Metric Malta

Malta is one of four EU countries which, within living memory, did not have metric as their primary system of measures. A recent holiday in Malta prompted a look at its transition to the metric system from traditional measures.

The principle that “there be one measure” is not unique to England post Magna Carta. It was adopted, for example, by the Ottoman Empire, by the Kingdom of Great Britain created by the Act of Union in 1707, when Scotland was required to adopt English measures, by the USA, whose Constitution allocates responsibility for weights and measures to the Federal Government, and by the EEC which legislated in the 1960’s for the use of metric measures – the system common to all its members at that time. The impact on potential new members should have been minimal – all were already metric or, in the case of Cyprus, Malta, the Republic of Ireland and the UK, already planning the transition.

The UK’s prolonged and continuing story of its adoption of metric measures has been covered by recent posts on Metric Views. We also reported on Cyprus in June 2008, and on the Republic of Ireland in June 2012.

A recent holiday in Malta and Gozo has enabled us to complete the picture. But do not expect a long article, for during a week on the islands, we found no example of the use, present or past, of Imperial measures (that is, if you overlook  the consequences of globalisation such as tyre and TV screen sizes).

The situation in Malta is not straightforward since the traditional measures in the islands date back to Arab rule in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The “Weights and Measures Ordinance” of 1921 established uniformity in the conversion of these traditional measures. All were defined as multiples of Imperial units.

It is difficult to ascertain when the transition to metric in Malta began in earnest. It achieved independence in 1964 and adopted decimal currency in 1972, around the same time as the UK. A Berlitz guide book, published in 1980, says “metric weights and measures are familiar to young people (taught in schools), but far less so to many people over 35.” Accordingly, it seems likely that the Malta commenced metrication in the mid-sixties, at about the same time as the UK. Whatever the start date, the practical completion date is clearly long gone.

As you would expect, there is plenty of evidence of the former British administration, which lasted from 1800 until 1964. Cast iron pillar boxes and the iconic phone boxes designed by Giles Gilbert Scott are common, traffic drives on the left, electrical sockets are 13 amp square pin and, despite air temperatures in the thirties, the drains in Valletta did not smell!

Xewkija, Gozo

Xewkija, Gozo

Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

However, the famous yellow Malta buses have largely disappeared. The Lonely Planet Guide of 2013 says:

“Big yellow buses
Malta’s old buses were a tourist attraction in themselves. … They were run as independent businesses by their drivers … You will spot the occasional old bus on the road: the classic Bedfords, Thames, Leylands and AECs dating from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, painted yellow, white and orange …”

This year, we saw none of the old yellow buses but many representatives of the new fleet of the Arriva Malta Bus system. This comprises 172 buses from the Chinese King Long Company and a few articulated vehicles from Mercedes.

Regular readers of Metric Views are unlikely to be surprised by the disappearance of either of these Imperial icons, the measurement units or British buses.

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6 Responses to Metric Malta

  1. Lee Kelly says:

    To be honest I have a feeling that the United States will become fully metric before we do, after all we tend to follow not lead these days.

  2. Jake says:

    So Malta has retained many if not most of the appendages of British culture, tradition and technology that makes it so beloved of British tourists, while fully embracing modernism and modern units of measurement. There is no reason to think that completing the switch to metric units in Britain would mean the end of British culture and tradition either.

  3. Charlie P says:

    The point isn't whether completing the switch to metric units in Britain would mean the end of British culture and tradition, it is whether that change should be forced - with all the inherent risks to our economy and well-being that that would bring - or whether it should be left to the natural forces that will inevitably change it eventually anyway.

    So far, no evidence or rational reasons for pursuing the "force it" approach have come to light; here (despite my many requests for them) or anywhere. The impatience of those who would prefer to see an all-metric UK for dogmatic reasons is not a rational reason to force the change.

  4. Daniel says:

    @ Jake:

    I have never heard of a country that has lost its identity from metrication. Does anyone in Britain lament the loss of British culture to the adoption of American culture? Britain is infused with immigrants who bring their own culture that either displaces or merges with British culture. This for sure has a noticeable effect. Why aren't these examples being resisted? Maybe because if there was a reaction to the infusion of foreign culture into the UK, there would be a heated battle and the resistance would lose.

  5. Jake says:

    @ Charlie P

    All weights and measures legislation is 'forced' if that is what you want to call the parliamentary process of adopting it and its enforcement by the relevant authorities. That was always the way when we were an all-Imperial nation. You were 'forced' to use Imperial units, just as I am 'forced' to relate to Imperial units on road signs when driving now. Decimalisation was 'forced' on the nation in the same way if you want to look at it like that. However, I can think of no 'natural forces' (as you call them) that will cause to metric units to appear on road signs in the future unless an argument is made to closing that missing link. Metric is the system of units taught in schools, for goodness sake. Why do we teach metric to our children and force them to confront Imperial units on the signs, often outside their very school gates. This is about the future of our country. From the article above it seems like Malta has got it right and we know that countries like Australia have too (I've been there and how refreshing it is not to have this constant juxtaposition of different prices depending on whether you are looking at the price per kg or the price per lb).

  6. Cliff says:

    @ Charlie P
    I'm sure you know that the SI method of measurement, unlike the imperial method, is a system. A set of interconnecting measurements working together to form a whole in the way that individual links form a chain. This structure is what makes it so elegant. If the system is compromised by non-systemic measurements it fails in the way that a chain fails if one of the links is weak. Something designed as a system needs to be used as a system or there's little point in using it. The present situation in the UK of picking and choosing whichever method one chooses means that nobody has the chance to use the SI method in the way it was intended to be used. Having 1609 metres in a mile is no smarter than having 5280 feet in a mile. There's no point in buying a Ferrari and having it pulled by a horse. Some things have to be forced, like speed limits or what side of the road to drive on. It's necessary to force a complete changeover to the SI method because without a complete changeover the present state of limbo will fester forever and the potential of a modern coordinated system of measurement will never be realised.


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