Who is still stubbornly clinging on to imperial units in the UK in 2016? Metric views takes stock.
There has been much talk in recent weeks of the UK becoming more “outward looking”, more open to the world. A new Secretary of State for International Trade has been appointed and a new Department is being set up. We hear of a push to develop new markets in India and China. But looking outward begins, not abroad, but at home, where there appears to be much work to be done.
Despite the huge progress made towards the full adoption of the metric system that began in earnest with an announcement in Parliament in 1965*, there are many parts of British life that remain stubbornly imperial and appear to be unaffected by moves to the metric system over the last half century. If you want to know where imperial lingers on, keep reading.
Small shopkeepers and market traders
Some small shopkeepers and market traders display prices of fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces, while weighing in kilos. Despite being dependent on the success of the wider economy, they tend to have a narrower focus, in particular making prices appear lower. Trading Standards Officers (TSOs) are reluctant to prosecute for fear of creating new metric (Imperial?) martyrs and receiving bad publicity.
Estate agents normally advertise land and properties in acres and square feet, unless targeting international markets. The property pages in the press tend to follow the lead of estate agents where measurements are concerned.
Department for Transport (DfT)
The DfT retains imperial or dual units for almost all road signs that display measurements. Imperial units are also used for most of the national rail network, but not the CTRL. The new ERTMS signalling system is also metric. Successive Transport Ministers have resisted metrication ever since plans for the metrication of road signs were postponed indefinitely in 1972.
The tabloid newspapers tend to use imperial units for most topics while other national newspapers use more metric units. There is still substantial imperial usage in most non-specialist media outlets, even for news from abroad. However, all use metric for science, Olympic sports, weather reports and cooking recipes. In these areas, metric rules.
The oil industry uses the oil barrel for pricing, oil field capacity, production and consumption. The gas industry uses cubic feet for gas field capacity, production and consumption. The precious metals industry uses troy ounces whereas the non-precious metals industry uses tonnes. Some food commodities are priced in tonnes while others are priced in pounds and bushels. See, for example, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business/market_data/commodities/default.stm.
The DIY sector makes extensive use of supplementary indications and imperial descriptions and also sells many dual-unit instruments.
The clothes industry uses inches for waist sizes, chest sizes and trouser lengths.
Football commentators almost always use yards to describe distances on the football pitch or features of the pitch such as the penalty area. It is extremely rare for them to use metres. I am, of course, talking about football commentators who communicate with a British audience. Football is truly international. Most countries where the game is played do not use yards or other imperial units.
Weighing scales and measuring tapes
Scales and tapes sold in the UK are predominantly dual. It is hard to find metric-only versions. If you want metric-only measurement instruments, make sure you ask your suppliers for them. They will only make and stock them if they know that there is a demand .
While the Ordnance Survey (OS) is exclusively metric and has been for several decades, commercial maps for the British market may be dual. You will be hard pressed to find a British map on sale that is metric-only, and scales such as 1:20 267 are not uncommon. The paradox is the most commercial maps are based on OS metric data.
Maritime shipping and aviation
The sea and air industry clings to imperial units because international agreements in place permit them. International agreements for the use of legacy units are the result of American dominance in these fields. The use of nautical miles and knots are the standard units for sea and air transport. Feet are used in many countries for altitude while some countries use metres for altitude. The UK Hydrographic Office, the world’s foremost provider of nautical charts, is now metric and uses metres for depth on new charts.
Computer monitor and TV retailers
While manufacturing is metric these days, computer monitor and television sizes are normally described at the point of sale in inches. The number of inches for screen size is based on the diagonal length from one corner to the opposite corner. This practice seems to be common around the world, although the ISO standard on which it is based is metric.
Fast food, US style
Pizza sizes are almost always described in inches based on their diameter, while rolls in Subway are described by their length, again in inches. And then there is the quarterpounder beef burger.
Weight loss and dieting
The weight loss and dieting industry uses stones and pounds to describe body weight and uses feet and inches to describe body height. This reflects popular public usage of personal weight and height. Despite the fact that Body Mass Index (BMI) is based on calculations of weight and height in metric units, the weight loss and dieting industry tends to reflect common usage. Once the would-be loser of weight moves into the gym, he or she is likely to encounter equipment calibrated in metric.
Government communications and the Police
Despite the fact that metric units have been taught in British schools for the last four decades and that the government works internally in metric units, the government still often communicates with the public in imperial units. The National Health Service is a classic example of this; it records patients’ weight in kilograms but often converts to imperial units when this information is passed on to the patient. The police always use feet and inches to describe a suspect’s height when appealing to the public for information.
Car marketing and sales
Car reviews and advertising use many imperial units (e.g. miles per gallon, miles on the clock, miles for warranty purposes, mph for speed and acceleration, horsepower, etc.). Although some metric units are used (e.g. litres and cubic centimetres, g/km for emission levels), most car features are quoted in imperial units, no doubt strongly influenced by the use of imperial units on official road signs.
British horse racing uses miles, furlongs and yards to describe the distance of horse races. For horse trials, also known as eventing, metres are used.
Most main own-brand milk sold in British supermarkets is sold in pint-based sizes while most other brands of milk are sold in litre-based sizes.
Some Councils still use square poles to describe the size of allotment plots. Surely, many in Britain would not recognise a square pole (area not object) if they saw one – it is about 25 square metres.
While official bodies work in metric units, farming still uses some of non-metric units such as acres.
Tyre pressures are commonly described in terms of pounds per square inch (psi), and tyre descriptions includes inches.
Any other areas?
What other areas of British life stubbornly stick to imperial units? And how many are due to American influence? Metric Views is interested to hear from readers about other hold-outs.
* Here is the beginning of the written reply by the President of the Board of Trade on 24 May 1965 to a Parliamentary question. Note the emphasis on the importance to British exports of the metric changeover.
‘The Government are impressed with the case which has been put to them by the representatives of industry for a wider use in British industry of the metric system of weights and measures. Countries using that system now take more than one-half of our exports; the total proportion of world trade conducted in terms of metric units will no doubt continue to increase. Against that background the Government consider it desirable that British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units, sector by sector, until that system can become the primary system of weights and measures of the country as a whole.’