Recent comments on the value, or otherwise, of retaining historic or traditional measurements in daily use have prompted thoughts on the swift rise of the imperial system of measures in the nineteenth century and on the muddle that has resulted from its inevitable decline in the twentieth.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the systems of measurement used in the British Empire were characterised by their diversity. In the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland) a huge number of measures existed, many surviving from medieval times or earlier. In particular, English measures of volume were a ‘historical hodgepodge’, with three different gallons and a luxuriant terminology including the jigger, the jackpot, the gill, the pottle, the peck, the bushel, the hogshead, the firkin, the pipe or butt, the kilderkin and the tun. In Lower Canada, effectively under British control since 1759, the measures of ancien regime France were still in common use. In India, the measurement system of the former Mughal Empire was but one of many. In Cape Colony, occupied by the British in 1806, the measures in use were those brought by settlers from Holland over a century before.
By the end of the nineteenth century, this situation had been transformed. The catalyst was the UK Weights & Measures Act of 1824. This provided a simplified measurement system that was nevertheless capable of meeting the demands of the industrial revolution. It was adopted rapidly throughout the British Empire, partly as a result of the requirements of imperial trade and partly because of encouragement and direction from the Colonial Office and the India Office in London. Nor was its use limited to imperial trade and commerce – everyday life throughout the Empire, for example in shops and in schools, also bore the imprint of the 1824 Act.
It is interesting to speculate how events might have developed had there been no rationalisation of weights and measures in the British Empire during early part of the nineteenth century. Imperial trade would have suffered, but many former colonies that today rely on global trade might, by moving directly to metric measures, have avoided the need to change their primary system of measurement twice in little more than a century. Upper and Lower Canada might have accepted a welcoming embrace from US customary measures, making Canada’s subsequent metric changeover even more difficult, whereas British colonies in Africa and Central and South America might have fallen in step much sooner with their metric neighbours. And India might not have acquired a railway network of almost 75 000 km, the fourth largest in the world, if its builders had had to face many different measurement jurisdictions along the way.
A surprising aspect of this story concerns the arguments for a single, universal system of measures. These go back at least to the time of Magna Carta in 1215, and were used six centuries later to support reform and to extend throughout the Empire the use of the system created by the Act of 1824. Yet, when the need for further reform became apparent towards the end of the twentieth century, the same arguments were rejected by significant proportions of the public, the media and politicians. And the result – a costly muddle of measures the like of which has not been seen in the UK for almost 200 years.