Imperial left-overs in Australia

Although Australia is predominantly metric, there are still some pockets of imperial usage.  Ronnie C recently visited that country and has written this account of what he found.

I was on holiday in Australia in December 2013. While I was there, I took some photos of objects where imperial units continue to be used for specific purposes. There are not many areas of life where imperial units are still used as Australia is now predominantly metric.

The Australian retail clothes industry mostly uses inches for size descriptions, including belt sizes, trouser waist sizes and lengths and shirt sizes. Here are a few examples:

Trouser Sizes
Trouser Waist Size and Length
Shirt Size
Belt Size

Pizza sizes are also usually expressed in inches in Australia and so are television screen sizes. For example, I took this photo of a menu with pizzas when I was there though it is encouraging that the Australians exclusively use the modern joule for food energy even though much of the world still uses obsolete calories for this purpose:

Pizza Sizes and Food Energy Consumption

Some DIY product descriptions also uses imperial units, for example:

Drive expressed in inches
Weight expressed in ounces

A few inscriptions on plaques and in museums make occasional use of imperial units as shown below:

Museum_Spec Plaque_Desc_Compact

The plaque description appears to be an old one, hence the archaic spelling of jail as “gaol” and the use of feet. The model description lacks consistency in use of conversions; imperial gauge distance is used followed by metric conversion whereas operating pressure uses metric followed by imperial in brackets. The abbreviation “psi” stands for pounds per square inch.

During my two-week holiday in Australia, I found a few other isolated cases of the use of imperial units for the same purposes but these are the exception rather the rule, unlike the situation in the UK.

It seems that where inches are used in specific areas, this tends to follow industry standards (e.g. clothing, screen sizes), probably because of the influence of the US and UK, countries that are struggling to complete their transition to the metric system, though there is no logical reason why they cannot be expressed in centimetres.

I did not find any instances of the use of miles in Australia. Australians express distances in kilometres and speeds in kilometres per hour whereas the British, thanks to inertia at the DfT,  mostly use miles for distances and miles per hour for speeds.

18 thoughts on “Imperial left-overs in Australia”

  1. Generally, this posting is correct about imperial hangovers in Australia. However, shirt sizes are metric. The size of the shirt is measured by the size of the collar.

    Trousers vary. Jeans seem to be stubbornly inch based but other trousers have the waist measured in centimetres. Belts are usually dual marked.

    Advertising of rural land is in confusion. Sometimes it is in hectares, sometimes it is in acres. Much of the time both measurements are given, though they don’t always tally. Commercial land seems to be all metric and suburban land is always given in square metres, though there are occasional references to distances in feet.

    Screen sizes vary. Television sets give both centimetres and inches but computer, tablet and phone screens are mostly just given in inches. I think it might be the same with photo sizes.

    Paper sizes, however, are metric. A4 is the standard size of a sheet of copy paper and the weight is expressed in grams per square metre.

    Personal weights are now in kilos, and while many people still think of their height in feet and inches, centimetres are steadily gaining ground. Ditto with new-born baby weights, where grams appear to be replacing pounds and ounces. The length of the baby, however, is in centimetres.

    All scales weigh by the gram and the kilo. All road signs are metric. All temperatures are in Celsius. The overwhelming majority of things for sale in the supermarket are just marked in metric weights. However, a few imported goods are dual marked.

    Curiously, it is not easy to get rid of the remaining use of imperial measures. Now that the metric change-over has been in place for more than 30 years there does not seem to be much appetite for going after the remaining anomalies. However, this may change in the next decade or so. Already, those aged in their mid-forties were never educated in the old measures, and when almost everyone has been using the metric system from childhood, many of the anomalies in usage may fall away.


  2. When I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I only remember TV screens being measured in cm, and when I bought one around 2002 or so (CRT model), it was stated as being 51cm. It’s unfortunate that it now seems like inches are creeping back in with flat screen TVs.


  3. The late Pat Naughtin, an advisor to industry on metrication, did say that the Australian textile industry was one of the most reluctant to make the change.

    He put it down to their failure to use the mm instead of the cm. He found that they tried to use the cm in place of the inch and then subdivide it into halves and quarters making it seem awkward.

    I don’t wish to spark yet another debate over the mm versus the cm, but I think he did have a point that if the changeover isn’t handled properly it can lead to the kind of residual hangover seen by Ronnie.


  4. While Pat was right to criticise the Australian textile industry for trying to divide the centimetre into halves and quarters, I think that he was wrong to criticise them for using centimetres – centimetres are the norm when using metric units in the clothing industry world-wide. The real fault lies in the textile industry failing to recognise that when sub-dividing the centimetre they should have worked in units of 5 mm, 2 mm or 1 mm.
    I recognise that this is one of the short-comings of the decimal system, but in 1790 the committee set up by the French Academie to investigate a reform of weights and measures debated the issue of a decimal versus a duo-decimal system. The committee, which included de Borda, Lagrange and Laplace (biographies at were of the opinion that weights and measures should use the same base as the system of counting and that faced with the choice of replacing a decimal system of counting with a duo-decimal system or living with the shortcomings of a decimal-based system of weights and measures. They chose the latter. (Ref: Tavernor, Robert (2007). Smoot’s Ear: The Measure of Humanity. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12492-7.)


  5. The centimeter is too ingrained in certain uses to eliminate.

    I never convinced Pat, but I consider a reasonable rule to be:
    *If integer centimeter precision is acceptable, centimeters are acceptable
    *If the centimeter must be subdivided, use millimeters.


  6. I can quite understand the argument that cm is redundant but what I do think is cause for concern is the myth that it is not an SI unit.

    When those who believe this chip in to public discussion on metrication they tend to give ammunition to opponents of metrication, who use this to claim that SI is confusing.


  7. Leave the Imperial system alone. It works for those who use it.


  8. Most of the items you mention seeing inches on are on imported goods i.e tools and televisions. I suspect this will be the answer for most products sold with inches on them – cheap non-name recognised brands imported to make a quick profit – they won’t convert labeling and guides for just couple of units as it would cut out the profit. I’ve never bought a TV measured in inches or even seen one. I have often had to convert my TV and computer screens to inches to find online product information/help.
    The shirts are from a pocket of imperial hangers-on in men’s clothing manufacture. Usually just a few brands of men’s shirts and belts, generally those aimed at older men and blue collar work-wear. Women’s clothes don’t use inches for anything; children’s don’t and neither do most clothing aimed at younger males.
    I’ve literally never seen a pizza measured in inches, I personally would have no concept of such a size as metric was introduced decades before I was born. I suspect you’re seeing either an international chain who maintains those sizes for branding or a family business who have learnt and passed on their trade in inches. I have read that cooking professions were the other hold out on the metric system when surveyed a decade ago but have never encountered it.
    I also think you must have put quite a lot of work into finding examples of imperial measurement given their scarcity in actuality.


  9. ” Grant Weatherstone says:
    2015-09-21 at 07:00
    Leave the Imperial system alone. It works for those who use it.”

    Just LOL! A bit late for that sentiment I feel.
    It may ‘work’ for the dwindling number that use it, but for what must now be getting on for 97% or 98% of the world population I venture to suggest the metric system works somewhat better.
    I do agree with your first sentence though, “Leave the Imperial system alone” followed though by “we are better off without it”.


  10. @AstuteGrapefruit says: 2018-06-17 at 01:36

    What you are describing there are goods imported from, made for, destined for or otherwise influenced by the richest and most powerful country on planet Earth, namely USA.
    The rest of the world is infected by the inevitable fall out. We are fighting it and gaining ground a millimetre at a time, but it is a long and agonising process, about 64 years and still fighting in my case.


  11. Astute Grapefruit:

    It just goes to show you how much the truth is compromised when reporting metric versus imperial/USC usage. It seems once someone claims an industry or product is still using imperial or USC, even if a change has happened a decade or so ago, the fact the change took place is ignored.

    This is what we see concerning Myanmar and Liberia, and I’m sure they will still be considered hold-outs long after metrication is complete.

    This has always been my argument, that too many people with too much free time on their hands spends hours searching for obscure uses of pre-metric units, even when those uses are no more than trade descriptors or obscure uses one may encounter rarely or never.

    How often is one in the need of a new TV and has to brush off their need to know inches? How often does one need to know their tyre rim size? I purchase new tyres on an average of every 5 years and never need to even mention the rim size to the technician. He scans the VIN number of the vehicle, and shows me on his monitor the tyres he has that will fit my car and their cost. The tyres are always a P-meric series.

    Now-a-days where I live, clothing, pizza, soft drinks, etc are not offered in imperial or USC amounts but come in small, medium, large, XL, XXL, XXXL, etc. This way, different companies can have different sizes to their offerings and they don’t have to be the same as their competitor down the street.

    The only cooking recipes you will encounter will not be in imperial, but in USC and that presents a problem as American spoons and cups are not the same as imperial. If care isn’t taken, bad results will occur. That is why it is best not to use any recipe that doesn’t strictly use metric units only.

    But, it is good to hear that stories of continued use of remnant units is false and imperial units has pretty much faded away in Australia life.


  12. Pigeon races in Australia are often talked about in miles but are now calculated in meters per minute. Beautiful harmony of new and old school


  13. Sounds like a lot of comments are from emotionally invested individuals!
    My take on metrication in Australia (I’m a 62 year old Aussie). I hasten to add that this is an observational comment, not a scientifically valid one!
    Temperature measurement changed in the early ’70s. Consequently, the vast majority of Australians have no clue at all about Fahrenheit. Everything else changed mid-70s.
    People my age have more understanding of the imperial system (which is not always the same as the American system, especially volume measures [e.g. US gal is about 4L, Imp gal is about 4.5L]).
    Routinely, I see the following imperial hangovers: height given in feet and inches (but not weight except for newborn babies), for marine navigation nautical miles and knots are used on the waterways and for wind speed (but wind speeds on TV weather reports are in km/h and tides are in metres), aviation is a hodgepodge (feet for vertical height, metres for short horizontal distances, km for intermediate distances, nm for flight planning purposes), tyre pressure (still mostly psi, but kPa is gaining), men’s shoe sizes (traditionally British sizing but more and more use of American sizing [8 becomes 9 etc.]. European sizes remain an enigma for most Aussies), screen sizes for TVs and tablets, clothing sizes (mixed use of units).
    In sports-obsessed Australia, pretty much every sport is fully metric. In relation to driving, speed, distance and fuel volume are totally metric. Medical practice is virtually all metric. Pretty much all professions and trades (apart from the areas mentioned above) are completely metric (of course, there are isolated hangovers).


  14. Dennis Wooller,

    I find it hard to comprehend how a 62 year old person living in a country that has been metric since the ’70s can claim that people your age have more understanding of the imperial system. We are talking about a time span of 40 plus years.

    What units would these older people be more familiar with? In your case you would have been exposed to metric units since your early 20s, time enough to gain full comprehension of SI units and lose comprehension of whatever imperial units you may have understood at the time.

    You and others have spent more time engulfed in metric units than you had in imperial units. Driving a car for 40 years would have exposed you to the kilometre, the kilometre per hour and the litre for purchasing fuel. Exposure in daily use of these units for 40 years time would have eradicated what little exposure to miles or gallons you may you had.

    The same with temperature units. With the media using only metric units for the past 40 plus years, these are the units that get drilled in your head to the point they are all that one truly understands.

    Job exposure has to be a huge tool for comprehending metric units. Using metric units on the job and never seeing an imperial unit or only seeing one on a rare occasion makes the imperial unit seem odd and scary.

    One would have to have been a total recluse for 40 years and avoid exposure to metric units to make such a claim that they understand imperial better.

    Shoe and clothing sizes are often obscure sizes not directly relatable to inches and one doesn’t often encounter them on a daily basis, only when one is shopping for those items. In most cases the item has to be tried on as the size one thinks they are often doesn’t fit right. Two or more brands with the same sizing number often don’t fit the same. Either the product is labelled with the wrong size of the person’s perception of their size is wrong.

    TV and tablet sizes are more based on trade descriptors than actual inch sizes. Measure the screen and the inches don’t add up. A perfect way to distort ones vision of an inch. In addition one only thinks about these trade descriptors when one is in the need to buy a new device. How often is that? Once every 10 years or so?

    With tyres, only the rim diameter is stated in inches even though the rest of the tyre is in millimetres. Like TVs one doesn’t shop for tyres on a daily basis but maybe once every 5 years. One doesn’t even need to deal with millimetres or inches when purchasing tyres. The last couple of times I purchased tyres, the shop attendant would scan the VIN number on my car, go to his computer and a variety of tyres would come up on the screen with the various warranty and other information plus pricing and I would make my choice as do others. No mention of inches or millimetres in the sale. The person installing my tyres would use a metric tool to do the installation. Plus those inch rims are made in millimetres with +/- 2 mm tolerance in the factory.

    Nautical miles and knots are a unit restricted to those who have a hobby or job of operating marine craft. The majority of people would have no contact with these areas in the same way they would not be exposed to air craft units. Nautical miles are quasi metric units, not related to land miles, and are 1852 m exactly.

    So I would be curious to know what particular units a 62 year old man after 40 years of hard exposure to metric units would know better and when compared to all the units exposed to in life would be the majority of the units one has to deal with on a daily basis.


  15. I was 22 years old and teaching Primary School when we changed over to metric. I could now use either method with equal accuracy but had to make a deliberate effort to think in metric all my life, especially height. One anomaly here in Australia is the length of caravans. I see reference to them always in feet even though they are mainly produced here in Australia. Maybe it is for the Grey Nomads who until recently were the main users of this form of travel.


  16. Surfboards, I believe, are still made and measured in feet and inches in Australia.


  17. I highly doubt that surfboards are made and measured in feet and inches in Australia. More than likely, they are just advertised in feet and inches if they still are. A lot of American products are made in metric in the factory but labelled in FFU for the consumers.

    The only way to know for sure is to see an engineering drawing. If they are made in China and and imported into Australia, they are definitely metric.


  18. In regards to Ronnie’s comment that gaol is used because it was an old plaque. Not the case. Gaol is still used by the NSW Corrective Services Department. Last hold out in the world I think.


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