An anniversary overlooked

This year marks 125 years since the United Kingdom signed the Metre Convention. This is the treaty that provides the basis for international agreement on units of measurement. The Convention, produced by an International Commission, was signed on 20 May 1875 initially by the representatives of seventeen states: Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, the USA, Ottoman Turkey, Russia and ten other countries in continental Europe. It provides for a permanent international Bureau of Weights and Measures and a General Conference, which now meets every four years.

The United Kingdom (of Britain and Ireland at that time) came late to the party and was the eighteenth signatory of the Convention in 1884.

The importance of the Convention is illustrated by the recent history of the yard and the pound.

Until 1893, the United States had attempted to maintain its standards of length and mass to be identical with those of the UK. However the fire at the Palace of Westminster in 1834, the resulting damage to Imperial fundamental standards, the lack of stability of the replacements, and the requirements for greater accuracy in measurement made the continuing alignment of the standards of the two countries increasingly difficult. Then in 1890, the US, as a signatory of the Metre Convention, received national prototype metric standards of length and mass. In 1893, it abandoned its national standards of the yard and the pound and adopted the following definitions:

One yard equals 3600/3937 of the metre
2.204 622 34 pounds avoirdupois equals one kilogram

The differences between US and Imperial measures of length and mass were a continuing problem for scientists and industry, and agreement was reached in 1959 between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the USA to establish uniformity in technical and scientific fields. These new definitions were agreed:

One yard equals 0.9144 metres
One pound avoirdupois equals 0.453 592 37 kilogram.

With the Weights and Measures Act 1963, the UK finally adopted these definitions for all purposes. Corresponding Imperial fundamental standards passed into history.

Of course, the Convention is not concerned only with length and mass, but has facilitated international agreement on standards for time, electricity, temperature, illumination and, for the atomic physicists, “substance”.

One question remains. When should we celebrate the benefits of a universal, simple, coherent system of measurement: on 20 May, the anniversary of the initial signing of the Convention, or on 10 October, a reminder of the link between the metric system and the number “10”?

8 thoughts on “An anniversary overlooked”

  1. In order for there to be a universal, simple, coherent system of measurement, there has to be a recognizable need. Such a need comes from where measurement is encountered the most, and that is in manufacturing.

    As long as countries, like the UK and the US continue to export their manufacturing to other countries (who happen to be metric), the need will continue to diminish. The population of the UK and the US are now beginning to see the dark side of what can happen to the economy of a nation that relies too much on ponzi economics with its rising and bursting bubbles.

    The people have to be made aware that in order for a nation to be truly prosperous it must make things. Also it must export what it makes in order to import what it can’t produce. When a nation must depend on other nations for its survival it must be in harmony with them.

    The rest of the world knows this and has harmonized by adopting English as the international language of trade and the metric system as the international language of measurement. Only the UK and the US have refused to cooperate on harmonizing with the international language of measurement.

    The result is that these nations import by far a lot more then they export and their exports are constantly decreasing. As a result these two countries are the only two not recovering from the present downturn. In fact the economic situation in these two countries is getting worse. The result is being noticed in the rising price of precious metals like gold and the free fall of the US and UK currencies.

    No business is going to switch its operations to metric if the work force is opposed to using the metric system. It isn’t worth their effort. It is so much easier to close the doors and go elsewhere where the people don’t show any hatred towards the use of metric units.

    The media feeds into the anti-metric frenzy, either willing or unknowingly, resulting in jobs and revenue fleeing. Unless there is a change in heart by the population and the media towards the metric system, economic life in the US and UK will continue to decline.

    The worst part is that by the time the UK and US come to realize this vital connection between the use of the metric system and health of the economy, it will be too late.


  2. Industries in metric countries do not generally wish to buy inch-based products, and this is why British industries stagnated and failed in the nineteen-seventies, when Commonwealth Preference was abolished around the Commonwealth.

    The same thing is happening now in the United States of America, and the decline of native industries (and also in Canada) naturally stimulates imports to replace the lost domestic production.

    The UK has fallen into a massive trade deficit as a result of importing its technical requirements, cars and trucks, including military vehicles, and closing its factories.

    The USA is going the same way. It started in the nineteen-eighties with the failure of most of the US truck industry, based on inch technology. The UK was intended to change from inches to millimetres in a decade from 1965-75 but the many company directors refused to implement the plan.

    The US car industry also manufactured oversize vehicles designed and made in inches, which were unsaleable in most of the western world. US domestic demand for them fell, because vehicles imported from Europe and Japan were smaller and more efficient.

    The writer was employed at the Head Office of British Leyland in 1969-72. The metrication of the product range started at Leyland before the merger with the design of the Leyland National Bus. Its metrication was unsuccessful and the Labour government policy was quietly dropped.

    This is what led to the stagnation of British Leyland and the Thatcher Factory Closures, when nearly all factories in the UK failed together, for the same reason.

    Michael T Knowles (Bath UK)


  3. The foregoing comments from Jeremiah and Michael are of great interest to anyone who wishes to see progress in completing the move to a single rational system of measurement in the UK and US.
    It would help a great deal if some documented evidence could be produced that supports the assertions made.
    Both accounts are plausible and undoubtedly honest opinion but, unfortunately, they can be no more than that without some form of corroboration.


  4. Phil,

    What kind of proof would you like to see? A signed confession by the CEOs of all the various companies that have exported jobs from the UK and US to metric countries saying so?

    Of course the main issues are economic and metric is one of the components of the economic reason. I believe it to be a major component.

    I am aware that both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were responsible for both closing down their respective country’s metric boards and also allowing manufacturing to become exported. All with in a very close time frame.

    There was a big push for metrication in the non-metric countries in the 1970s to metricate. There was a reason for that and that was to make it simpler and more economical if manufacturing were building and designing to the same standards and measurements world-wide. English was already accepted as the lingua franca of business.

    However with business finding it difficult and expensive to try to metricate resistive populations they had no choice but to push government to open the gates and allow them to seek to manufacture in metric countries and import tariff free and without restrictions back into the US and UK.

    If business was just looking for a choice of cheap labour, then why didn’t France, Germany, Japan and others export their manufacturing base en masse to take advantage of cheap labour? Only the US and UK, both countries that have the most vocal anti-metric crowd and active anti-metric organizations, were the only ones to do it.

    Coincidence? I don’t think so!


  5. Michael Knowles,

    US car makers have manufactured in metric since the late-1970s/early-1980s. The state of the current US automotive industry has nothing to do with them being based upon non-metric measurements.


  6. To Brian White – Yes, true, but the speedometer still has MPH written on it and this must have an effect on jobs in the UK and US, right?


  7. Hard evidence can be published showing that British industry relocated to the Continent because of measurement issues would be political dynamite.

    “These Luddites caused the catastrophic de-industrialization of Britain! And they DARE to call themselves patriots!”


  8. The problem with broadcasting to the nation that you left and took jobs with you because you wanted to produce with metric educated people could backfire. Groups like the UKIP, the BWMA and the supporting media would have a field day.

    Business also isn’t interested in the metric issue, just in making profits. Metric is a tool for them to make profits and if they can’t find skilled workers in the UK or US who can use the metric tool, then they will go elsewhere where the skill exists.

    Even if UK citizens are educated in metric, open public attitudes against the use of metric or popular resistance to the use of metric is good enough reason not to bother with such people when you are looking for workers to produce your products. People with negative attitudes towards metric are not going to be productive workers when they have to use metric. Their propensity to make costly mistakes also increases.

    The best solution for business is to locate an educated population in a metric country where such negative feelings do not exist and with so many countries to choose from it isn’t difficult to find the right one.


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