Why I became involved with measurement matters

One of our readers has written to explain why he became interested in the campaign to complete Britain’s prolonged metric changeover.

Ronnie Cohen wrote recently to Metric Views:

“Out of all the bread-and-butter issues that top the political agenda, you may wonder why anyone would want to become involved in measurement matters. It hardly attracts any media interest and there is a general lack of interest in the subject among the general public. Issues such as health, education, immigration, Europe, transport and crime are frequently high on the political agenda and these are all issues that the public cares about deeply. Given the high priority of these and other issues in the eyes of the general public, why bother with measurement?

Measurement plays a central part in all our lives. When we go shopping for fruit and vegetables, look at nutrition information, buy furniture for our homes, see weather reports, measure our weight and height, do DIY work, use maps, drive our cars, cook our meals and measure electricity consumption, measurement is involved. These are just some regular daily activities that involve measurement and is not a comprehensive list.

The way we measure things matters. Measurement forms a fundamental basis for a good maths and science education and common measurement standards are essential for consumer protection.

We need a single, rational measurement system that everyone understands and uses for all purposes. This has been recognised since the days of the Magna Carta almost 800 years ago. All other major European countries abandoned Roman-style measurements long ago. Now the UK remains totally isolated in Europe in holding out for the old pre-metric measurements, an eccentricity that does us no favours. All major Commonwealth countries with the partial exception of Canada have abandoned imperial units and completed their transition to the metric system.

The recent problems with grossly disproportionate numbers of foreign lorries hitting British bridges shows that this is a serious issue. The prime cause of this awful statistic is the lack of understanding of imperial units among foreign drivers. This problem would not exist if the UK used metres on all its height and width restriction and warning signs like neighbouring countries.

If so many other countries can see and experience the benefits of full metrication, why can’t our political leaders? It is their responsibility to explain the benefits and advantages of the metric system to the general public and the rationale for completing the transition to the metric system and leaving imperial behind. The completion of metrication in the UK would make all our lives so much easier.”

Doubtless, many readers of Metric Views share Ronnie’s concerns. Some of you may have other reasons for wishing to see the end of the measurement muddle in the UK? Please write and let us know what you think.

In 2004,  the UK Metric Association published “A very British mess”, which describes the current muddle, puts the case for completing the UK’s metric changeover, and proposes a plan. For details, please contact UKMA at secretary@metric.org.uk

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15 Responses to Why I became involved with measurement matters

  1. Ed the yank says:

    Ronnie's comments mostly ring true for me. However, I think political leaders, as here in the States as well as in the UK, are more concerned about being re-elected (not upsetting voters) than leading a change. People in some trades like carpentry or electricians are used to working in inches, cubic feet, American (inch) wire gauge, so that SI units are viewed as awkward and unwelcome, as short sighted as this may be.

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  2. Jake says:

    Those of us who support the UKMA's campaign realise that it is largely the USA that is preventing the UK from competing its transition to metric. The supporters of the continued muddled status quo in the UK point to the USA and say, if the biggest economy in the world can thrive using imperial units, so can the UK. This argument is however fundamentally flawed. If it had enough oil reserves, the USA could probably manage without the rest of the world. The biggest economy in the world, I believe, is currently actually the internal market of the EU, but that is of course a group of countries, not a single one. Other economies such as India and China are now well developed and Britain should be looking towards those countries for its future as much as it has and still will look across the Atlantic to the USA. The USA has been a great ally to Britain in difficult times and, like the rest of the English-speaking world, is a close partner and friend. But just because the UK's friend is stuck in the mud on the measurement issue does not mean the UK has to stay there too. Britain today, despite all its economic problems at the moment, is one of the leading European economies. Lorries are crossing back and forth across the Channel and the North Sea every day, as are business people and tourists. In his article Ronnie refers to the issue of bridge strikes resulting from continental drivers not being able to infer from signs in feet and inches whether they can clear a bridge. This is a serious problem and a costly one if a strike occurs. Not only is the road disrupted for hours or even days but the rail traffic using the bridge is likely to be disrupted too. What actually is the sense today of using feet and inches on UK road signs when road vehicles are entirely designed and built in metric units, these units are shown in a driver's manual and drivers in the UK can reasonably be expected to understand metric units on road signs as most of them will have learnt metric at school and certainly encounter them in other everyday contexts, be it DIY, kitchen units, maps, whatever. No doubt it may take a while for the vernacular of giving your height in feet and inches to give way to metric, but that kind of everyday usage is closely linked to what people see in the environment around them in their villages, towns and cities, in other words on the roads. The only obstacle to making this obvious transition to metric-only signs seems to be the Department for Transport's obstinate refusal to broach the subject. Frankly, I don't know how they can get away with it.

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  3. Alex Bailey says:

    This rung true for me too... my first experience of this mess was when I moved into my first house 25 years ago, measuring for carpet in metres (since this was what I'd learned at school) to be told in the shop that they used yards, then messing up the conversion (because that I hadn't learned at school and knew nothing about imperial measures) and then living for several years with a half metre gap in the carpet underneath wall units at the back of the room.

    Then there's the annoyance with people telling me it's all good because the Americans still use "imperial". They tell me that it takes longer to get drunk but don't think that it's because their pints are smaller, they tell me cars don't go as far on a gallon of petrol but don't think that it's because their gallon is smaller. And to this day I still panic when I see a sign on US highways saying "Lane ends in 500 feet"... at least with yards I'd stand a fighting chance of understanding!

    As irrational as it sounds I avoid roads which are shown with a 6'-6" width limit when my car owners manual says my car is 1999 mm between the tips of the mirrors but will happily pass a sign that shows a 2 m limit. When I drive my car in Europe I get frustrated because I can't see the little km/h markings on my speedo... but I admire my European friends who manage to drive their cars in Britain with no mph markings whatsoever. I've even been frustrated more than once following a car with a digital speedo that has clearly defaulted itself to metric and the driver doesn't seem to realise they're driving far too slowly, creating the potential for accidents caused by impatience!

    This muddle is just the tip of the iceberg and really needs to be sorted, the British public have become so used to it they don't think it's a problem but it clearly causes mistakes which translate into cost and safety. This is why I got involved!

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  4. philh says:

    I was schooled in imperial and used it by default well into adulthood. Then one day when I was weighing myself I started to think, why on Earth do I and everyone I knew keep using funny units like stones and pounds when kilograms are so much easier. So I changed over and haven't look back since. I also started using metric for DIY etc.

    Some years later around 2001 when I heard in the news about some grocer refusing to comply with the law requiring kilograms for trade, I learned of the existence of an organisation in the UK actively campaigning to preserve traditional units.

    I was quite astonished by this. Why would anyone deliberately preserve things like stones, pounds and ounces when there is such a poweful alternative like the metric system? I mean I can understand people continuing to use imperial out of habit (as I did) because they lacked knowledge or experienc of using metric but it is quite another matter to be hostile to it.

    I also learned of the UK metric association and contacted the person running it at the time. He told me a bit more about what had been going on and why he founded UKMA. His web site has some interesting material about the history of metrication in the UK (which I was unaware of) and how things had got to where they were. So I joined them and have never regretted it since.

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  5. John Frewen-Lord says:

    Canada converted (mostly, if not entirely) to the metric system in the 1970s. During the 1980s, I was the consulting QS on The Toronto General Hospital, a 130-odd department hospital with over 100 000 m² of floor space. In that era, the hospital wanted its drawings digitized - a huge undertaking (some of the buildings were over 100 years old, and there were no proper drawings for many of them, and thus the buildings had to be physically measured).

    We decided to hire an outside firm of Toronto architects to undertake the work. One of the first questions they asked was whether we wanted the drawings in imperial or metric units. Initially, the hospital said imperial, as that was what most of the existing drawing were in - until the architects said that the fees would be 15% higher than if the work was done in metric. The decision was made to go metric.

    In-plain-view examples like this of the costs of working in imperial units compared to metric are hard to come by, but the costs are there all the same. There have been proposals to try and estimate all the hidden costs in the UK of still using imperial units in a metric world (everything from lorry bridge strikes to lost education time for schoolchildren), but the government stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the problem (or even that there is one). Perhaps if these costs were measured, this obstinacy in clinging to imperial units would evaporate quite quickly.

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  6. Ed the Yank says:

    Hi all,
    In general i developed an interest in promoting SI units because of my struggle with learning maths and sciences in primary and secondary school. It started with difficulty reading fractions of an inch on a ruler to learning physics concepts in foot-pound units and converting to S I units. More recently, my interest is in contacting companies, cheering them on in adapting SI unit measured and packaged products.
    A side issue of clarification is the United States of America does not use Imperial units. We use US Customary units based on the English system. Also we have agencies such as National Institute of Standards which with industry promote USC units world wide for use in science and trade with its 200 plus basic units for accuracy, precision, and improve quality of life. [Surely not. Presumably, Ed the Yank means that NIST promotes SI units? - Editor]

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  7. michduncg says:

    I was educated exclusively in metric from 1972 to 1985. We were told at school that we were so lucky as we would no longer have to grapple with all those horrid conversions. But I lived in world surrounded by Imperial. Mrs Thatcher had been very clever by pretending to be modern and pro-metric by promoting it in education. But by scrapping the Metrication Board, she made sure that the older generation would never move forward and would inflict their old system on the young people. And that is kind of what has happened. But in fact what has happened is even worse - young people now do not understand either system. They cannot relate to measurements - they use terms like a 'few feet' or 'few hundred yards' without really knowing what they are talking about. That is despite being surrounded by metric measures - they run the 100m at school, swim in 25m pools, by their soft drinks in litres and their food in grams and kg.

    So my crusade began when the industry I work in, retail, moved to metric in the mid 1980s. Since then I use metric pretty much exclusively (although I do struggle with clothes and TV screens!). I always refer to my height in cm, weight in kg etc. The biggest struggle is that I almost feel obliged to translate these figures for recipients who invariably give me a slightly blank look.

    The reason for this confusion is well known - it's a combination of the 'Imperial is good enough for the US' (although it has been pointed out they use USC) AND the other huge myth 'I'm not having them in Europe telling me how to measure' (ignoring the facts that Imperial measures are based on Roman and French measures in the first place!). We import lots of TV programmes/Books/Mags from the US and are subjected to USC on a daily basis.

    The message I always try to get across is that not only is the metric system easier to use once you make the change, its also the most British of measurement systems. Its origins are British, has been used by many of scientists and commemorates many of their names in the title of units. The first prototypes of metric measures were made in England.

    The challenge is to get any Government to accept the fact that it is in Britain's interest to complete metrication. At the moment they don't seem to think there is any need to push things further. What we really need is some publicly respected figures to come out clearly in favour e.g. James Dyson, Richard Branson etc. There are two many grumpy 'young' men eg Jeremy Clarkson, James May etc who are quick to knock metric. The third Top Gear presenter, Richard Hammond is much happier to use metric in his other TV programmes. Has the UKMA thought of recruiting him (and others) to promote the Metric Message? The BWMA make quite a lot of noise on their Facebook page about UK celebrities who back their cause. Isn't it about time that UKMA started to look at raising the profile of their campaign in this way?

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  8. Erithacus says:

    Responding to Michduncg, yes, UKMA has considered recruiting celebrities to the cause - but rejected the idea. The problem is that celebrities may be respected (by some people) for their achievements in other fields (sport, television, acting, cooking etc) but that doesn't necessarily spill over into agreement with their views on other matters. Do you agree with Jeremy Clarkson's views on strikers, for example? In any case such allegiances can be fickle and indeed become an embarrassment. I expect BWMA wish they had not recruited celebrity chef and cautioned shoplifter, Anthony Worrall Thompson, to their cause! I am not aware of any evidence that recruiting celebrities increases support for the cause - or indeed whether respect for celebrities is diminished by their support for causes that are outside their field of expertise. Certainly, my respect for one of my boyhood heroes, the late Fred Trueman (cricketer), was greatly diminished when he lent his name to BWMA.

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  9. Cliff Steele says:

    I agree with michduncg that it would be a good idea for publicly respected figures to get involved in promoting metric weights and measures. Advocates of metrication need to stir people from their apathy about weights and measures by every means possible. BWMA gets up to every dirty trick in the book pushing their cause from promoting vandalism of signs to naming and shaming public figures who disagree with their views. They don't have an open forum like Metric Views where people who disagree with them can put forward their opinions. Many people would love to shoot down every feeble argument they put forward on their website but they're denied the chance. I don't suggest that Metric Views should stoop to the tactics of the BWMA but it's necessary to fight back.You can fight back by making metrication sexy. If it takes famous personalities to do that - Go for it.

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  10. michduncg says:

    An example of my 'daily' metric campaigning: from the Neilson holidays Facebook page:

    Neilson, why have you reverted to inches ONLY when quoting the sizing of a cabin bag in your brochure? All your resorts only use metric measurements for height and weight of your clients at ski hire etc. All European airlines are metric, and so if I am going to get into a dispute with them over the size of my bag, I need to know what your restrictions are in cm's or mm's. It just seems daft!
    Like · · 3 hours ago ·

    Neilson Holidays: Hi Michael, Thomas Cook airlines specify in both cm's and inches to us, but we must have decided to go old-skool on this one, as it's easier to keep these figures in mind. In cm's it's 43 cm x 28 cm x 23 cm.
    about an hour ago · Like
    Michael Gregory: Not very helpful as not many shops quote bag sizes in inches anymore! I can understand you quoting metric and inches but not just inches. I know its a small thing but can you pass it on to them that write your brochures pls. Ta
    about an hour ago · Like

    Neilson Holidays Will do. Thanks for bringing to our attention.
    36 minutes ago · Like

    Feel free to add your comments to the conversation if you are on Facebook! Its bizarre that Neilson, whose brochure, quite correctly, quote all the resort altitudes and piste lengths exclusively in metres and kilometres and luggage allowances in kilograms suddenly drop the metric and revert solely to Imperial for the hand baggage size. And their reason? 'Because its easier to remember'!

    Does anyone else think 17x11x9 is any easier to remember than 43x28x23? Me neither!

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  11. philh says:

    Although UKMA has declined to deliberately recruit people of celebrity status that doesn't mean the association would not welcome support from any such person if they genuinely agreed with us and were prepared to say so.

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  12. Wilfred says:

    The risks attached to high profile supporters are illustrated by the fate of a number of past and incumbent MEPs.

    Tom Wise, former MEP, was a supporter of BWMA and lobbied on its behalf in the European Parliament. He was jailed for two years in 2009 for money laundering and false accounting relating to his parliamentary expenses.

    Ashley Mote, former MEP, was a guest speaker at the BWMA AGM in 2006. In 2007 he was convicted of UK benefit fraud and received a 9-month jail sentence.

    Even if the celebrity supporter is subsequently cleared of wrongdoing, damage may have been done. This occurred with Giles Chichester MEP, whose gained publicity in 2007 as a result of his jubilation at ‘the saving of the pound‘ (avoirdupois not sterling). In 2008 he stepped down as the leader of Conservative MEPs as a result of allegations, of which he was later cleared, relating to misuse of parliamentary funds.

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  13. michduncg says:

    With respect Wilfred, I have never heard of any of the cases to which you refer - they are not particularly high profile unless you are particularly interested in BWMA and its cause, of which I have of course I have no respect!

    Maybe what I should be asking is what 'networking' and lobbying the UKMA engages in? Do they actively contact our leaders of large and high profile firms with UK based manufacturing e.g. Airbus, BMW, Honda, Rolls Royce? Has UKMA ever commissioned any research into the issue of our 'metric muddle' with any large employers? Has it ever carried out research in the UK among the population.

    I would like to ask the UKMA what its actual strategy is to move the metrication issue on? We see a daily round of reports in the UK press that the country needs to have more scientists, innovators, engineers and skilled workers to rebuild our manufacturing base. We also see regular reports of declining numeracy in our schools. We know that as a country we are ever more reliant on overseas investments to maintain and improve our manufacturing base. To me, each of these factors on its own is a strong argument for the urgent completion of metrication. But together they are an absolutely cast-iron and compelling basis for a Government policy to complete metrication.

    What is needed is for the concept of a link between the lack of metric progress and our steady decline to be floated. I am sure that if the public started to make this connection, they could possibly see the 'bigger picture' and the advantages of completing metrication in the UK. But who is going to move the argument forward? Is the UKMA engaged in this conversation? The only time the UKMA on TV is when they go 'head to head' with the BWMA. But the debate needs to progress beyond the level of the street market trader. It needs to be about the future of our country as a modern manufacturing base. It needs to be about the ability of the British people to see the 'big picture'.

    I must admit, I don't know much about UKMA - does it have a staff & headquarters? Does it have a strategy document? How is it funded? If I knew a bit more about it and its long term plans I would be more than happy to pay a (modest!) monthly sub to try and support it?

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  14. philh says:

    It may be that a cause is not helped if a high profile supporter becomes the subject of bad publicity but it would not make sense to avoid politicians because it is part of their job to speak up on issues affecting society - unlike TV chefs.

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  15. Erithacus says:

    "In response to michduncg, UKMA's strategy is a long term one - to keep the issue of completing metrication alive, to continue to provide accurate information to the media and the general public, to remind politicians that there is a substantial body of informed opinion that favours early completion, to provide advice on correct usage of measurement units - until such time as we get some politicians with the courage to do what is right, face down the opposition from the populist media, and tackle the problems that their predecessors created by starting a process and then abandoning it part way through. Anybody who agrees with these aims should consider joining UKMA, where you will be able to participate in debates about strategy. See www.ukma.org.uk/join."

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