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.