The report that led the UK from one muddle to another

On 15 July 1862, the Select Committee on Weights and Measures of the UK Parliament published a report recommending the adoption of the metric system in the UK. That was 150 years ago. It was also less than forty years after the coming into force of the Weights and Measures Act of 1824, which should have provided Britain and Ireland with ‘correct and uniform’ standards of measures. So what had gone wrong in the intervening years, and what then happened to the Committee’s recommendations?

The Committee was appointed to investigate the practicability of adopting a simple and uniform system of weights and measures for the benefit of internal trade and of trade and co-operation with foreign countries. This article outlines some of the Committee’s findings, including the problems it found with the ‘system’ of weights and measures at the time. It also looks at the Committee’s reasons for urging the adoption of the metric system, and comments on its reluctance to see compulsion used in the process.

In pursuit of its brief, the Committee obtained the opinions of ‘enlightened foreigners’ who had studied the question of weights and measures and who had helped to reform them in their own countries. They also questioned scientists, merchants, manufacturers and others in the UK, and sought advocates of the existing system but ‘found it difficult to discover them’. A problem any committee would be unlikely to face today.

There were multiple measurement systems in use at the time, notwithstanding the reform attempted by the 1824 Act. The Committee put it like this, “Omitting many specific anomalies, we have no less than ten different systems of Weights and Measures, most of them established by law. Our neighbours, the French, and many other nations, have only one, ….” These systems included “grains computed decimally used for scientific purposes”, troy weight, troy ounce with decimal multiples and divisions (also called bullion weights), bankers’ weights, apothecaries weight, diamond weights and pearl weights, avoirdupois weight, weights for hay and straw, wool weight, coal weights, and “in occasional scientific use, the weights of the metric system”.

For measures of length, there were the inch, foot, yard, hand, nail, four kinds of ell, three kinds of fathom, knot, league, nautical mile, English mile, Irish mile, Scotch mile, trade-specific measures, shoe sizes, numerous gauges, several sorts of acre and a great variety of roods. For measures of capacity, there were twenty different bushels, different hogsheads and different pipes of wine. For measures of weight, there were about ten different stones, three different hundredweights and the Dutch, troy and avoirdupois systems of pounds and ounces.

At the time, it appears there was strong support for the adoption of the metric system, which had been or was being introduced in more than ten countries. At the annual meeting of the Associated Chambers of Commerce in 1861, a resolution to adopt the metric system “which has been introduced into many European countries with great advantage to the saving of time in trading and other accounts” was passed unanimously. The report too acknowledged the merits of a common international system of weights and measures and stated that, “Our system of Weights and Measures, being in this state of disorder and of darkness, a sudden light was thrown upon it, and the advantage of a common international system fully brought into view, by the Great Exhibition of 1851.”

Hardly any witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee defended the customary system of weights and measures. The following quote in the report has echoes today:

“…. that system has been condemned as cumbrous and inconvenient. The units are founded on no natural basis. They are not decimally related to each other. Their multiples and divisors follow no given ratio: and the best proof of their insufficiency for all the practical purposes of life is found in the adoption of so many systems better suited to their wants, by different classes of the people.”

By contrast, the benefits and advantages of the metric system were recognised by the Committee. They said:

“That system is ready-made to our hands. It is complete and homogeneous in all its parts, and perfectly decimal in its multiples and divisors; it is becoming more and more an international system, at once benefiting and uniting the countries which have adopted it; by whose experience we can be guided if we choose to follow in their path”.

The report also warned against turning back the clock, saying, “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. The wisdom, justice, and peaceful consequences of extending international commerce are conspicuous reasons in favour of the general acceptance of the Metric system. In a less comprehensive point of view, it is for our own interest to adopt it.”

The benefits for education were also recognised. The time saved from the removal of the need to learn the customary system was said to be at least one year, according to schoolmasters. “While the study of English weights and measures is laborious and repulsive to both teacher and pupil, any one can easily master the Metric system.”

The report concluded with an unequivocal endorsement of the metric system. It led to the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act of 1864 which for the first time rendered legal the use of the metric system in the UK. A similar Act became law in the USA just two years later.

However, early in the report, there was a hint of trouble ahead. It said, “The silent influence of usage has baffled the decrees of legislation”, and in the recommendations there was a sentence that ensured the adoption of the metric system in the UK would proceed at a snail’s pace: “No compulsory measures should be resorted to until they are sanctioned by the general conviction of the public.”

And so now, 150 years later, almost every other country in the world benefits from the single, simple, rational and universal system of weights and measures that the Select Committee advocated. But in the UK this goal remains elusive.

A summary of the report can be read at:
http://www.ukma.org.uk/sites/default/files/met1862.pdf

The full report can be downloaded as a free e-book from: http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Report_from_the_Select_committee_on_weig.html?id=wI7nAAAAMAAJ

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3 Responses to The report that led the UK from one muddle to another

  1. BrianAC says:

    If I were to chose just one sentence it would be this one: -
    “While the study of English weights and measures is laborious and repulsive to both teacher and pupil, any one can easily master the Metric system.”
    It says everything that needs to be said, but still the nonsense goes on ... and on ...

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  2. derekp says:

    This article provides a good illustration of the second law of thermodynamics, sometimes stated as "Muddle tends to increase." It shows that, despite the best efforts of the legislators in 1824, the profusion of measures had hardly diminished 37 years later.

    So much for recent UK governments' hope that if they look the other way, the muddle will disappear. As Lord Howe put it on 15 May, the current situation is "a uniquely confusing shambles ... that puts us all to shame." It also threatens the prosperity of all of us. Clearly, the situation is not getting better as time goes by, and experience suggests that if no action is taken it is likely to get worse.

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  3. Han Maenen says:

    When my father visited an advanced school for trade the curriculum also included calculating invoices in ton-cwt-qr-lb/Lsd. This seemed to be used widely in international trade. He told me that and indeed, he loathed it deeply. If a teacher in the old times wanted to punish a pupil and spoil his free time, he could simply have the pupil calculate ten such invoices during the weekend! Why use the cane if you could do that? The pupil might rather have the cane, I think!

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