changed.
Quote from "Good Omens" by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman,
"Two farthings = One Ha'penny. Two ha'pennies = One Penny. Three pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and one Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.

The British resisted decimalized currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated."

  • 163.
  • At 02:15 PM on 11 May 2007,
  • David Campbell wrote:

Don't you think British objections to metrication are more to do with a sentimental attachment to the Imperial names rather than to the measurements themselves?
I suspect that if, when the currency went metric, we'd decided to call ten pence a shilling, 20 pence a florin, 25 (or 50) pence a half crown etc, everyone would have been happy.
Similarly, if we called 1000 metres a mile, 1000 grams a pound and 1000 ml a pint, the logicians and the romantics could live in Imperial-decimal harmony.
A rose by any other name would weigh the same.

  • 164.
  • At 11:22 AM on 15 May 2007,
  • Jools wrote:

Surely the answer is simple: we use metric for everything we're likely to need to do arithmetic on - food, distances between places, room sizes, scientific measurements, and not because we're stupid or lazy, but because it's efficient. If I want to tax my brain for recreation I'll do sudoku or crossword puzzles; If I want to work out how many tiles I need for my bathroom I'd rather just get on with the job, thanks.

There's no reason to fear for our cultural heritage - just look through our language for all the other references to objects and terms we no longer relate to directly. Pounds, feet and miles will live on in our language for the same reason that I might say I'm "stumped" even though I have no interest in cricket or that the phone is "ringing" when I haven't had a phone containg a bell for over 20 years.

As for the number of syllables required to talk about kilogrammes or millilitres, ok, fair point. But talking about something being six foot three and seven eighths inches long is hardly economical, and in any case, most builders working in metric will talk about "mills" instead of millimetres. We get the metres bit from context, just the same as I know if someone asks me to pick up a kilo of sugar at the supermarket it's pretty obvious they don't mean a kilometre or a kilowatt.

As for the manufacturing industries where components are still made to 'old' measures - when I was buying kerbstones in the early 90s, we bought them in metres, even though they were each a yard (915mm)long. We bought pipe in metric lengths of imperial diameters (however many metres of nine-inch, etc.) and bought timber much the same (so many metres of 2x2). It was never a problem, and for practical purposes didn't make a difference because we weren't multiplying the diameter of the pipe or the section of the timber, just the lengths, which were in metric.

So I guess my point is that we should use whatever is practical - if we plan to 'do maths' with it, metric makes sense. Pounds and stones are already becoming much like the journalistic measures of football pitches and double-decker buses - things we use for visualisation but nobody would seriously consider using in science or engineering unless they had to for compatibility reasons. It wouldn't take long for us to think of miles in much the same way.

And one last thing... if older people are all smarter because they had to multiply 12s and 16s all the time, how come so many can't cope with the 24 hour clock?

  • 165.
  • At 06:27 PM on 16 May 2007,
  • Paul R S wrote:

Has anyone calculated the cost of a conversion to metric measurement of distances? Changing road signage alone would be a mammoth task and perhaps best tackled at a time of higher than normal unemployment

  • 166.
  • At 08:43 PM on 16 May 2007,
  • Mark Taylor wrote:

A dual system of imperial and metric units is not confined to the UK. Come to Germany and try to buy a hosepipe (or work with any other type of pipe for that matter). The diameter is still measured in inches ("Zoll").

And look anywhere in the EU for computer monitors or jeans: their sizes are still quoted in inches ...

  • 167.
  • At 03:12 PM on 30 May 2007,
  • Andy Haworth wrote:

You can still buy vegtable by the pfund on German markets. The Mile is 1000 Roman paces, (left foot to left foot), therefore just over 5000ft, therefore the mile is logical. The acre is a 220ft square, each side 10 * cricket pitch. And the old (3 * 220ft) 220yd sprint is now the 200m. The indoor athletics has 60 m sprint (66yds so near enough). And unfortunately in your globalisation quotes you forgot to mention North America, which is imperial and a lot more important market than France. Plus although the French defined the metre they actually got it wrong. So why use a incorrect measurement. One more thing in SI units there is no Litre, the unit of volume is the cubic metre, so mid units are acceptable in most circles try ordering 4.54/1000 of a cubic metre (gallon)

  • 168.
  • At 10:37 AM on 10 Jun 2007,
  • Steve Jones wrote:

Just to note that (post 124) the e-petition asking more metrification of road signs has so far (10 June) attracted 55 signatures. Rather less than two per day.

Hardly overwhelming support compared with the rumoured 1.5+ million who protested about road pricing.

Somehow I don't think we'll see metric signs any time soon.

  • 169.
  • At 06:23 PM on 12 Sep 2007,
  • Martin Fisher wrote:

Post 167: your argument in favour of imperial units isn't exactly aided by your incorrect definition of an acre :)

It is 4840 square yards, the area of a rectangle 1 cricket pitch by 10 cricket pitches (22 x 220yds). Or as someone said earlier, the area of a square of side 69 yards approx.

Post a comment

Please note Name and E-mail are required.

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.

Required (not displayed)

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites