BBC1 Six o’clock News launches a “stunner”

New research suggests that the principles of the metric system may have been outlined originally in England. The BBC launched this discovery on an unsuspecting British public during the Six o’clock  News on 13 July. Here is the  transcript of the broadcast (obtained by Robin Paice).


New research suggests that the metric system may have been invented in England – and not France, as had been previously thought. A new study, to be presented tomorrow at the annual meeting of the UK Metric Association, shows that the idea may have been first developed at the Royal Society in 1668 – more than 120 years before the system was adopted in France. Our Science Correspondent, Pallab Ghosh, has the details.

GHOSH: This surprising discovery was made by an Australian researcher as he was leafing through a rare and ancient book by John Wilkins, the first ever secretary of the UK’s leading scientific institution, the Royal Society. In it, Mr Wilkins describes a measuring system defined in unit of ten, for length, volume and money. He didn’t use the term metre, preferring Rhineland inches instead. But according to the man who made the discovery, Pat Naughtin, to all intents and purposes, John Wilkins invented the metric system.

NAUGHTIN: I discovered that he had every single element of the modern metric system, not only the modern metric system but the international system of unit all spelled out in four and a half pages. It was a stunner.

GHOSH: Mr Naughtin believes the idea first went to America before they brought it to France. Of course Britain and America preferred to continue with the imperial system of feet and inches and pounds and ounces. That’s why Mr Naughtin’s discovery has left French writer and journalist, Agnes Quarrier unimpressed.

QUARRIER: I think the French will be asking why he didn’t use it before. If you ask a person in Britain their height, they will tell you five foot seven, but they wouldn’t know what it is in metre and centimetre. I mean it’s like driving on the other side of the road. It’s quintessentially English quirkiness.

GHOSH: The big question then is why after developing a system of measurement, the idea didn’t catch on first in the country in which it was invented.


Pat Naughtin’s web site is

3 thoughts on “BBC1 Six o’clock News launches a “stunner””

  1. Ghosh is wrong when he says Britain and America used imperial at the time the French started using the metric system. America never used and still does not use imperial. Britain didn’t start using imperial until the mid-1820s.

    In fact, the British Weights and Measures Association was formed in the early 1800s to fight against the outlawing of British units that were being replaced by imperial. They despised imperial then.


  2. I am inclined to agree with Agnes Quarrier that we were daft not to take it up.

    As I undersand it though, it was traders who didn’t want the openness and honesty of a universal system of measurement that was clear and simple, preferring instead the obfuscation and dishonesty of imperial.

    It is no co-incidence that the modern rebellion against metrication came from the retail sector!


  3. In a way it is a good thing it wasn’t adopted in Britain then. While the rest of the world would be using the metre, the British and other English speakers would be calling it a standard. Would the prefixes have ever been considered and applied at a later date if Wilkin’s system had been adopted? Maybe elsewhere in the world, but I doubt the Britain.

    At least with the present history, we experienced an evolution from the metric system of the 1790s to SI in the post 1960 era. I don’t think that evolution would have occurred if Wilkin’s system was adopted in Britain first.


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