UKMA occasionally receives letters from visitors to the UK expressing amazement at our dysfunctional muddle of measurement units. The following is typical (with thanks to JP for allowing us to use it):
I’ve just arrived back in Australia after a three and a half week visit to England. My wife was born in England and so we were visiting her parents and had some delightful weather. The trip included an eight day motor home trip around the north visiting York, Hadrian’s Wall, the Lake District and various other beautiful locations. It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip.
I’m just writing to express my amazement (I can’t think of a better word) at the mixture of measurement systems used in your country. Whilst driving, most road distances and speed were in miles and mph, some distances were expressed in metres, heights were sometimes in metres, feet and inches, or both. All weights were by the kilo, petrol by the litre, temperature in Celsius. What a mixed up muddled up world!
The thing I found most fascinating was the Ordinance Survey of Great Britain. An absolutely excellent mapping grid system designed in the mid 30’s I believe. Your road atlases use it, all your maps use it and most people (that I spoke to anyway) seem to understand it. For example, “TQ 03485 96849″. This system is entirely metric based – but no one is aware of the fact! For example the AA road atlas has each OSGB grid of 10 km square showing as exactly 5 cm by 5 cm on the page but the atlas never mentions this important fact. Instead it goes to great pains to explain the scale as 3 miles and 826.7 feet per inch!
Also fascinating, at a local fire station in Chatteris there was an old map of the local town. It was at least 70 years old and had many old features including a rail line that are no longer present. The really interesting thing was the coordinate system on this map was in metres. It was based on the OSGB.
Now, the reason I’m writing to you is that I read your quote:
The Chairman of the UK Metric Association (UKMA), Robin Paice, commented: The Irish changeover demonstrates that the British Government’s reasons for delaying the conversion of British road signs are simply a flimsy excuse for doing nothing. Frankly, they are rubbish. Irish drivers are no more likely to be familiar with speeds in km/h than are British drivers.
Familiarity with metric measures comes from use – not from education. The British Government should just get on with it.
I’m 42 years old and conversion happened when I was young (around 9) and so I have experience and what works and what doesn’t. From our experience here, your statement “Familiarity with metric measures comes from use – not from education” is the most important statement of all. I was speaking to mum (who is 65 and has pretty much embraced the entire metric system) about the change over to decimal currency in 1966. Australia moved from pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents – and it was overnight. I asked her how long it took to get used to the system and she said “a day”.
So I’m really just wishing you good luck in your journey and hope to see your road signs done soon. I think that will be a tipping point for England and it should be helped by the recent Irish conversion and the 2012 Olympics will provide an excellent target date.
Keep up the good work,
*Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.*
This letter also reminded me of Neil Kinnock’s comment (in a foreword to UKMA’s report “Metric signs ahead“) that, when the all-metric Olympic Games are hosted in London in 2012, “our imperial road signs … contradict the image – and the reality – of our country as a modern, multi-cultural, dynamic place where the past is valued and respected and the future is approached with creativity and confidence.”
Demonstrating their own ignorance and insularity, Government ministers (including Alistair Darling, then Transport Secretary) tried unconvincingly to dismiss and ridicule these comments. However, the truth is that JP’s letter is typical of the view from abroad.