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.