UK metric myths tumble during the Games

Metric Views revisits some of the myths around the metric system, and asks readers to suggest how many of these might have lost credibility as a result of the welcome given in the UK to the Olympic Games of 2012.

In 2004, UKMA published a report “A very British mess” that set out the case for completing the UK’s changeover to metric – and as swiftly and cleanly as possible:
http://www.ukma.org.uk/avbm-summary

Section 5.11 of the report dealt with some of the myths and disinformation which have been created by opponents of change. It listed nine myths, and gave reasons why each is wrong. These myths are repeated below, and we ask you to decide how many have become even more difficult to justify as a result of the British public’s positive response to hosting the Olympic Games in 2012 and to the amazing achievements of Team GB.

Myth (a). “The metric system is unsuitable for everyday use”
Myth (b). “British people could not adapt to the metric system”
Myth (c). “Imperial units are natural”
Myth (d). “Imperial units are British”
Myth (e). “Metric units are foreign”
Myth (f). “The metric system has been imposed by Brussels”
Myth (g). “British Commonwealth countries use Imperial units”
Myth (h). “Americans use the same Imperial units as Britain”
Myth (i). “Our language and literature would have to change”

We suggest a tenth, occasionally heard in recent years:
Myth (j). “The metric system is a threat to our culture and traditions”

We also believe that at least five of these ought to have been finally laid to rest during the Games. Do you agree?

If indeed the public are now less likely to be taken in by these myths than they were a few months ago, then can this be turned to advantage?

In our final post about the Games, which will appear on the closing day, Metric Views will try to identify some winners and losers. Clearly, those who might benefit from misinformation about the metric system are unlikely to be on our list of winners.

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22 Responses to UK metric myths tumble during the Games

  1. John Frewen-Lord says:

    I think that you could say that all ten (nice number!) myths have been sent to their graves - not just because of the Olympics (though they have certainly given metric measures a lot of prominent exposure), but also because the world (and especially Britain) has moved on in the past eight years. Here is my take on the ten myths:

    (a) Around 95% of the world's population seems to be able to use the metric system (and only the metric system) for every part of their lives, every day. It must therefore be 'fit for purpose' in this respect.

    (b) The British in the main HAVE adapted. Yes, many haven't (but only because they refuse to, not because they can't). But overall, I hear more and more metric usage every day. Certain sectors (e.g. construction) simply do not function in anything but metric.

    (c) Natural to what? All that 'the length of one's foot' rubbish? The metre seems natural to me, as does the centimetre (sorry Pat N!). And what can be more natural than knowing that one litre of water weighs exactly one kilogram, and that 1000 L equals one cubic metre. That is simply brilliant .

    (d) The mile is Italian (miglia), as is the pound (libre, shortened to this day to lb.) Herr Farenheit was a German, who was not very bright, it seems (he got most of his sums wrong). The so-called British units are anything but - a hodge-podge of measures from many foreign places.

    (e) It is now well known that Englishman Bishop John Wilkins laid the foundations for the modern metric system (and there is evidence that a unit of measure, almost exactly 1 m long and divided into 10ths, preceded him). Units like the watt, kelvin and the newton are named in honour of BRITISH scientists.

    (f) Also well known (and reported here many times recently) is the fact that the UK decided to go metric long before it decided to join the EEC (as it was then). Britain would have gone metric even if it wasn't part of the EU (and perhaps would have done the job faster in the process).

    (g) No - Canada, Australia, New Zealand and almost all other Commonwealth countries are completely or mostly metric. Even holdouts like the Bahamas are in the process of converting. Britain will soon (if it doesn't convert its road signs soon) be seen as being the most backward member of the Commonwealth.

    (h) Also (mostly) a No - again as has been recounted many times here, tons, hundredweights (what are those?), all liquid measures and so on are different on each side of the Atlantic. The US even has two kinds of foot, which the British don't.

    (i) Why? As I postulated in an article here a few years ago, our old expressions needn't change - they just become just that, expressions, used in a variety of contexts, without denoting any precise measurement. As an example, we use the term 'milestone' to denote anything but measuring miles.

    (j) Nonsense - are the Australians any less Australian because they converted? Of course not! Or the Canadians? If anything, going metric actually defined Canadian culture to a significant degree, especially as it differentiated Canada from the USA. Same with India, South Africa and so on - going metric does not seem to have threatened their culture in the least. Why should Britain be any different?

    I know I've repeated here many of the 'myth-busters' that others have also posted on Metric Views, and may also post in response to this article. But having just read a Which? Coversation article in which the question was asked whether now is the time to finally ditch imperial and 'go metric' (as if we haven't been doing that for nearly 50 years), and in which the responses were (surprisingly, but happily, overwhelmingly in favour), I do believe that the UK is now very comfortable in using metric for everyday purposes, and that these myths are - finally - the last gasp of those luddites (are you listening, DfT?) who are living in a past which has long gone.

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  2. IAN ROBINSON says:

    Well, 2 weeks of The Olympics and saturation Metric terms are almost over and nobody seems to have died or been seriously harmed in the process. But UK has seen fit to embarrass itself in front of 200 modern, metricated countries by frequenty reverting to our ancient, 16th Century, Imperial measurement system using Imperial terms not known or understood anywhere else in the world.

    It is not only the use of Imperial Terms causing embarrassment but also, in the case of BBC Sport's Athletics Commentators who consistently used metric terms INCORRECTLY, for example, when quoting a jump of 6.25 m (Six point two five metres) they expressed this as Six metres AND twenty five centimetres, TOTALLY INCORRECT and VERY disappointing when representing UK's national broadcaster.

    The lastest UK Census has shown that the majority of UK residents are now of an age where they will have received a metric education at school but we still refuse to come in line with the rest of the world and metricate despite polls showing that that is what most modern people want.

    Excuses by the Government that the change would be "too confusing" reflect badly on the intellect the UK population when it is evident that so many Commonwealth "colonies" made the change to metric, some, over 30 years ago without any problems. Is our Goverment suggesting that us Brits don't have the mental capacity to deal with a change to metric? But then, when you hear news and documentary makers translating dimensions featured in their productions into "football fields" and "double decker Buses" to explain areas and height, it does make you wonder?

    One of the most glaringly obvious areas needing change is the UK's outdated road signage system but the Government keeps coming up with "excuses" NOT to do it, claiming it would be "too expensive" and "too dangerous". Once again, UK's Commonwealth relatives seemed to have dealt with it with ease, with VAST countries like Australia, with thousands of km of roads more than in tiny UK, managing to change their speed limit signs 30 years ago, in the entire country, in a matter of 3 DAYS! (FYI Mr Cameron, thats called "Leadership and management")
    With regard to expense, well, 30 years ago it was vastly cheaper than it is today and as time marches by. it's sure not going to get any cheaper than it is now.

    To those who say "the Metric system is too FOREIGN" .....I say this...

    The IMPERIAL system was imposed on England by the ROMANS many Centuries ago!

    The METRIC system was largely engineered by UK Scientists!

    It's time for the Prime Minister of this country to demonstrate the Leadership shown by 200 other Nations and LEAD UK out of the measurement "Dark Ages" amd metricate UK without further pointless delay.

    For the sake of British pride and honour....let's get the job FINISHED once and for all.

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  3. John Steele says:

    An American view:

    a) [sarcasm]Why, that's certainly true. NBC had to send their own weatherman, because we couldn't make sense of British weather during the Olympics. [/sarcasm]. I agree completely with the remarks John Frewen-Lord made. Unfortunately, many Americans wouldn't.

    d) To an American, Imperial is British (as is US Customary, but few know it). Particularly when arguing with people in the northeast, I like to ask "Why didn't we overthow the ruler of the ruler we overthrew." It is great that we have good relations now, but things weren't so rosy in 1832 when Congress laid the cornerstones of US Customary. We adopted older definitions of the gallon and bushel and were having none of the 1824 improvements.

    e) I don't know whether the Bishop John Wilkins story helps acceptance or not. Another approach is to concede that the original metric system was proposed by France, but since the Treaty of the Meter in 1875, the system has evolved and improved based on the contributions and votes of those countries party to the agreement, culminating in the SI in 1960. It is hard to say it is French when you have an equal vote at the table and are influential in proposed changes. I consider that to be the better answer to "metric is foreign."

    h) Yes, US Customary is different. We use older definitions of the gallon and bushel so all multiples and submultiples are different. The idea of a 112 lb hundredweight would strike us as a trick question. The natural answer is 100 lb, isn't that what the word means?

    We do and we don't have two feet. We use the International foot (0.3048 m) for almost everything and some States use it for surveying. The unit known as the Survey foot lingers from an earlier 1893 definition and may ONLY be used for land surveying, registration, mapping and the like. Older US maps almost certainly use the Survey foot. Maps based on NAD83 datum (or later) are a mixed bag. The USGS does geodetic surveying only in metric and intended to publish results that way. The underlying data remains metric, but after States protested, USGS agreed to multiply by either 3937/1200 (Survey) or 1250/381 (International) if and only if the State passed a law defining which they use. A lot of States chose Survey, but some chose International and some just used metric. If you think you have a British mess, as a bigger country, our US mess can trump yours. Michigan, where I live, uses the International foot, and redefined the zones of its SPCS.

    The difference is only two parts per million. Versus surveying closure standards of one part in 10000 (100 ppm) or accurate steel tapes, 0.02% or 200 ppm at standard tension and temperature, it simply doesn't matter in practical measurements. It matters only in grid systems known as State Plane Coordinate Systems (SPCS) which may use false offsets of millions of feet to place coordinates in certain numeric ranges. Apart from that exception, you would be hard pressed to find a case where you could measure it, or if you could, that it would matter.

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  4. Bob says:

    Myth f: “The metric system has been imposed by Brussels".
    There is a converse myth in the United States "American traders are free to choose whichever units they want". False: American traders can be punished for using metric-only labels such as "1 liter".

    Despite the prohibition on metric-only labels, some American companies persist in doing so:
    http://www.nist.gov/pml/wmd/metric/upload/Marketplace-Assessment-Metric-Labeling-Retail-Stores-Dec2009.pdf
    "Given that current federal law requires dual labeling on most packages, it was anticipated that metric products in the U.S. marketplace would be from foreign manufacturers or distributors, however the opposite was found. The majority of the packages with metric labeling were from U.S. companies (61%, Table 1)."

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  5. John Steele says:

    @Bob,

    The current FPLA does not permit metric-only, the UPLR does. All the items marked "2" in the authority column are perfectly legal. Food is clearly FPLA, and the items labelled "1" are mostly contrary to the law (there are a handful of possible mistakes). For some commodities, it is hard to tell whether FPLA and UPLR applies. Even NIST has one possible error (an ear powder for pets, pet supplies are UPLR). 16 CFR Part 503 has some guidelines to sort out what commodities are and aren't under FPLA, durables never are.

    I don't agree there is a myth traders can do whatever they want, but there may be some confusion on requirements. Most things require dual (both Customary and metric), some exceptions require only Customary or only metric but would allow both. Where different, Imperial or other "traditional" units would not be acceptable (or would have to be kept out of the net contents area).

    NIST's list has a few occurences of mistaking descriptive measurements for net contents. The net counts of a box of disposable pens or bag of beads is a COUNT. The diameter of the ball or the bead is descriptive, and it is not priced (strictly) on that basis. It is NOT a net content and neither FPLA nor UPLR applies to that dimension.

    The whole report is an attachment to another report recommending permissive metric -only, and is intended to support the idea: "See, metric-only wouldn't be disruptive." Nothing will happen to these dastardly fellows. Now someone, who is missing required metric, that is another story.

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  6. Neil H says:

    Metric Views,

    Might I request that you make a blog post on a very important issue, which I'm surprised you haven't covered so far - the conversion to metric units on horse racing courses across the UK.

    See here these articles from the past 2 weeks:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/horse-racing/18979479
    http://www.racingpost.com/news/horse-racing/sandown-rfc-metric-distances-and-weights-to-be-trialled-from-today/1078366/#newsArchiveTabs=last7DaysNews
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/jul/25/raceourses-trial-metric-weights-and-mesures

    Surely this is one of the most important moves towards metrication in the UK in modern times? Think how many people go to the races each year? And now they will see all the old daft course lengths of furlongs and yards moved to modern metres! Even the jockey's weight will be measured in kg!

    Progress indeed, and something I think which should be celebrated on this site!

    (Editor: Thanks, Neil, for this. We will be inviting our racing correspondent to review the trial in a few weeks.)

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  7. eric burns says:

    'Imperial units are natural”

    That statement is blatantly sexist, apart from the fact that anything good, bad and what have you is natural on this planet. Imperial units are predominantly based on male body parts, women came nowhere into the equation, they just had to live with males feet and thumbs, plus.... Take any of the various ells for instance, they are in all variations based on a male's forearm and that misogyny can be extended to almost all imperial measurements. Metric on the other hand is completely gender neutral.
    Wiki:
    Several national forms existed, with different lengths, including the Scottish ell (?37 inches or 94 centimetres), the Flemish ell (?27 in or 68.6 cm), the French ell (?54 in or 137.2 cm)[6] the Polish ell (?31 in or 78.7 cm) and the Danish ell (?25 in or 63.5 cm)

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  8. philh says:

    myth (j) “The metric system is a threat to our culture and traditions”
    isn't a particularly new argument.
    It sounds contrived to me. Just a way of appealing to a natural fear of change. The objectors will stoop to anything to win people over.
    Having said that I don't think many people take it seriously.

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  9. Wild Bill says:

    Neil H says "And now they will see all the old daft course lengths of furlongs and yards moved to modern metres! Even the jockey’s weight will be measured in kg!"

    Don't get too excited! All they're doing as far as I can see is to add distance boards showing multiples of 200 m under the existing boards showing furlongs. And the jockey weights in kg will just be alongside jockey weights in stones and pounds.

    More typical British mess, I'm afraid. You can expect dual units to be around for the next 50 years at least if that's how they plan to switch from old to new. Decimal day back in 1971 showed how to do it. The only way. Do the switch as cleanly as possible and don't have dual markings up for longer than a few months. Then bin the old stuff totally and never mention them again.

    This horse-racing thing is only being rolled out at three racecourses. How man are doing nothing? Just about all of them.

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  10. Wild Bill says:

    Ian Robinson says: "It is not only the use of Imperial Terms causing embarrassment but also, in the case of BBC Sport’s Athletics Commentators who consistently used metric terms INCORRECTLY, for example, when quoting a jump of 6.25 m (Six point two five metres) they expressed this as Six metres AND twenty five centimetres, TOTALLY INCORRECT and VERY disappointing when representing UK’s national broadcaster. "

    Oh - come on! Don't be so picky! If you want people to do metric, learn some basic headology (as Terry Pratchett would say). 6 metres 25 centimetres isn't actually wrong, it's just maybe not canonical. But if you jump on people for such trivia you'll drive them back to feet and inches.

    What we need the BBC to stop doing was that ridiculous Colin Jackson video insert in the evening Olympics show a couple of days back where he told us great stuff about the technicalities of the high jump and finished with words to the effect of ",,and the women can high jump the height of an interior door in your house - that's 6ft 6in! And as for the men, they can jump ceiling height - that's about 8ft!"

    Next shot was our high jump guy (Robert Grabarz) lining up for an attempt at 2.25m

    Says it all, really. Some idiot scriptwriter at the BBC needs to be fired for that.
    I wonder how many complaints the BBC got for it? Probably about none.

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  11. Peter K says:

    Might I suggest another myth ... "People fear change".

    So long as a change is seen to be an improvement, then people not only don't fear change, they desire it. People crave new and better things. One has only to observe how the latest mobile phones and other technology are embraced by a public eager for the latest improvements. This was also the case with decimalisation in 1971. My memories of the event were that it was an exciting time, and people were keen to see the coins and postage stamps of the future.

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  12. WJG says:

    I don't think the sayings "people fear change" or "people dislike change" are myths. They are real to the people that believe them. However change does not occur by logic or technical improvements alone. That is change by the head (logic). The heart (our feelings) also govern change.
    "People change because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings, not because they were given endless amounts of logical data. When changing behavior, both thinking and feeling are essential. Highly successful organizations know how to overcome antibodies that reject anything new. But first, a process of change must happen that uses both the head and the heart".
    Most people who stubbornly cling to Imperial measurements often see the logic of metric measures but their heart remains with Imperial measures.

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  13. Bob says:

    To John Steele:
    >"The current FPLA does not permit metric-only, the UPLR does."

    I know.

    >"I don’t agree there is a myth traders can do whatever they want, but there may be some confusion on requirements."

    Yes, there's confusion. Perhaps it's better to express it as popular misconception and spin rather than myth. The case against metrication sometimes includes phrases like: "The Metric System has always been imposed" and "government imposed metric units". It spins the debate as a choice between a coercion and freedom. That's a false choice because taxpayer funds and coercion also apply to non-metric units.

    That's all I meant.

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  14. John Steele says:

    @Bob

    Agreed. The FPLA originally took effect in 1966 and required only Customary units (although supplemental was allowed). It was amended in 1992 to require metric as well beginning 1994. 18 years of dual has not done a very good job of teaching metric. I think "dual" can only work if people know there is a cutoff date to one of the units.

    In the US, the Constitution charges Congress with fixing the system of weights and measures (they delegate the details to Dept. of Commerce and NIST, who are more qualified). Saying metric is the preferred system, but then saying it must be "voluntary" is equivalent to saying, We don't care about our responsibilities, Do whatever you like." They need to "man up" and fix the system of weights and measures. They are shirking their Constitutional duty.

    The lack of will by the responsible government bodies is common to the US and UK, even if there are minor differences in the details.

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  15. Ezra Steinberg says:

    I'm happy to hear that the BBC has mostly done quite well in terms of reporting in metric during the Olympic Games.

    The World Service also normally does quite well in that it addresses an international audience. However, last night I was listening to World Update (as I normally do) and was surprised to hear an Indian reporter speaking from India about a bus that fell into a ravine and saying that the bus fell "300 feet".

    Locally, of course, the fall would have been given as something close to 100 meters. Furthermore, I understand only here in the States do you typically hear distances given in "feet" as opposed to "yards". So, why on earth would an Indian reporter speaking from India for the BBC World Service use "feet"?

    Anyone care to venture an hypothesis? Seems awfully strange to me. (Note that the rest of the World Service broadcast was 100% metric.)

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  16. Mark Preston says:

    I can't remember reading comments on this document before but it makes such interesting reading and shows that a) the government acknowledges a problem with the current muddle and b) sees the need to do something about it.

    The document I refer to is this - http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/nmo/docs/nms/nms-strategy-document.pdf - the BIS strategy document for 2011-2015.

    In summary

    - the forward, by David Willetts MP states "The UK can rightly be proud of the advances in measurement science made over the centuries, with inspiration from as long ago as 1215 when the Magna Carta decreed that "There shall be but
    one measure throughout the Realm......”" (we don't have one measure sadly)

    - he goes on to add "the Measurement System is a vital foundation of a modern developed economy"

    - he concluded with ", the national investment in measurement science will therefore be exploited to the benefit of UK business and the citizen, to generate new knowledge, promote growth and innovation, and address key societal challenges"

    - the document goes on to state "Measurement underpins the welfare of a modern society by supporting trade, regulation,manufacturing and consumer protection", which is an acknowledgement that measurement is no minor issue

    - the NMO's mission statement is "“To provide policy support to Ministers on measurement issues and a measurement infrastructure which enables innovation, promotes trade and facilitates fair competition and the protection of
    consumers, health and the environment"

    - it goes onto talk about the UK leading the way in working with CGPM on defining and redefining SI measures, in fact we are spearheaded much of them work which kinda says this is no foreign system but one the UK is at the heart of

    - further on it talks of how measurement is key in assisting consumers in making their purchasing decisions

    - later it talks of manufacturing in the UK and it's importance to the economy now and in the future (remember the current government wants more private sector and therefore stronger manufacturing) and how measurement is critical to that sector

    - it also talks about the importance of measurement in terms of energy efficiency and carbon reduction, again a huge priority

    - similarly it talks of how measurement is crucial to the digital age

    - get this "There is evidence that measurement skills have declined in the UK workforce. Surveys of companies have highlighted the lack of formal measurement training included in current academic and vocational qualifications" now if that's not a damning comment I don't know what is

    - some figures to add into the mix are then quoted "Each year in the UK, around £340 billion worth of goods are sold on the basis of the measurement of their quantity (around £210 billion of this is controlled by weights & measures legislation and £130 billion by gas & electricity legislation), equating to over £6 billion a week. In addition to this, goods worth around £280 billion per annum are weighed/measured at the industrial/business-to-business level.

    - I will finish with this statement "A single comparable system of measurement standards is necessary for the proper functioning of the economy"

    There is more but you get the gist. So there you have it - there is a recognition from government and the NMO that measurement systems are vital to the well-being of this country and will become more so and are fundamental to society. Furthermore, the UK is leading the way in developing the SI and is a major player in setting international standards. The document makes clear that the UK requires a clear single system of measurement and that currently measurement skills within the UK workforce are substandard. I think the document couldn't be clearer.

    In that case what is this government doing to support this strategy?
    Scrapping supplementary measurements? NO.
    Converting our road signs? NO.
    Clamping down on the sale of goods in square yards, pounds and square feet? NO.
    Encouraging use of metric in the media? NO.
    Taking away dual unit measuring devices from the market? NO.
    Amending existing legislation to cover advertising? NO.
    Insisting the public sector uses metric only? NO ........

    I think a copy of the strategy should be sent to David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband and their thoughts on it sought !!

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  17. Han Maenen says:

    d. Fahrenheit 'who was not very bright it seems'- I feel compelled to come to his defense as a person and scientist, even though I reject his scale. In his time this scale kickstarted the standardization of thermometric measurement. Fahrenheit invented the mercury in glass thermometer. In 1724 he joined the British Royal Society; a person who was not bright would never be admitted to this institution. Fahrenheit published in RS's Philosophical Transactions and he made two important discoveries: in 1721 he discovered the phenomenon of supercooled water and in 1724 he found that the boiling point of water depends on the surrounding atmospheric pressure.
    When Celsius devised his scale, he used the mercury in glass thermometer that was invented by Fahrenheit. To me, in consecutive order, Fahrenheit, Celsius and Kelvin have done most for thermometric measurement. Fahrenheit lived in The Netherlands for years and he died in 1736 in The Hague. The Netherlands used his scale, which withered away during the first half of the twentieth century.

    i. Some years ago I was on an open day of the Dutch Navy, and found that it uses metric as much as possible. The instruments on their helicopers were metric, except for speed (nm) and altitude (feet). On a ship I saw a fathommeter that had three settings, fathoms, feet qand metres. It was set to fathom depths in metres.
    In Ireland I saw this distance sign to a small village: 'Inch 4 km'!

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  18. BrianAC says:

    @Mark Preston
    Nice link there.
    This makes me feel quite sick. What we have then is a 'National Measurement System (NMS)', I guess a take on the US customary system, which in good British compromise is, and will remain, a mish-mash of mixed measurement muddles brought together as ONE SYSTEM called the NMS. The word 'metric' is not mentioned even once in the whole document, although it labours the reference to SI units and how Britain is leading the world in measurement standards (but not using them). This NMS then satifies the requirements of the Magna Carta and all other criteria by giving us 'one and only one' measuring system.
    Please, please, someone tell me I have got this stupidly wrong.

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  19. michduncg says:

    BrianAC - I don't think that a hybrid system has been established under the NMS. There is a National Measurement Office under the Dept for Business and Innovations and Skills. Here is a quote from their website:

    Local standards in the UK

    " The assessment of weight or measure is an essential element in the process of commerce. Standardisation of those weights and measures is the duty of every Government across the globe. Every assessment of weight or measure from the informal to international contracts relies on a common understanding of a reference point and unit of measurement.

    In the UK today the primary units of measurement are clearly defined and are accepted across the world. However, the dissemination of those units from the "perfect" kilogram held in Paris or the "perfect" metre defined by the use of a specified laser down to the measures used in trade transactions has posed questions of Government for as long as standards have existed."

    So there is some mention of metric... but you have to really look for it!

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  20. greg says:

    You only have to read wikipaedia on this issue to get a real sense of what I have felt all along: That the myth of the inherent foreignness and 'bad otherness' of the metric system and its cultural unacceptability stems to a degree from hypocritical small-minded petty politics: As soon as it was brought into force by head-chopping radical revolutionary forces in Paris in the wake of the bloody French revolution, this tended to turn off the 'conservative' British establishment who under its constitutional monarchy was always reluctant to welcome this French initiative with open arms because it resented the tone of its stamp of approval by French radicality. Brussels in Eurosceptics' eyes seems to be part of the struggle for French cultural hegemony at the heart of Europe and in the light of a certain Anglo-French rivalry is seen as a no-go area for the British establishment.

    My gripe is that agencies since the 1970s such as the media and politicians preferred the above line because they could exploit fear and insecurity and therefore sell papers and avoid losing votes. Yet the more honest, historically and scientifically accurate line to take would have been to take cultural ownership of the issue and say "Look, this isn't just a French thing, Britain took the lead in the Enlightenment, and the metric system is but one outcome of that" Alas the British public are not being taught history properly.

    All the same, I wonder how we would feel had it been the Scots imposing their gallons and pounds on the English and not the other way round......

    "When James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne in 1603, England and Scotland had different systems of measure. Superficially the English and the Scots units of measure were similar – many had the same names – but there were differences in their sizes: in particular the Scots pint and gallon were more than twice the size of their English counterparts.[1] In 1707, under the Act of Union, the Parliaments of England and Scotland were merged and the English units of measurement became the standard for the whole new Kingdom of Great Britain. However, the practical effect of this was that both systems were used in Scotland, and the Scottish measures remained in common use until the Weights and Measures Act 1824 outlawed them.[2]

    This period marked the Age of enlightenment, when people started using the power of reason to reform society and advance knowledge. Britons played their role in the realm of measurement, laying down practical and philosophical foundations for a decimal system of measurement which were ultimately to provide the building blocks of the metric system.

    Having difficulties in communicating with German scientists, the British inventor James Watt, in 1783, called for the creation of a global decimal measurement system.[6] A letter of invitation, in 1790, from the French National Assembly to the British Parliament to help create such a system using the length of a pendulum (as proposed by Wilkins) as the base unit of length received the support of the British Parliament, championed by John Riggs Miller, but when the French overthrew their monarchy and decided to use the meridional definition of the metre as their base unit, Britain withdrew support.[7] The French continued alone and created the foundations of what is now called the Système International d'Unités and is the measurement system for most of the world.

    In 1799, the French adopted the metre and the kilogram......" And so the mess began.

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  21. Ezra Steinberg says:

    I note in the quote from Wikipedia by greg@ the following:

    "In 1707, under the Act of Union, the Parliaments of England and Scotland were merged and the English units of measurement became the standard for the whole new Kingdom of Great Britain. However, the practical effect of this was that both [the Scottish and English] systems were used in Scotland, and the Scottish measures remained in common use until the Weights and Measures Act 1824 outlawed them."

    So, Scotland had its own "muddle" until the old measures were outlawed! What does this say then about what the current UK government should about the legal status of Imperial units?

    In any case the government need not even go that far. Simply replacing road signs and strongly encouraging the BBC and other media outlets to drop Imperial in their stories and broadcasts would suffice to quickly banish Imperial from the scene.

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  22. BrianAC says:

    Another "Metric Myth" exploded with the latest BBC article on food labelling.
    Whenever the Imperial luddites oppose metric, every opportunity is taken to show "Britishness" (however false) and "It’s French" or "It’s the EU forcing it on us" to oppose the change.
    Well, now we have this Calorie v Joule debate.

    The Calorie is 100% metric, 100% French and now 100% EU.

    The Joule originated from the foot pound, being metricated because there were (and are not, never has been and never will be) any Imperial units for electricity. Joule was an Englishman and the Joule is 100% English.

    So where then is this great feeling of "Britishness", falling over ourselves to use the English Joule?
    Why is the BBC hanging on to this dreaded French unit? Why did the Which? organisation lobby the government to oppose the use of the 100% English unit over the French one?
    Where are the luddites on this one?

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