Metrication in Australia

As the UK approaches the fiftieth anniversary of the commencement of its prolonged metric changeover, we draw attention to an article about a country that succeeded in making the transition in little more than a decade.

An account of the metric transition in Australia from 1971 onwards was produced by the Australian Government Publishing Service in 1992 on behalf of the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce. The book, entitled “Metrication in Australia” and written the Kevin Wilks, who was Senior Adviser to the Australian Metric Conversion Board, has for many years been out of print, and copies have become very hard to come by.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Peter Goodyear, an e-copy has been published. A US blogger, Metric Maven, recently posted an article providing a link to a free download of the book. That article was written with US readers in mind, but Metric Views believes that it contains much of interest to UK readers as well, and we have not attempted to edit it. The link to the article is here: LINK

If you are wondering where the UK went wrong, then Mr Wilks’ book may provide some answers. Unfortunately, it provides little guidance on ways to escape from our current measurement muddle.

26 thoughts on “Metrication in Australia”

  1. That is a very powerful read. I would urge all metric advocates to download and read the pdf file of the book. Chapters 1-8 (about 29 pages) serve as an executive overview, chapter 9 (about 90 pages) is fairly detailed plans by industries and sectors, only some subsections may be interesting to any particular reader. (I’m still slogging through chapter 9.)

    From my American perspective as to why metrication is in stasis here (UK may have some differences), the important take-aways are:
    1) Why by decree, not referendum (page 1, using page numbers at the bottom of the page)
    2) Why not stay Imperial (page 3)
    3) Metric Conversion Act of 1970, clause 5 (page 13). This required action to move progressively towards the SI as the SOLE system of measure. This is really the key, compared to Congress’ toothless declaration that metric was preferred, and the lack of overall plan and commitment demonstrated by both US and UK governments.
    4) The meaning of “voluntary” on page 15. Each industry and sector HAD to move towards metric, but had the right and responsibility to develop its own detailed plan. That is quite different from US “voluntary.”
    5) The information on costs in Chapter 8. The Metric Board made no great effort to collect costs and entertained no appeals for compensation. Without the option of “chowing down” at the public trough and forced to develop voluntary plans, companies and sectors looked for cost-effective ways instead of whining about costs.

    The third item is critical. Without an overall vision and plan by government, there is no way out of the quagmire. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but if there such government leadership, the book might be a reasonable framework toward a national plan that would suit the circumstances of the US or UK. Sadly, I see no sign of such leadership in the US and probably not in the UK.


  2. Sorry, but I missed a sixth take-away:
    6) Dual labeling hinders rather than helps on page 19. This is stated again in detailed sector plans in chapter 9 and conclusions in chapter 10.

    I think this is supported by the fact that dual labeling has been required under FPLA in the US since 1994, and we STILL aren’t ready in 2013 for even permissive-metric-only (where dual would be allowed, but not required), more less a law requiring metric only. Dual is a false crutch, it helps most people avoid the issue, not learn metric.


  3. All it would take to escape from our current measurement muddle would be a few words from the minister of transport, thus by some accounts help save us some 3.5 million pounds worth of metric muddle every day.
    For as long as we have miles on the roads then no matter how we (I) try, the muddle is simply in-escapable, it is there with us no matter what we do or where we go.
    With this one simple change we move to a new level, the rest would come, or be brought about quite naturally.
    With luck we would also have the leverage to start tackling those awful feet in aviation that have made the otherwise good BBC2 programme “airport live” about Heathrow airport so irksome to follow.
    I never realised just how out of place airline pilots, supposedly some of the brightest people, sound using feet for everything, my comment on which would be better not said on public media.


  4. The difference between Australia and the UK is that Australia positively wanted to become a modern, forward-looking country and embrace the best of modernity, including the modern units of measure used by most of the world. Compare that with the UK where everything is largely viewed through the prism of history and tradition. Metrication in the UK has primarily been carried out to serve the interests of international trade: the UK has had to adapt to world standards in order to export. Metrication has not been viewed as a means of achieving a sensible, system of measurement units fit for the 21st century and for use in all circumstances. Domestically, within the country, the view has been widespreadm even among the political class, that it does not matter what measures we use amongst ourselves and that foreigners coming here should adapt to our ways of doing things. Nothing could have been more shortsighted or misguided. We are stuck in a halfway house. Imperial is now largely in the history books when it comes to trade, but it is still out there very prominently on road signs! ‘What is the UK’s system of measurement?’ any visitor would ask, looking at metric units on packaged goods but imperial units on road signs. I ask myself the same thing. We do not have the best of both worlds, we have the worst of both worlds. We have not protected ancient traditions, we have elected not to be part of the modern world and to deny youngsters the opportunity to use in the real world (outside school) what they have learnt in maths in school and to deny them employment opportunities and life chances. Two generations’ growth has already been stunted in this way. Units of measurement are not a tradition or a culture, they are a technical means. Our politicians do the whole nation a disservice by failing to recognise this and by bowing down to the resistance which has arisen to the completion of metrication and the achievement of a modern system of units for use by everybody.


  5. @BrianAC

    Quite right! Let “feet” in aviation go the way of “fathoms” in marine navigation! 🙂


  6. Ezra:

    While I agree in principle about the use of ‘feet’ in aviation, I do not think you will see any change there in our lifetime or that of our children. The aviation industry has been dominated by US customary measurements since WWII and airspace is divided up almost around the globe into flight levels (not the same as altitude above sea level) in feet. There is plenty of information about this on the internet. Even Russia and some of its former satellites have introduced tables of equivalence with flight levels in feet so that aircraft do not have to ascend or descend when changing from levels in feet to those in metres.

    The aviation industry is almost a world of its own. The supporters who want to see a proper, single system of measurement in the UK (at least on the ground in the UK!) are probably never going to see that change made in the skies above, so I think it is futile to pursue that objective.

    Pilots in most otherwise fully metric countries have to learn to use flight levels described in feet if they fly internationally. That does not mean they know anything else about imperial measures of course. All they have to do is to understand and use their controls calibrated which are thus calibrated.

    The focus in the UK must be on changing the ways of that last great bastion of imperial, namely the DfT and road signage, and on eliminating dual usage and dual labelling to focus on a single system. And least that is where I see the priorities.


  7. In the early 1980s, I was on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Vancouver, and happened to sit next to an official from Transport Canada. We got talking, and eventually the subject of metrication of the world’s airspace came up. He said that Canada, Australia and European nations were among those governments pushing to metricate flight levels throughout the world within ten years, and using the USSR (then just starting to allow regular flights with the west) as a major influence. That was obviously nothing more than wishful thinking.


  8. Thanks for the interesting article, Derek. This discussion has diverged a bit into aviation. Aviation has been trying to metricate since 1944. Anyone that wants to debate metrication in aviation needs to be aware of the ICAO Chicago Convention. See:

    Click to access annexes_booklet_en.pdf

    Click to access pio197906_e.pdf

    Click to access pio197701f_e.pdf

    Click to access wp165_en.pdf

    Click to access wp176_en.pdf

    Click to access NovDec2012.pdf


  9. One difference between Australia and Canada (which my new wife and I are visiting on our honeymoon) is that packages have all different kinds of labeling, from rational metric only to soft converted metric only to metric first with Imperial (or U.S. Customary) labeling in second position in parentheses.

    Nonetheless, since this is my first visit to Canada since 1972, I must say as an American that is is quite uplifting to see metric everywhere and many packages sporting rational metric-only units.

    Unfortunately, I doubt that the Australian approach would work in Canada because of the huge drag caused by the United States. Let’s hope we finally get here in the USA at least voluntary metric-only labeling since I think it would spread here like wildfire and improve the situation in Canada dramatically.


  10. Somewhat off topic, however …
    The UK government needs to learn from Australia and has postponed its plans to introduce standardised plain packaging for cigarettes in the UK.
    From the BBC News website:
    “Ministers are expected to tell MPs that a decision on the policy has been formally delayed so that more time can be spent examining how similar plans have worked in Australia”
    Delaying tactics by the UK government, however it is time to learn many things from that part of the world including much better food product labelling – showing energy values in SI units to include Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA’s) also shown as RDI (Recommended Daily Intake).

    “Kill off the Calorie (kcal)” and “Stop promoting ‘cancer sticks’”


  11. Interesting information about pertnid circuit boards (PCBs). As an engineer working during the 1980s in the UK (for a US-based company) on products containing PCBs, I thought how daft to use a grid of 2.54 mm. Of course, components in those days had pins on inch-based centres and were probably of US origin.What is the current situation? I’m not quite sure from Randwulf’s first paragraph, but I am quite sure that there is just as much a muddle as elsewhere. Take, for example, the desktop PC situation with its mixture of metric screws for optical drives and inch-based screws for hard-drives.Randwulf hits on one particular chicken and egg’ situation where engineers “just can’t get (it) in metric.” Here in the UK, you cannot buy non-metric nuts and bolts off-the-shelf, so there is absolutely no point in having one of those huge boxes of spanners (sorry, wrenches). Also, since there are fewer threads (and consequent head sizes) in the ISO range compared with previous inch-based systems, all you really need is a set of 8, 10, 13 and 17 mm a/f spanners and you are sorted!With all such situations, however, who calls the shots? Engineers will buy components that are cheapest because they are produced in sufficiently high volumes irrespective of whether they are metric or not unless told otherwise and are forced to pay a premium. Eventually, metric-based components will prevail simply due to overwhelming production volumes.There are still some examples, however, where (I presume) production volumes dictate the lowest cost for inch-based products over proper metric ones. An example is chipboard sold in the UK in a standard’ 2440 x 1220 mm sheet whereas plasterboard is sold in 2400 x 1200 mm. Why is that? Does anyone know? Who decides these things in the first place? If you are building something on a 300 mm grid, why should you have to cut lumps off a sheet of chipboard when you don’t have to do the same with plasterboard?I can think of loads of other non-standard standards’ but would start to get off the metrication track but that’s where they should all start!!


  12. The media have finally caught up with the news that our masters in Federal Europe have, at least for the time being, given up on forced metrication in England.


  13. Although Australia successfully changed to the metric system in the 1970s, some hold-overs still remain. There are the obvious ones such as the use of feet above sea level in aviation, the troy ounce for gold and the barrel for oil. But other old measures are still in use alongside their metric equivalents, such as the use of acres for rural land as well as hectares and newborn baby weights in pounds as well as in grams. (The Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper, gave the new prince’s weight as 3.8kg while out Australian Broadcasting Corporation gave both, with the older measure first.) Screen sizes (diagonal) are still mostly quoted in inches, except for television sets where both measures are given.

    Some old measures were dropped, like the stone weight, and quickly replaced with the kilogram. However, heights are still often quoted in feet and inches (though not for sporting teams). Shirt sizes are metric but some jeans and other trousers give the waist measurement in inches. Feet and yards are still sometimes encountered, but the use of metres is obviously increasing. Miles are heard of, but usually in the accents of the United States and Great Britain.

    So it’s a mixed bag. Certainly, however, younger people are not as familiar with the old measures because their use has diminished or died out completely.


  14. To Gold Price:

    Europe has probably decided that if the UK government wants to hamper its citizens and economy by not having a proper set of measures that everyone is taught and uses, then it is up to the UK to live with the consequences. And, boy, do we live with the consequences in terms of lack of numeracy in young and older people. No other country in Europe has this problem.


  15. Gold Price is right about the English media regressing. In an article on the tragic train crash in Spain in one of the tabloids, a photograph of a speedometer reading 200km/h was accompanied with a caption -“The speedometer clearly shows 125MPH”.
    The imperial taliban that control the media will even go to these extents to ensure that the public are not “corrupted” by modern measurements.


  16. In addition to what cliff wrote:

    If you watch the first few minutes of this video, you will see and hear how ridiculous Americans and the English are. The main speaker is Keir Simmons, an English journalist. One minute into the video Keir shows the needle on the speedometer pointing to 200 km/h but immediately converts it to miles per hour.

    A few seconds later an American Mormon Missionary from Utah utters two metric speeds (100 km/h & 194 km/h) and immediately after each pronouncement has to give an equivalent in miles per hour.

    Is this what English and Americans do when traveling? Each time they see and hear a metric amount, they go about blurting out a translation? What could possibly be the reason for this? It just makes the British and Americans look foolish in the eyes of the world.


  17. @ Cliff
    The BBC TV report on the Spain crash at the time converted everything into mph and miles. Do they really beleive we are so thick and stupid that we cannot handle a report in units that have been taught in our schools for over 40 years? Where have the reporters and editors been in this time? At university I guess.
    It just makes a nonsense of the whole report as we know from the outset that it is totally false, thus a total lie, thus deception. For my part I dismiss such articles and turn over to Euronews for the correct figures.
    Even more disturbing was a documentary about the HS1, I do not remember the figures but the camera was showing the speedo increasing in km/h and the driver of the train was giving out the speed in mph in real time.. we are doing 120 .. 125 .. 130.
    Now, if that is how they drive the train then I NEVER want to be on it. Imagine an incident, the driver reports “we are doing 125, the brakes have failed”. Control: – “is that km or miles an hour?” Driver: – “err ..too late mate”.
    We really should learn from those that have done the job properly and complete the process that has decended into a farce.


  18. @gold price. I know all this will fall on deaf ears, but .. .
    Please explain just what the ‘masters in Federal Europe’ have to do with Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, Pakistan and ALL other countries except America changing over from Imperial measures to metric measures. Even Panama is changing having finally ditched the US gallon.
    I doubt very much if the EU masters (of which incidentally 73 are from UK, although it is difficult to see what they do) had a lot of influence there. It may, just possibly, have something to do with the fact that the metric system (more pedantically the SI system) is somehow perceived as beeing a little bit more of a sensible system to use.
    All of these countries have seen a relative improvement in balance of payments in this time, compare that with the mess ‘Great’ Britain is in.
    See it as you will, but other countries of the world are laughing at us (also USA) and taking a lot of our trade.
    The SI system, and also the metric system has probably as much of its origins in UK as any other world country (Joule, Watt, Faraday, Newton, Kelvin come readily to mind), and has nothing to do with the EU, EEC, Europe nor any other group.
    Australia is seen as a forward looking modern, progressive country, one it’s citizens can be justly proud of. Compare that with the outlook most people in UK have of their own country, and that others have of us.


  19. The press we can’t control, the BBC we can try! Can I just ask everyone to formally complain to the BBC every time they carry out this ridiculous and unnecessary conversion.

    I also note that a Conservative MP has called for improvements to education to ensure that British employers can confidently recruit British employees. Maybe he can take the lead and influence all his colleagues that what this really needs is for the Imperial system to be formally dropped in all areas of our lives, including Transport and media. Only then can we be the modern and forward looking country that we need to be in a global economy.


  20. Sadly, the mania for converting speeds from km/h to mph in the UK is certainly due to the fact that speed limits are still posted in mph.

    I’d be curious to find out of the train crash was reported differently in Ireland, i.e. was the speed of the train reported only in the original km/h? (That’s what I would suspect given that Ireland converted their road signs to metric a number of years ago.)


  21. The two articles deal with the observation of an English immigrant (Peter Goodyear) to Australia on the metrication program in the ’70s

    It just seems that the reason metrication succeeded in Australia and not the UK had a lot to do with the role of the media. The Australian media basically was forward thinking enough to see the advantages despite the short term adjustment whereas the British press went out of its way, and continues to do so, to oppose metrication.

    Michduncg’s comment about the Conservative MP is interesting in that MPs and others in government love to give lip service to various topics but never take the time to research them. Business is not going to hire locals no matter how improved the education system is if the graduate can’t function in metric and the business requires it. It is not the job of business to train new employees in the basics they should not only have learned at school, but have developed a feel for outside the school.

    You can learn all about metric units in school but if you don’t apply them in your daily life, you never develop the feel for them. So, British industry will continue to hire those people who can function in the units industry, not the outsiders, use.

    Many companies test the applicants before hiring and a failure to demonstrate a working knowledge in metric units is good enough reason not to consider the applicant. Also, during the interview process if metric units are mentioned, it doesn’t look good for the applicant if the applicant complains that he or she isn’t familiar with metric units as they don’t use them in their lives. Yes, they were taught in school, but forgotten once they are out of school.

    A government MP can’t correct this. It has to change in the home environment. Metric has to be used in the home and on the street, and the media needs to support this, not work against this. Otherwise the future for mainstream Britain is to be on the outside looking in. The same is true in the US as manufacturing industries continue to dwindle and those that hire talent do so from the outside, not locally.


  22. Ray Well done .. A very good post.

    Metric measures..
    1) We learn metric measures.
    2) We use metric measures.
    3) We think in metric measures.. but..
    4) We only fully understand metric measures when we “think in metric only”.

    The ultimate goal of metrication, is to have everyone, or almost everyone, “thinking in metric only” with no conversions. That’s not going to occur if the metrication process is incomplete, and many people can’t get past stage 2, because they are using both metric, and Imperial measures. In my opinion, most people use both metric, and Imperial measures. So they are not anti-metric, although they probably think in only one system, and use conversions to convert alternative measures, back to their native system of measurement.

    The real force for change, comes either from the bottom (the people), or from the top (the government). In Australia it came from both, and was helped by the conversion to decimal currency, that preceded it. The UK is not so fortunate.

    It has to be accepted that anti-metric groups, although now very much a minority, have through the media done a very good job of linking metrication, in the minds of many, to Europe, to the unpopular EU, and to the “can’t be trusted” French. It is of course untrue.

    So in my opinion, the force to complete the metrication process, must come from the top, the Government. But I don’t think the metrication process will be restarted until the relationship between the UK and the EU has been clarified and resolved.


  23. @Michduncg:

    Occasionally the BBC can get it right. This report, available at, describes a new deep sea container port just opened on the Thames estuary (financed by Dubai interests). The narration, both BBC reporter and the port’s engineering director (who sounds Australian), used solely metric units – metres and kilometres (even if they were pronounced as kilom-eters).

    Kudos to the BBC.


  24. I have read a large number of the above postings and then looked at

    I am an Australian who lived through “Metrication In Australia” in the 1970s, as a driver at the time. As far as the speed indication on the speedometer was concerned, all that was then necessary was a transparent “sticker” showing km/h to cover the existing Speedometer. Today, I understand that most speedometers in countries where Imperil measurements are still used show km/h as well as MPH

    In Australia “M-day” for this change was 1 July 1974. Because of careful planning, almost every road sign in Australia was converted within one month. This was achieved by installing covered metric signs alongside the imperial signs before the change and then removing the imperial sign and uncovering the metric sign during the month of conversion.

    There was NO problem in the conversion of the road signs because of one simple fact.

    While road signs could not all be changed at the same time, there was little chance of confusion as to what any speed limit sign meant during this short change-over period. This was because the previous (MPH) signs had the signage in black on white and were rectangular, in the same style as current US speed limit signs, while the (km/h) signs which replaced them had the number indicating the speed limit inside a red circle, as is done in Europe.

    The United Kingdom has a problem (brought on itself) because it now uses the European style road signs to indicate MPH and NOT km/h

    Frankly, the only way I can envisage that the UK COULD get out of this impasse would be for the UK to now replace ALL the “European Style” “Red Circle” signs for (say) one year with US rectangular Black on White signs and THEN replace all of those replacements with equivalent “European” “Red Circle” km/h signs, virtually, “overnight” as was done in Australia.
    This would be a large cost BUT only about double the cost (per sign) as was necessary in Australia. (Please allow for inflation if you wish to mount any argument.)

    Good luck UK. This change MUST happen, eventually.
    However, the longer you delay the costlier it will be.


  25. @ Peter T

    On January 20, 2005 (I think) – the Republic of Ireland metricated their speed limits from mph to km/h. They also used the red circle sign the UK makes use of, but got round this by changing the font slightly and adding “km/h” under the number in a much smaller font [much like the ones indicated on the UKMA speed limit page.] I think a similar approach will probably be taken here – people will be aware the sign looks different and clearly indicates km/h underneath. Added to immense publicity in the weeks leading up to the eventual changeover, I don’t think there will be any need to change the design of signs. Though that is interesting that Australia used to use US style signs!

    Your last point says it all; the longer it takes, the more it’ll cost – though I fear that’s what the DfT have worked out as well.


  26. For warning signs, Australia still uses US-style (yellow diamond) signs. In fact, the UK is the only major Anglosphere nation that uses the European-style red-bordered white triangles.


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