Imperial left-overs in Australia

Although Australia is predominantly metric, there are still some pockets of imperial usage.  Ronnie C recently visited that country and has written this account of what he found.

I was on holiday in Australia in December 2013. While I was there, I took some photos of objects where imperial units continue to be used for specific purposes. There are not many areas of life where imperial units are still used as Australia is now predominantly metric.

The Australian retail clothes industry mostly uses inches for size descriptions, including belt sizes, trouser waist sizes and lengths and shirt sizes. Here are a few examples:

Trouser Sizes
Trouser Waist Size and Length
Shirt Size
Belt Size

Pizza sizes are also usually expressed in inches in Australia and so are television screen sizes. For example, I took this photo of a menu with pizzas when I was there though it is encouraging that the Australians exclusively use the modern joule for food energy even though much of the world still uses obsolete calories for this purpose:

Pizza Sizes and Food Energy Consumption

Some DIY product descriptions also uses imperial units, for example:

Drive expressed in inches
Weight expressed in ounces

A few inscriptions on plaques and in museums make occasional use of imperial units as shown below:

Museum_Spec Plaque_Desc_Compact

The plaque description appears to be an old one, hence the archaic spelling of jail as “gaol” and the use of feet. The model description lacks consistency in use of conversions; imperial gauge distance is used followed by metric conversion whereas operating pressure uses metric followed by imperial in brackets. The abbreviation “psi” stands for pounds per square inch.

During my two-week holiday in Australia, I found a few other isolated cases of the use of imperial units for the same purposes but these are the exception rather the rule, unlike the situation in the UK.

It seems that where inches are used in specific areas, this tends to follow industry standards (e.g. clothing, screen sizes), probably because of the influence of the US and UK, countries that are struggling to complete their transition to the metric system, though there is no logical reason why they cannot be expressed in centimetres.

I did not find any instances of the use of miles in Australia. Australians express distances in kilometres and speeds in kilometres per hour whereas the British, thanks to inertia at the DfT,  mostly use miles for distances and miles per hour for speeds.

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7 Responses to Imperial left-overs in Australia

  1. Michael Glass says:

    Generally, this posting is correct about imperial hangovers in Australia. However, shirt sizes are metric. The size of the shirt is measured by the size of the collar.

    Trousers vary. Jeans seem to be stubbornly inch based but other trousers have the waist measured in centimetres. Belts are usually dual marked.

    Advertising of rural land is in confusion. Sometimes it is in hectares, sometimes it is in acres. Much of the time both measurements are given, though they don't always tally. Commercial land seems to be all metric and suburban land is always given in square metres, though there are occasional references to distances in feet.

    Screen sizes vary. Television sets give both centimetres and inches but computer, tablet and phone screens are mostly just given in inches. I think it might be the same with photo sizes.

    Paper sizes, however, are metric. A4 is the standard size of a sheet of copy paper and the weight is expressed in grams per square metre.

    Personal weights are now in kilos, and while many people still think of their height in feet and inches, centimetres are steadily gaining ground. Ditto with new-born baby weights, where grams appear to be replacing pounds and ounces. The length of the baby, however, is in centimetres.

    All scales weigh by the gram and the kilo. All road signs are metric. All temperatures are in Celsius. The overwhelming majority of things for sale in the supermarket are just marked in metric weights. However, a few imported goods are dual marked.

    Curiously, it is not easy to get rid of the remaining use of imperial measures. Now that the metric change-over has been in place for more than 30 years there does not seem to be much appetite for going after the remaining anomalies. However, this may change in the next decade or so. Already, those aged in their mid-forties were never educated in the old measures, and when almost everyone has been using the metric system from childhood, many of the anomalies in usage may fall away.

  2. Lachlan Hunt says:

    When I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I only remember TV screens being measured in cm, and when I bought one around 2002 or so (CRT model), it was stated as being 51cm. It’s unfortunate that it now seems like inches are creeping back in with flat screen TVs.

  3. philh says:

    The late Pat Naughtin, an advisor to industry on metrication, did say that the Australian textile industry was one of the most reluctant to make the change.

    He put it down to their failure to use the mm instead of the cm. He found that they tried to use the cm in place of the inch and then subdivide it into halves and quarters making it seem awkward.

    I don't wish to spark yet another debate over the mm versus the cm, but I think he did have a point that if the changeover isn't handled properly it can lead to the kind of residual hangover seen by Ronnie.

  4. Martin Vlietstra says:

    While Pat was right to criticise the Australian textile industry for trying to divide the centimetre into halves and quarters, I think that he was wrong to criticise them for using centimetres – centimetres are the norm when using metric units in the clothing industry world-wide. The real fault lies in the textile industry failing to recognise that when sub-dividing the centimetre they should have worked in units of 5 mm, 2 mm or 1 mm.
    I recognise that this is one of the short-comings of the decimal system, but in 1790 the committee set up by the French Academie to investigate a reform of weights and measures debated the issue of a decimal versus a duo-decimal system. The committee, which included de Borda, Lagrange and Laplace (biographies at were of the opinion that weights and measures should use the same base as the system of counting and that faced with the choice of replacing a decimal system of counting with a duo-decimal system or living with the shortcomings of a decimal-based system of weights and measures. They chose the latter. (Ref: Tavernor, Robert (2007). Smoot's Ear: The Measure of Humanity. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12492-7.)

  5. John Steele says:

    The centimeter is too ingrained in certain uses to eliminate.

    I never convinced Pat, but I consider a reasonable rule to be:
    *If integer centimeter precision is acceptable, centimeters are acceptable
    *If the centimeter must be subdivided, use millimeters.

  6. philh says:

    I can quite understand the argument that cm is redundant but what I do think is cause for concern is the myth that it is not an SI unit.

    When those who believe this chip in to public discussion on metrication they tend to give ammunition to opponents of metrication, who use this to claim that SI is confusing.

  7. Grant Weatherstone says:

    Leave the Imperial system alone. It works for those who use it.


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