The Long Goodbye after High Noon

MV looks at the global decline of “Anglo-Saxon measures”, from dominance in 1945 to insignificance today, and draws some conclusions.

In his book* “The measure of all things” Ken Alder writes:

“As late as the 1950s, visitors to a science museum in Paris were warned that the Anglo-Saxon measures were about to ‘implant themselves’ in France.”

With hindsight, this view seems absurd, even allowing for French chauvinism. Today, Asian economic superpowers like China, India, Japan and South Korea together with most Commonwealth countries, including Australia and South Africa, are now firmly in the metric club. Indeed between 1945 and 1970, around twenty-five countries announced their intention to make metric their primary system of measurement, replacing their own customary measures or the imperial system.

In 1945, the position was very different. Of the victorious allies in the West, the USSR had been a latecomer to the metric party – at the start of the Second World War it was less than 20 years into its metric transition. The US, Canada and Britain were still pound-inch. On the losing side, Germany and Italy had been metric since the nineteenth century. And in the Far East, China and Japan retained customary measures going back many centuries. Indeed, metric usage in Asia was confined to former Dutch, French and Portuguese colonies.

So, Anglo-Saxon measures changed from ‘hero to almost zero’ in half a century. What does this tell us? Readers may wish to make their own suggestions. We have three:

1. People can be persuaded to abandon the old and the familiar in favour of a measurement system that is simple, logical and promises to be universal.

2. If Anglo-Saxon measures could not advance in the favourable circumstances of 1945, what chance do they have now? Clearly, none at all. Decline into obscurity is inevitable. The only question is: how long will it take?

3. The choice for the UK is not between Anglo-Saxon and metric measures but between a multi-system muddle and metric – multi-system muddle because the US and UK can not agree on a common version of their customary systems and both use metric to a greater or lesser extent.

And the cost of a multi-system muddle? Perhaps that is a subject for future discussion on Metric Views.

With apologies to cinema buffs who have looked in vain for references to the work of Robert Altman and Fred Zinnemann.

*”The measure of all things. The seven-year odyssey that transformed the world.” by Ken Alder. Paperback edition published in the UK in 2004 by Abacus. The quote appears on page 343.

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6 Responses to The Long Goodbye after High Noon

  1. Martin Clutterbuck says:

    Not only have Anglo-Saxon measures changed from ‘hero to almost zero’ in half a century, but also the standards that are enabled by this fundamental change.

    Take nuts and bolts - there used to be Whitworth and BA (British Association) threads in this country.

    They were then superseded by Unified Coarse (UNC) and Unified Fine (UNF). These were an attempt, I believe, to align US and UK standards. Indeed, I remember the UK car industry using these threads in the 1960s.

    The change to metric has meant a reduction in the number of thread sizes, there being only one standard, neither 'fine' or 'coarse'. This meant a reduction in the number of tools needed. For the average car, for example, only a 10, 13 and 17 mm socket or spanner is needed. The resulting reduction in costs being far greater for the manufacturers than the motorist needing a smaller tool set however!

    The simple range of sizes was based on good German DIN standards. Unfortunately, the Japanese have used intermediate sizes along with the cycle industry but that does not undermine the value that a totally metric-based standard has brought about.

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  2. Han Maenen says:

    I found this 19th century American anti-metric song:

    They bid us change the ancient “names,”
    The “seasons” and the “times,”
    And for our measures go abroad
    To strange and distant climes.
    But we’ll abide by things long dear,
    And cling to things of yore,
    For the Anglo-Saxon race shall rule
    The earth from shore to shore.
    Then down with every “metric” scheme
    Taught by the foreign school.
    We’ll worship still our Father’s God!
    And keep our Father’s “rule”!
    A perfect inch, a perfect pint,
    The Anglo’s honest pound,
    Shall hold their place upon the earth,
    Till Time’s last trump shall sound!
    Then swell the chorus heartily,
    Let every Saxon sing:
    “A pint’s a pound the world around,”
    Till all the earth shall ring,
    “A pint’s a pound the world around”
    For rich and poor the same:
    Just measure and a perfect weight
    Called by their ancient name!

    Personally, I think that we are not out of the woods yet. One example: in 1978, the year in which the EU officially adopted SI, I found a glossy magazine: 'Limburg International Magazine' in the library. I assumed that it would use the English language and the metric system. I have grown up in this Dutch province. When I opened it, I encountered a Limburg that was utterly alien to me as, to my disgust, this magazine used Anglo-Saxon units exclusively! This was supposed to be 'international' I think. However, at least after about 18 months they saw the error of their ways and went metric. In other word, the magazine stopped aiding the effort of making 'a pint's a pound the world around'.

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  3. John Steele says:

    But the Imperial pint is 1 ¼ pounds. I suppose that would spoil the rhyme.
    The US pint pint is nearer 1 pound (1.042 lb).
    I suppose accuracy and precision are not the forte of the anti-metric.

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  4. Han Maenen says:

    I know that 'a pint's a pound the world around' is grossly incorrect. if the UK pint had 16 ounces, then the expression would have been true. The UK fl.oz is 28.35 mL of water. I wonder who ever came up with this.

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  5. derekp says:

    Ian Rae made this comment on UKMA's Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/UKMetric, in relation to a discussion about market traders, but it seems equally relevant here:

    "We've come so far in my lifetime and when the road signs are finally changed, the continued switch over in everyday life will happen naturally as younger people realise the benefit of living in a metric world. You only have to visit countries like Australia to see this. Thankfully, there are only two or three other countries left mired in the past. International trade and power balance should eventually see them switch too."

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  6. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Han is right. The imperial gallon was defined as 10 lbs (160 oz) water (at some specified temperature), hence the exact relationship.
    There is nothing strange about 16 fluid ounces in a US pint (473 ml) and 20 (different) fluid ounces in a UK pint (568 ml). The Parisian pint (48 cubic [French] inches) was 952 ml and the Scots pint (16 gills) was 1696 ml.
    Two centuries about such oddities were the norm – the stone had an even wider range of values example in Amsterdam and in Antwerp the stone (steen) was 8 (local) pounds (pond), while in Danzig and Königsberg the [large] stone (grosser Stein) was 33(local) pounds (pfund). (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_(unit) ).
    The French Revolutionaries realised that this was an impediment to trade which was one of the reasons for the introduction of the metric system. This was also the reason why the Netherlands (which had become a single country instead of a collection of quasi-independent states) reintroduced the metric system in 1817 and why the metric system was adopted by both Germany and Italy when those countries were formed in 1871. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_metric_system)

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