1862 report from the Select Committee on weights and measures

The question of adopting metric measures in the UK is not a new proposition; in 1862 Parliament’s Select Committee on Weights and Measures considered the matter and came down firmly in favour of metrication. A century and a half later, we are still waiting for the government to finally complete the job. The full report can be read here. A summary follows:

THE SELECT COMMITTEE appointed to consider the practicability of adopting a Simple and Uniform System of WEIGHTS and MEASURES, with a view not only to the Benefit of our Internal Trade, but to facilitate our Trade and Intercourse with Foreign Countries:- HAVE considered the Matters to them referred, and have agreed to the following REPORT:-

After full and careful consideration of the evidence, your Committee have arrived at a unanimous conclusion, that the best course to adopt is, cautiously but steadily, to introduce the Metric system into this country.

They therefore recommend:-

1. That the use of the Metric system be rendered legal. No compulsory measures should be resorted to until they are sanctioned by the general conviction of the public:

2. That a Department of Weights and Measures be established in connection with the Board of Trade. It would thus become subordinate to the Government, and responsible to Parliament. To it should be intrusted the conservation and verification of the standards, the superintendence of Inspectors, and the general duties incident to such a department. It should also take such measures as may from to time promote the use, and extend the
knowledge of, the Metric system, in the departments of Government, and among the people:

3. The Government should sanction the use of the Metric system (together with out present one) in the levying of the Customs duties; thus familiarising it among our merchants and manufacturers, and giving facilities to foreign traders in their dealings with this country. Its use, combined with that of our own system, in Government-contracts, has also been suggested:

4. The Metric system should form one of the subjects of examination in the Competitive Examinations of the Civil Service:

5. The gramme should be used as a weight for foreign letters and books at the Post-office:

6. The Committee of Council on Education should require the Metric system to be taught, (as might easily be done by means of tables and diagrams), in all schools receiving grants of public money:

7. In the public Statistics of the country quantities should be expressed in terms of the Metric system in juxtaposition with those of our own; as suggested by the International Statistical Congress:

8. In Private Bills before Parliament, the use of the Metric system should be allowed.

9. The only weights and measures in use should be the Metric and Imperial, until the Metric has been generally adopted:

10. The proviso (already noticed) in the 5 & 6 Wm. 4, chapter 63, clause 6, should be repealed:

11. The Department which it is proposed to appoint should make an annual report to Parliament.

Your Committee feel it to be right to add that the evidence they have received tends to convince them that a decimal system of money should, as nearly as possible, accompany a decimal system of weights and measures. Both the foreign and English witnesses think the maximum of advantage cannot be attained without a combination of the two.

Such is an outline of the course recommended by your Committee for introducing into this country a system which may tend to enlarge our foreign trade – hitherto imperfectly developed, if not neglected – with countries yearly becoming more and more mutually connected and mutually dependent; most of them composing the great European family of nations, and many of them near our own shores.

Your Committee think that no country, especially no commercial country, should fail to adopt a system which will save time and lessen labour; which will give to trade greater certainty in its operations, diminish the intermediate agency with which it is encumbered, render more exact machine-making, engineering and manufactures, and remove a number of arithmetical barriers which stand, like obstructive toll-bars, on the highway of education. It has been the destiny of this country to lead the way in introducing the great principles of commercial freedom. Let us not reject the use of those implements which may facilitate their application. Most of all, let us rejoice, if, by adopting a system freely and rapidly extending itself, and becoming more and more an international one, we may assist in promoting the peace, and enlarging the commerce, of the world.

15 July 1862

7 thoughts on “1862 report from the Select Committee on weights and measures”

  1. “After full and careful consideration of the evidence, your Committee have arrived at a unanimous conclusion, that the best course to adopt is, cautiously but steadily, to introduce the Metric system into this country.”

    Great job on the “cautiously.” On the “steadily,” not so much. I am not throwing stones as the US has approximately the same slow adoption history. You may have some interest in comparing this report to the May, 1866 Kasson report which accompanied and led directly to the Metric Act of 1866 in the US.
    (Kasson chaired the committee which brought the bill forward.)

    Unlike the story of the hare and the tortoise, this appears to be a two tortoise race. Neither set of politicians appear to recognize that the “prize” is economic insignificance on the world stage, and that first and second place are pretty equivalent.


  2. John Steele is a difficult act to follow, but here goes.

    The report of 1862 led to the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act of 1864, which legalised for the first time the use of the metric system in the UK. The wording of the Act was as follows:

    “An Act to render permissive the Use of the Metric System of Weights and Measures [29th July 1864].
    Whereas, for the Promotion and Extension of our internal as well as our foreign trade, and for the Advancement of science, it is expedient to legalise the Metric System …”

    And the practical consequences of the Act? Very few. It was shown, not for the last time, that a permissive Act permits the reluctant to do nothing.


  3. When one reads the history of the metric system, it is ironic that British scientists appear to outnumber those from any other country, yet British politicians seem to be doing all they can to sabotage the metric system.

    The scientists in question include John Wilkins who first proposed that mass, volume and length should be inter-related, James Clerk Maxwell who put the concept of coherent units on a sound theoretical footing, Johnson Mathey & Co who manufactured the international prototype kilogram (still in use) and the international prototype metre, and in our own day, three of the last four directors of the BIPM have been British.

    Moreover, more British scientists have been honoured by having units of measure named after than scientists of any other nation.


  4. It’s a pity that organisations like The Royal Society, the British Science Association, and The Royal Institution, (to name just a few), aren’t encouraging politicians to complete metrication in this country.


  5. @Anne:

    Yes it is. This was discussed once before, and the main reason given was that the work these institutes and associations are concerned with already operates in SI, and that therefore they don’t need to become politicised by lobbying politicians.


  6. Between 1965 and 1969 groups like the Royal Society and the British Standards Institute (BSI) worked with the engineering industry to set up a metric infrastructure. In some cases (eg railway lines) they used soft metrication, in other instances such as paper measures they used hard metrication. In 1969 their role was formally taken over by the Metrication Board. For more information, please visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrication_in_the_United_Kingdom.


  7. It is also a pity that the three British directors of the BIPM did not use their position to draw attention to the weights and measures mess in the UK.


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