Then there were two

We ask if it is time for supporters of so-called British weights and measures to come to terms with the fact that only two systems of weights and measures are recognised world wide, and British aka Imperial is not one of them.

One of our supporters has written as follows:

“Very disappointed and disgusted that David Attenborough seems to have reverted to imperial in Planet Earth 2.  I can forgive the occasional mile or mph since that is what still appears on road signs in the UK, but last night’s “Deserts” episode had feet, ounce, inch and – incredibly – 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  How hot is that?  I thought this was supposed to be a serious quasi-scientific documentary. No other serious programme still uses the F word, so why has he reverted?  Has it been dumbed down for the American market?”

Perhaps the use of Fahrenheit gives the game away.  The choice of measures in Planet Earth 2 only makes sense if they are viewed as US Customary (USC). The use of pounds not stones for body weights also points to a script deliberately written in USC.

Sixty years ago, things were very different. The US had become the leader of the free world, as the Soviet Union had disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. But around a fifth of the world’s population lived in the British Empire and most of them used Imperial measures for everyday purposes. Meanwhile, China was struggling to recover from WW2 and the communist takeover.

For a moment, it seemed as if the US and UK might be able to agree on a common measurement system which might have been a rival to metric. There was agreement, for example, on the definition of the foot (0.3048 m) and on a unified system of screw threads. One of our frequent contributors, BrianAC, commented on Metric Views on 3 March:

“After WW2, USA, assisted by the UK empire, took most of the world into the imperial hotchpotch non-system, and it really was most of the world. (I will even allow a bonus by saying the whole world if we include car wheels and pipe threads).”

But it was not to be. The US and the UK went their separate ways. BrianAC continued:

“Despite almost total world dominance, the world changed, it moved away from the imperial and towards the metric, the system now used and understood by the vast majority of the world’s people. The only ones not familiar are those who choose not to attempt to change.”

A key event was the decision by India in 1960 to adopt the metric system.

So where does this leave Imperial measures today? No longer used in the Empire, it is a safe to say.

The mile, yard, foot and inch, found on many UK road signs, are identical to their USC counterparts. So no problem there for the producers of Planet Earth 2. The troy ounce, used in dealing in precious metals, is also the same in both systems. But the Imperial pint, the only other unit authorised for use in trade in the UK, differs significantly from the US pint. There are also other measures used in conversation, though not legally in trade, that differ including, to name a few, the ton, the hundredweight, the gallon, the quart, and the fluid ounce (16 to a pint in the USA, 20 in the UK).

The US clearly continues to have much, if declining, influence in world markets, the use of inches for TV screens, monitors, lap tops, tablets and digital camera screens being one example. But the UK? The example of Planet Earth 2 shows that if the measurements are the same in both Imperial and USC, then they might continue to be acceptable worldwide. But where they differ, USC will be understood by default, leaving the way open to confusion. On occasions perhaps, Imperial will be seen as a historical curiosity. Like thatched cottages, Beefeaters and the US tourist’s pint in a Victorian pub.

And the Prime Minister’s “Global Britain”. Unless she sees us as a satellite of the USA, then it will have to be a global metric Britain: two hundred potential trading partners rather than two or perhaps three.

 

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9 Responses to Then there were two

  1. BrianAC says:

    One of the saddest things about Planet Earth 2 for me is that it has taken David Attenborough from a life long hero, to a rather sad, un-watchable zero. To abandon his UK fans, and his own principles, presumably for financial and / or world wide media fame is in-forgiveable. Some years back he was using pretty much all metric, he said he wanted to keep up with the advancing world. As much as the anti metric swing annoys me, re-watching (a little of) Planet Earth Two reminded me of the worst aspect, that awful music with everything. In a programme of his life on BBC he was totally aghast at use of music in nature, and all but vowed he would never use it.
    Contrast that with the BBC 2 programme of Steve Backshall (not a favourite of mine) in New Guinea which was an all metric, totally natural commentary which was much easier to follow.

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  2. Martin Vlietstra says:

    English is the universal language in business as is the metric system. A "Global Britain" already has an advantage of English being the country's mother tongue, but if the metric system is not fully embraced, the advantage of being fluent in English will be lost.

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  3. derekp says:

    From this week's Radio Times, p. 6:
    "The next nature blockbuster
    David Attenborough's Planet Earth ll has conquered the US, too: episode one was the most-watched nature programme among 25- to 54-year olds in the past five years."
    Ominously, RT continues,
    "... the BBC will revisit the deep ocean in a sequel to 2001 hit Blue Planet ..."
    So ignore the lack of symmetry (US programmes are imported into the UK unchanged but BBC 'blockbusters' are now scripted in USC), and start brushing up on Fahrenheit.

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  4. BrianAC says:

    @ derekp says: 2017-03-18 at 11:28
    "From this week's Radio Times, p. 6:"
    I am not sure if that is a thumbs up or a thumbs down comment!

    It certainly confirms my suspicion that the BBC is more interested in the "Atlantic Bridge" than the UK viewers. It also justifies my previous beliefs of USC creep in UK, not that that is altogether a bad thing as it will bring home to the 'less well informed' that the two non-systems are not the same thing, and going imperial will not help our exports to the USA one little bit.
    As neither imperial nor USC are fit for purpose then having a bit more mix and match, muddled measures may well be to the advantage of metric advancement .

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  5. BrianAC says:

    By pure coincidence, today I was de-canting some 'Baylis & Harding' 'England', luxury hand wash.
    I notice the volume is quoted as " Net vol 500mL (E mark) 16.9 FL. OZ. U.S. ".
    So another example of supplementary units of measure on a UK (English) product being USC and not imperial measure.
    As my previous post above, it weakens the case for "British measures for British people", dual labeling will be for the US market, not the UK market.

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  6. Ezra Steinerg says:

    It is indeed so sad that the USA, which should be a world leader but is becoming less so by the day, has not "given an inch" (shall we say) when it comes to metric in visible, everyday public usage (as opposed to science, engineering, medicine, manufacturing, etc. most of which remains "hidden metric" to the man or woman on the street)

    Quite coincidentally I got a very sharp lesson in this just today while listening to the BBC World Service (as I do quite regularly given the sad state of most American media). Several scientists were discussing the Bronze Age and its technology all over the world. Among these was one lone American scientist.

    I must confess I was both surprised (though sadly I should not be) and chagrined to hear the American describe certain bronze artifacts and the raw supplies used to make them using USC whereas all the other scientists (including one Chinese and one British fellow) stuck exclusively to metric.

    It really highlighted to me how much the USA is an outlier when it comes to units of measurement. Even given their respective metric muddles in the UK and Canada, it is clear that theoe countries are nonetheless "miles ahead" (there I go again!) of the USA.

    As one might comment about the USA's deliberate ignoring of the rest of the metric world: "Sic transit stupiditas!"

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  7. Kevin Hammond says:

    I wrote a complaint to the BBC about this, but got a rambling reply about how they need to appeal to people of all ages.

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  8. Bob says:

    It has just struck me that the official BBC responses never mention selling programmes to a US market. I wonder why.

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  9. John Steele says:

    The media might be slightly over-hyping "most-watched nature programme." I did some research on viewer numbers. In the UK, Planet Earth II netted around 12 million viewers, ahead of "Strictly Come Dancing."

    In the US, Planet Earth II, while heavily viewed for a nature program, drew 2.7 million live viewers (about 51% higher for Live+3 to account for DVRs, streaming services, etc), while Dancing With The Stars drew around 12 million (both based on much larger audience populations, but also many more program choices).

    There may be more to BBC's decision-making process than disrespecting 12 million UK viewers to pick up 2.7 million incremental US viewers. Also, viewers watching this type of programming in the US are probably more likely to be able to handle metric than the general populace. The BBC may have too many BWMA and ARM members, or at least are listening to them too much.

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