The series of four articles on the outcome of the EU referendum continues with a look at how the current measurement muddle came about.
Britain is no stranger to the benefits of both a single system of measures and an international one. Problems came with reconciling the two when the British Empire declined and with it the use of its measurement system for international trade.
Further back in history, during the Roman occupation, 43 to 410 AD, Britain was part of a common market that extended from the Middle East to the Atlantic, including North Africa, the Balkans and much of Western Europe, and that used a single measurement system, some of whose units are with us today in particular the pound and the mile. And in the Middle Ages, English rulers supported with varying degrees of success a single system of measures, in particular King Edgar who decreed in AD 965 that “Only one weight and one measure shall pass through the King’s dominions”, and the Barons who in 1215 inserted a similar wording into Magna Carta.
Although British scientists contributed significantly to the development of the metric system in the nineteenth century, formulating units for electricity, energy and power, it was not until 1898 that metric became legal for all purposes – 32 years after the USA, but better late than never!
Progress with the adoption of metric measures in the UK in the first half of the twentieth century was slow, but a significant step occurred in 1939 when the Ordnance Survey, the Government mapping agency, began the changeover to metric scales. However, in 1965, the Government signalled in a reply to a Parliamentary question that the changeover in industry should begin in earnest. It noted that half of Britain’s exports were to metric countries and that proportion was likely to increase. It added that it hoped “that within ten years the greater part of the country’s industry would have effected the change.”
From then on progress was swift. Pharmacies, for example, went metric in March 1969 and liquid medicines came with a 5 mL spoon. The construction industry began planning the changeover in 1967, standards began to appear in 1968, metric projects first hit the drawing boards in 1969, and the changeover was substantially complete in 1975. The Government quickly realised that the change affected not just industry, but the whole economy, and in 1969 the UK Metrication Board was created to provide co-ordination. The introduction of decimal currency in 1971, supported by a widespread government publicity campaign, simplified the teaching of arithmetic in schools, and in 1974 primary schools dropped the conversions that were a feature of the Imperial measurement system. The UK was also able to adopt directly SI, the modern version of the metric system, one of the first countries in the world to do so.
There was, however, an early indication of trouble ahead. A provisional date of 1973 for the conversion of road traffic signs had been proposed by the Metrication Board, but as the date approached it was confirmed that the project had been postponed and that “the Government had no other date in mind.”
Elsewhere, the changeover continued steadily through the 1970s, a significant step being the move from rational Imperial to rational metric packaging for household staples such as tea, sugar and flour. By 1978, voluntary conversion had almost run its course, and it was time for the Government to bite the bullet, and require the use of metric measures for foods such as green groceries, meat and fish. With an election in the offing, this decision, like that for road traffic signs, was postponed, and in 1979 the new Government dropped all plans for an orderly changeover and abolished the Metrication Board.
For the next fifteen years, progress continued if slowly, for example petrol pumps went metric during the early 1980s as the price of fuel approached £1.99 / Imperial gallon. In the UK’s automotive industry, several companies went bust or were taken over by foreign car makers, thereby eliminating pound-inch units. However, much of UK economic activity remained resolutely Imperial. This was not so elsewhere in the world, and many Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, Bangladesh, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, and South Africa pushed on with and completed the changeover. By the turn of the century, around 90% of the UK’s trade was with metric countries. Canada like the UK allowed the process to stall, but unlike the UK changed its road signs but not its construction industry, illustrating the random nature of partial metrication.
Readers who have reached this far may have noticed the absence of any link between the UK’s metric changeover and its membership of the European Economic Community. This would change in 1995, and will be the subject of the next article in this series.