An old habit dies hard

One of our regular contributors, John Frewen-Lord, observes that the beauty and value of the built-in simplicity and coherence of the metric system is not being learned by the UK population despite forty years of teaching.

He writes:

“This is a subject that I and others have touched upon before in past posts on Metric Views, but it seems that it perhaps needs revisiting in light of the recent YouGov survey commissioned by the UKMA. The survey showed conclusively that the British public prefers to still keep using what is a rather cumbersome and clumsy collection of disjointed measuring units, eschewing the simple and rather well integrated metric system that is not only easily available, but is what a majority of the UK population has been taught (if not actually learned) during their school days.

People keep saying that the metric system is for scientists, engineers and other specialist applications, but is not suited to everyday use. That is so wrong. One anti-metric website even states that the metric system is for bureaucrats. Considering that 95% of the world’s population uses only (or at least primarily) the metric system for every part of their lives, that makes for rather a lot of bureaucrats! Obviously that statement is simply ridiculous. The metric system is, to use its well-known tagline, ‘for all people, for all time’ (Condorcet, 1791). So why does a majority of the British public not use it, when it is so obviously much easier to use, even for ‘everyday’ calculations?

In fact, there are many occasions when, faced with a measuring problem, I find that use of the metric system really provides the only easily achieved solution – imperial simply just doesn’t ‘cut it’. The following are just a few of these problems that I have encountered that show just how simple using the metric system is in our everyday world (apologies if these sound a bit like school exam questions, but they genuinely are real problems that use of the metric system helped me to easily solve).

  1. When our previous house was being rented, the estate agent needed to measure how much heating oil was in the tank. He ‘dipped’ it by inserting a long measuring stick into the tank, and reading the oil depth mark. He noted the depth in inches, which, considering he was a chartered surveyor, rather surprised me. He then proceeded to phone his office with the depth and tank diameter, where they had ‘conversion tables’ that would give him the number of litres in the tank. Before he had even got through to his office, I had worked it out on my mobile phone calculator. [The depth, measured as 19-3/4 inches, I converted to a rounded 50 cm. The tank was 1.96 m in diameter, as per its manufacturer’s label. Using the formula Pi x r² x h, the calculation was 3.142 x 98 x 98 x 50 ÷ 1000 = 1509 litres. Or 3.142 x 0.98 x 0.98 x 0.5 x 1000 – it comes to the same thing.]
  2. A colleague who walks as a hobby mentioned that it takes him 23 minutes to walk from his house to the railway station. He knew that he walks at between 3-1/2 and 4 mph, and said that ‘one day’ he must work out exactly how far the railway station is. I immediately told him it was around 2.3 km. He picked up on the relationship between 23 minutes and 2.3 km, but was intrigued as to how they were connected like that. After I told him, we now have at least one person who has switched to SI, at least for his walking activities. Considering that less than half the YouGov respondents did not know how many yards there were in a mile, it is perhaps not surprising that people find it very difficult to do this kind of calculation in imperial units. [Using an average of say 3.7 mph, this converts to 6 km/h. Dividing by 60 gives us 100 m/min – a very useful and easily used value when calculating walking times and distances.]
  3. Similarly when driving. Anti-metric types say that imperial has that wonderful relationship of 60 mph equalling a mile a minute, and that metric doesn’t have that. Actually, it does, and better. At lower speeds over shorter distances (say a mix of urban and two-lane rural roads), we tend to measure our journey times in minutes. A good average speed for this type of journey is 60 km/h, or 1 km/min. A journey of 20 km can therefore be expected to take 20 minutes (obviously it could be very different from that). Conversely, over long distances, we tend to measure our journey times in hours. Assuming primarily motorway/dual carriageway driving, we can probably average 100 km/h. A journey of 300 km can therefore be expected to take 3 hours.
  4. My other half could not find a measuring cup to measure out 150 mL of water needed for a recipe (she does cook in metric). I came to the rescue by taking a regular cup, placing it on the electronic kitchen scales, then zeroed the scales, and poured in water until the scales read 150 g. Until that moment, she had not realised the one-to-one relationship between litres and kilograms.
  5. Likewise when our local shopping centre hosted a blood donor clinic, a young lady who was obviously a nurse of some kind accosted me and asked whether I wanted to give a pint of blood. I said that that I didn’t do pints, but might be persuaded to give half a litre. No problem, she said, and then asked if I knew what percentage of my body’s fluid content half a litre was. After a few seconds calculating in my head, I said a little over 1%, with which she concurred. She said that most people think it’s much more than that, assuming they even know that the human body is about 60% water by weight (can vary quite a bit). Considering that it is all but impossible to relate stones and pounds to pints, no wonder people have no idea how little a ‘pint’ of blood is as part of their body fluid content. [I weigh 66 kg. 60% of that is 40 kg, which means I have around 40 L of body fluid within me. 0.5 L is 1.25% of that.]
  6. Our heating system is getting old, and is not very efficient. I was pricing out the running costs of a new system, and calculated that a set of new radiators probably could give out around 12 kW of heat output on maximum heat (it’s a large old house). Our gas is priced at 5.5p/kW.h, meaning that it would cost £0.66/h to heat the house on maximum heat at 100% efficiency. I now could compare a new boiler at 97% efficiency with our old one, which the plumber has said is probably no better than 70%. (Annoyingly, new radiators are still often rated in BTUs, which is less than helpful.)

So why do we still cling to yards and miles, to stones and pounds, to pints and BTUs, and all the other weird and disconnected units of imperial measure, which make the sorts of problem solving and price comparisons noted above all but impossible? An informed public is a valuable safeguard against getting ‘ripped off’ by manufacturers, retailers and contractors alike, as well as enabling us to make correct decisions in many aspects of our lives. Yet continuing to use imperial measures, with their extreme difficulty in making meaningful comparisons, all but guarantees a public that cannot be properly informed. I guess we get what we deserve.”

56 thoughts on “An old habit dies hard”

  1. This all quite clearly shows that we have had 40 years of non-teaching of the metric system. Who taught the teachers, what official guidance have they had? Is there a syllabus? Do they use metric outside of school? (I can answer the last one as a firm NON!). Like my experience of the NHS, they may have to record in metric but talking to the patients they translate into ‘those other things’ even when I use totally metric, they just do not get the message and keep prattling on in units I just don’t understand. I have two retired teachers as friends, I do not know what they taught, but it was the infants. Neither of those, nor their university educated children use metric in normal life, not even to me.
    The direct relationship between various units is a (or THE) very fundamental core of the SI system. That this is quite clearly not being taught, and most certainly not being used, just largely negates a lot of the advantages of using the metric system. Let us stress SYSTEM here, that is key. A system, not a collection of random measuring units.
    On the credit side this weekend, 4 Mj of battery energy has come to Formula one motor racing. I guess as yet no one in the media knows what that is, so has not thought of a sufficiently stupid ‘context’ conversion (maybe by the next race). If only they would stop converting all the kW power figures to HP, certainly for the electrical side, some of us may be able to understand it.
    Yes, HP, mpg and Btu, my top three totally stupid and meaningless units of non-measurement that ought to die, quickly followed by the cal, Cal kcal or whatever people imagine it to be.


  2. Another old habit that keeps resurfacing is the use of Fahrenheit by weather forecasters in the summer. I have heard two examples of this in the last few days on the BBC as the weather has been getting warmer. I am perfectly able – indeed I am expected – to understand degrees Celsius through the winter months and I have absolutely no problem doing so. But when the temperature hits the 20-degree mark in London, some of the weather forecasters think I need to know that it is not going to be a magical 20 degrees, but actually sixty-eight degrees ‘in Fahrenheit’ (which sometimes makes me wonder whether Fahrenheit is a currency, like so much money being expressed ‘in dollars’). Famously, I heard one of the forecasters a few years ago say the temperature was going to be ‘sixteen sixty-one’, a very helpful piece of information. (I will leave the reader to work out for himself or herself what the forecaster must have meant.) It really is time to ditch all these imperial relics of the past and use the country’s official units of measurement when communicating with the public. As far as the temperature it concerned, this can be an issue of life and death in the summer as well as the winter.


  3. The British have an advantage over those with knowledge of only one measuring system. Like children whose parents natively speak different languages are generally bilingual, the British are fluent in two measuring systems. At work the British inevitably use metric in engineering, commerce, education and government. They have learnt it and are fully competent with it – they have to be. However, at home they relax back to the units of their custom, culture and heritage. Like those who spend their working day speaking a language other than their mother tongue, who revert back to their mother tongue when they are off duty. It results in a richer, less prejudiced, more competent experience and a more rounded view of the world. Brits can deal with Americans in their native customary units of with the French in theirs, and they don’t lose touch with their heritage. It’s a win-win.

    To address BrianAC’s points directly. Teachers can, and do, teach metric measures in the classroom, for certain subjects, but they should not (and should have no right to) try to stop their pupils from using their ethnic measures in other subjects and in their own time. Should they force pupils, whose native tongue is not English, to use English outside of the classroom? And your attitude to the choices made by others seems a little arrogant, you seem to expect others to speak your language, regardless of theirs. Are you one of those who shouts English at foreigners thinking that will help them understand it better too?

    And Jake’s point. In the same way that 0 (zero) degrees C is the benchmark for cold, 100 degrees F is the benchmark for hot. It adds interest, and draws attention to the detail, which will inevitably be in C, even it it’s 37.8 degrees C. 16-61 is reference to the well-known coincidence where 16 degrees C is equal (ignoring fractions) to 61 degrees F. It too is a convenient and sensible thing to draw attention to – calibration wise.

    The UK has a culture and customs worth preserving, please don’t belittle them or try and destroy them for the sake of relatively unimportant measurement dogma.


  4. @Charlie P,

    First, you say “The British have an advantage over those with knowledge of only one measuring system. Like children whose parents natively speak different languages are generally bilingual, the British are fluent in two measuring systems.”
    OK, so far so good. However, if no other nation on planet earth uses the second system I totally fail to see how this gives us an advantage over everyone else. The USA use not only a largely different system, but what is the same is used quite differently. Try telling an American your weight in stones and the distance to McDonald’s in yards and you will get a blank look. Give them a recipe in Imperial and you have a soggy mess. Given that it seems most people in UK do not understand either metric nor imperial, then it is a slim chance that they understand USC along with them.
    In my view this “knowing two systems” holds us back in a place where no one else wants to be. It is a loose loose situation that us Brits seem to love to indulge ourselves in. I will ignore the oblique reference to metric being French, that is wearing a bit thin these days.

    Next “Teachers can, and do, teach metric measures in the classroom, for certain subjects, but they should not (and should have no right to) try to stop their pupils from using their ethnic measures in other subjects and in their own time.”
    As we already know, … for certain subjects … ,therein is the root of the problem, for certain subjects. What crass stupidity that is. Using your own analogy that is like teaching geography in say Portuguese and, history in French because that is what most of it is about. Then the students can go home and talk to their parents in the quaint old language of English (which is 75% French anyway, but we don’t want to know that, do we?)

    Next “And your attitude to the choices made by others seems a little arrogant, you seem to expect others to speak your language, regardless of theirs.” Sorry, I am not with you on this one. I referred to the NHS staff speaking to me in units I do not understand. I expect them to use the units specified by the successive legitimate governments of the United Kingdom and other relevant bodies. That for 40 years or more has been the metric system (apart from certain weird exceptions). I was educated in the forties and fifties. Time moves on, and so do most of the human race, myself along with that group. I expect those with far better education than I, to set a reasonable standard of public responsibility towards me, and not expect me to have to translate their meaningless utterances into UK standard units. I will repeat, METRIC (SI) is the official, legal, system of measurement used in UK for most purposes.
    That point you seem to totally miss.
    That is what I use, that is what I expect educated people to use. Now pray tell me where is the arrogance in that expectation?


  5. Well, you can deal with Americans in feet and pounds, true. However, the difference in American and Imperial gallons, bushels, tons and their submultiples (not to mention stones which few Americans understand and none use) cause endless confusion.

    The easiest way to avoid that confusion is to just use metric, the second easiest way is to define the units by their metric definitions to avoid confusion.

    For the American versions of the terms:
    1 gallon = 3.785 411 784 L
    1 bushel = 35.239 07 L
    1 ton = 907.184 74 kg

    Do you happen to know the Imperial versions off the top of your head? Or do you happen to know the difference between a troy and avoirdupois ounce. The same word having two or more definitions is just a bit confusing. Metric is the same for everybody.

    I am surprised that farmers seem comfortable selling in bushels in the domestic market and metric tons in the export market; of course those are American-size bushels so perhaps you should buy in tonnes.


  6. @CharlieP – You are claiming that “The British have an advantage over those with knowledge of only one measuring system. Like children whose parents natively speak different languages are generally bilingual, the British are fluent in two measuring systems. ”

    If that was the case, America (which teaches both US Customary and Imperial at school) would have the best numeracy and Britani would be far behind. This is not the case, both countries have very poor numeracy compared to the rest of the developed world (and in the US, time is actually wasted due to extra teaching of US Customary). One survey back in 2002 said that 1 in 3 cannot calculate an area in either metric or imperial. Another survey in has also shown the true situation in the.

    Other countries like Germany, Australia, South Africa, India, Japan, Singapore all have better numeracy rates, but they have only one measurement system. Their children aren’t dealing with a two-systems mess unlike in the UK, USA or to a lesser extent Canada. By the way, I speak German and French and a couple of other languages in addition to English, but only use metric (like most of the world).

    One cannot compare measurement to a language. Measurement is just a means of getting things done, by measuring things – no cultural value for a simple thing like that. Language is about speaking to each other. Culture is about our way of life: including food, drink, music, sports, arts – theatre, movies, fine arts etc and our heritage.

    Furthermore, Imperial units are not even British, they were imposed on us by foreign invaders (Romans, Anglians, Saxons and Normans).


  7. @CharlieP:

    Your view of the value of knowing imperial measures is incorrect on a number of counts. Firstly, your last words “unimportant measuring dogma” are a gross mis-statement of the value of measurements in the development of the human race. Measurements have been, and still are, the very foundation of the ability of humans to progress, and societies going back over 5000 years have realised the superior value of having only one fixed and incontestable set of measurement units that form the basis of trade, standards, manufacturing, surveying and everything else that constitutes a developed society (even Magna Carta prescribed only one measure ‘throughout the realm’).

    Secondly, your statement “Brits can deal with Americans in their native customary units of [sic] with the French in theirs, and they don’t lose touch with their heritage. It’s a win-win.” is only partially true. Half the measurements Americans use are different from their imperial counterparts, and much confusion and many errors have occurred because of this. Yet too many Brits, in clinging to imperial units, are insufficiently proficient in using metric units to talk intelligently with the French (or indeed with any other nationality beyond the USA). Far from being a win-win, it’s more like a lose-lose.

    Finally, let us once and for all bury that falsehood that ditching an outdated set of measuring units that hardly anyone else in the world uses is betraying our heritage. Steam trains are part of our heritage (I love them) but the last thing I would want to see is steam trains trundling up and down our main lines, disrupting and slowing everything else down (as the use of obsolete imperial does to world-standard metric). And all countries once used non-metric measurement units in their past. The conversion to SI in no way has caused them to lose any part of their heritage and culture, so why should the Brits lose theirs in completing metrication? It’s time to put imperial where it belongs – in libraries and museums, not as part of everyday British life in the 21st century.


  8. MPG – sorry some people have a doctrinaire almost Stalinist approach to these issues. Why not have a relaxed view and not berate people for using what they like best?
    Are you really saying the metric version of MPG is easier to use and understand??? Get a life!
    People in this country have used miles since the days of King Alfred and it is part of our heritage. If you don’t like it move elsewhere or stop bleating on about this.
    I accept that science is best served by the SI units but in everyday life people should be free to use what they want. I don’t want hectares, metres, kilos – in fact I boycott retailers that use them to the exclusion of our traditional measures – and only this week didn’t place an online order for £300 worth of curtains. After all 6ft by 5ft is so much easier to work with than 1804mm by 1530mm.
    Enjoy the summer the temperature may get into the 80s (or the middle to upper high 20s)


  9. Charlie P,
    The UK does have culture and customs worth preserving. Like tolerance, open-mindedness and innovation. An outdated method of measuring things that was inherited from the Romans and Normans, altered many times throughout the ages because it wasn’t up to scratch, forced onto other countries and then replaced officially by something better is NOT worth preserving. The class system is also part of British culture and I don’t think you would agree that that is worth preserving.
    The British public do not have a knowledge of two methods of measurement. Using part metric measurements and part imperial measurements proves that they don’t even understand the concept of a system whereby a network of interconnecting parts forms a whole. The insidious use of imperial measurements by much of the government and media sees to it that in most cases the public is only informed in imperial measurements thereby maintaining dependency on knowledge of these redundant measures and hindering fluency in the modern alternative.
    America and a few small islands are the only places in the world that still officially use customary units. Do you really think it’s wise to ignore the way the rest of the world measures to concentrate on the last country stupid enough to persist with a method everyone else ditched long ago? Perhaps you think Celtic should be promoted as a major language in the UK? It’s the traditional language of Britain and would give us an advantage in communication with all those other Celtic speakers.
    I take issue with your statement that measurement is relatively unimportant. Measurement is very important for an industrialised nation like Britain.
    Things are bought and traded every day, buildings are constructed and journeys are made. Ignorance of measurements leaves everyone open to exploitation and danger.
    Preserve things worth preserving by all means but don’t preserve something inferior just because it’s old. That makes a mockery of tradition.


  10. I beg to disagree with CharlieP. The British are anything but fluent in two measuring systems. Apart from the very basic of imperial units, which generally includes feet and inches and pounds or stones for their height and weight in imperial units, most people I have ever asked know very little at all about any other imperial units and certainly cannot manipulate or do sums in those units easily and often not at all. They often display much greater knowledge of metric units and can do basic sums very easily in their head while often claiming not to know metric very well. A very paradoxical situation. If metric is going to be compared with language, then it is the universal language of measurement (not just that of the French as suggested in the posting above). Britain is one of a very small number of countries in the world that does not have a single system of weights and measures. This is a recipe for ignorance, not something to be celebrated.

    As to the other points made, I have never in my life heard of ‘benchmarks’ for cold and hot. Zero degrees Celsius is obviously the freezing point of water and 100 degrees the boiling point, but if I were pushed to come up with a benchmark for a hot day I would probably say 30 degrees for a very warm day and 40 degrees for a very hot day. I don’t see where degrees Fahrenheit come into it personally.

    I could not agree more that the UK has its own culture and customs but some of these are worth preserving and some are not. I fail to see how not having a proper system of measurement that is taught in schools and used in education, science, technology, commerce and public administration is a hallmark of a great culture. It is not as though the present shambles of measurement units in the UK is the result of a carefully crafted plan. It is the result of Britain having failed to complete the changeover it set out on in earnest about half a century ago.

    To finish on the ’16 61′ note, the poster has most certainly identified what I was alluding to, but I fail for the life of me to see why that is ‘a sensible thing to draw attention to’ other possibly than in the context of a quiz.


  11. Charlie P wrote:
    “At work the British inevitably use metric in engineering, commerce, education and government. They have learnt it and are fully competent with it – they have to be”

    Where is the evidence for this?

    Take a look out the UKMA survey results:

    This shows that people in the UK are by no means fully competent with either metric or imperial. This situation is very likely the result of trying to be so called “bi-lingual” in measurement.

    Surely it is more important for the UK to have a system of measurement that everyone can easily learn to understand and use for all purposes.

    Those who arrogantly misappropriate the ideas of culture and tradition and insist on retaining outdated units of measurement in spite of the adverse practical consequences are the ones who are being dogmatic.


  12. ‘However, at home they relax back to the units of their custom, culture and heritage’.

    Ahh, the old custom and heritage argument. Interesting that you refer to the French in your comment Charlie P. Maybe you should credit the pounds and ounces to the French, as it comes from the avoir dupois system of weights. Italy gave us the mile, the inch and foot can be traced back to the Egytpians. So none of these are part of British heritage, or indeed US heritage. In fact, shouldn’t it be the Greeks, French, Italians, Egyptians et al that are incensed at the passing of THEIR units? No, they all went metric.

    The ultimate irony is that all those beardy weirdies who advocate a full return to the rod and perch in the name of Britishness are totally ignorant of the fact that it was an English man that 1st proposed a unified decimal measurement system. Not only that many of our scientists are commemorated in the name of its units. And the prototypes of the kilogram and the metre were manufactured in London.

    So Charlie P, if you must play the heritage card then at least back the system that is actually British in heritage


  13. Just to put the record straight for bilingualism: speaking two or more languages is a wonderful thing. Indeed I am bilingual myself. But bilingualism has nothing to do with measurement and most certainly nothing to do with knowing bits and pieces of imperial measures (I am loathe to write ‘system’ for imperial measures as they do not constitute a system in the proper sense of the word) and having a passing acquaintance with the metric system. I fully accept that most people in Britian are in the situation they are in through no fault of their own but because of the failure of government to see metric conversion properly through. If that process had been done properly (and like other supporters of the UKMA I hope yet to live to see that happen) then those arguing in favour of imperial units here would be using metric and not even knowing imperial units except as something they have read about in history books. By the same token nobody today seriously argues in favour of ditching Britain’s decimal currency and returning to shillings and pence, though I better my bottom dollar (or pound) that if old ‘sixpences’ had been kept in circulation until now (they were kept in circulation for a while after decimalisation of the currency as a 2 1/2 p piece) there would be people out there arguing that they are an inalienable part of our culture and must be defended at all costs.

    There are many things worth defending in Britian but the remaining vestiges of imperial units are not one of them.


  14. @ Steve
    ‘After all 6ft by 5ft is so much easier to work with than 1804mm by 1530mm’. Another of thise attempts to make metric look stupid and absurd by using absurd numerical values in metric. A rational metric size for a curtain would be 180 by 150 cm or any rational metric value. I have seen millimetres to the third decimal place, a drawing computer program that used increments of 2.54 cm as a so-called metric option and more of such stuff, all from US and UK sources.
    In the metric countries we use ‘hard’ rational metric values, not nonsense like 1804 by 1530 mm; 1435.1 mm (4 ft 8 1/2 in) , which is 1435 mm, the standard rail gauge which is also a metric standard, millimetres to the third decimal place etc.


  15. The evidence that philh asks for, that the British are competent using metric, is all around us. The UK is still one of the world’s major players in aerospace, automotive and civil engineering, as well as in other areas of science and technology. And they mostly do it using metric units. What further evidence do you require?

    Outside of work though, people, young and old, clearly prefer the traditional units. And what’s wrong with that? It is a healthy indicator of freedom of speech and freedom of choice. We don’t tend to regulate or dictate other aspects of private life – language, dress, diet, etc. Why regulate, or even attempt to influence, choice of measurement units? It’s not as if the economy (or anything else for that matter) is suffering because of it – quite the contrary probably.

    The units are no more outdated than the language, and no-one’s suggesting we fix that – or are they…? People are not machines, they have free choice, and while they prefer traditional units, for whatever reason, then let’s leave well alone. There is no dogma involved in that. Forcing change for no reason other than a principle of faith is another matter altogether though.

    Michduncg, you appear to have misunderstood my post. I wasn’t suggesting the traditional units have a British heritage, but that the British people have a heritage which includes the traditional units – a different thing entirely. They also have a language heritage, giving us English, although it too has an international parentage.

    Talking of playing cards, playing the xenophobia card isn’t a good idea. The British are well known for their nationality-blindness. They buy foreign-made goods if they think they’re better than the home-made alternative – with no qualms at all. They integrate foreign words with open arms. What they don’t like though, is being told to stop doing something which isn’t harming anyone, and where the alternative does not add any benefit.

    That British scientists and engineers played a significant role in developing the metric system isn’t a surprise to me – it’s general knowledge I thought. They have played major roles in most technological and scientific developments. But that is not a sound reason for disregarding Britain’s heritage and the will of its people. Let people make their own decisions.

    On a personal note: I know both systems, and use mainly metric units for work – where they are the lingua franca. When not working I use mainly traditional units, although I reserve the right to use metric units if I choose, even in combination with traditional units if appropriate. I choose based on perceived fitness for purpose – and that seems like a reasonable criteria to me.


  16. Steve says:
    MPG – sorry some people have a doctrinaire almost Stalinist approach to these issues. Why not have a relaxed view and not berate people for using what they like best?
    Are you really saying the metric version of MPG is easier to use and understand??? Get a life!
    I say
    Once again, just what is the point of using units that do not exist? What is there to like about a unit that has no meaning?
    The Imperial gallon ceased to have any legal definition (in UK) as of 30 September 1995, and in the rest of the world as of 31 December 1994. Thus the only (liquid) gallon is the US gallon, legally defined as 231 cubic inches at 60 degrees F.
    The problem I can see arising in UK if we persist in this nonsense of mixed measurements is that we will inevitably drift into using USC instead of Imperial. Given recent survey results in UK highlighting the abysmal understanding the UK public has of any measuring units, I am fairly certain that this will come sooner rather than later, and few people would even realise. That would at least remove the UK/US divide.
    So, given that we have bought car fuel only by the litre for at least 20 years, but still use miles on the roads, then miles/litre would seem to be a more sensible unit to use. The continued use of gallons is just pointless. Using km/100 litres or whatever is equally pointless as we do not (yet) use km on our roads. Those that wish to use whatever is just fine, but the official, public and in-car read outs should certainly not be in gallons.
    I personally am open to any idea that does not use non-existent units.
    No youngster learning to drive today would have any concept of a gallon of petrol, so why should they be faced with it on the instrument readouts?


  17. Steve, This is a wind-up, isn’t it?
    The first thing I’d like to say is that I got sick of waiting for the modern system of measurement promised by the government in 1965 so I did as you suggested and moved elsewhere several years ago.
    I now live in a country where people don’t require historical props to feel adequate.
    A place that’s relatively free of the baggage and prejustices of the past and therefore offers a brighter future for my children. You might ask why I’m bothering with this site if I’m happily living in a more enlightened place. I use measurements every day and to see how much better the system of measurement here is it troubles me to see the country where I was born saddled with such backward ways and slipping further and further behind the rest of the world each year.
    Why berate people for using what they like best? If it doesn’t harm anyone else there isn’t a problem but using an inadequate method of measurement harms the whole country. Britain has one of the lowest numeracy rates in the world thanks to two conflicting methods of measurement. Sometimes people need to be forced to do things for their own good. Criminal law road rules, taxes etc. are enforced on everyone for the benefit of society. You might like exceeding the speed limit by 50% but it could be harmful to others
    If you’re referring to fuel consumption when you talk about the metric version of MPG: My car does around 10l/100km. I regularly make trips to a town about 150km from where I live so a round trip will take about 30 litres of fuel. Fuel is around $1.50/l
    so my trip costs me $45 in petrol. How is that difficult? You buy your petrol in litres then have to convert it to gallons to get your MPG. A very complicated business. I really think it’s you that should be getting a life Steve.
    You don’t want hectares, metres and kilograms. I do, and I want all the other units that make up a system so I can compare like with like and not get ripped off by unscrupulous traders or put my life in danger because of lack of knowledge of historical measurements I don’t know or should have any reason to know.
    BTW, If I wanted curtains to cover my 2.5m high x 3.9m wide window I wouldn’t ask for 8′ 2″ and 27/64 by 12’9 and 35/64. It’s too hard to type for a start.


  18. @ CharlieP

    I wasn’t going to bother responding to your initial comment as we have been over this ground so many times before. However, your repetition of the same fallacy prompts me to comment.

    Presumably you didn’t check the reference that Philh cited ( ), so I quote the relevant passage in full below:

    “4.3.1 Need to know two systems (but many don’t)
    In order to function effectively in the UK an adult needs to have a detailed knowledge of all the main metric and imperial units. Comparing food prices in the street market and the supermarket cannot be done without knowing both how many ounces there are in a pound, how many grams are in a kilogram and the relevant conversion factors (not to mention the possession of a pocket calculator). Timber cannot be purchased without knowing its length in metres and its profile in inches. Petrol consumption cannot be calculated without knowing the conversion factors for either litres to gallons or miles to kilometres. A person who is only familiar with one set of measurement units is at a serious disadvantage.
    Yet there is strong evidence from the YouGov survey that substantial minorities of the population (in some cases a majority) struggle to remember the relationships between the most common metric and imperial units. Respondents to this online survey were given 10 seconds to answer questions such as “How many yards are there in a mile?” Some key results are given below.
    · 76% of respondents (including 95% of the 25-39 age group) were unable to answer correctly or at all how many yards there are in a mile
    · 43% did not give the correct answer when asked how many metres there are in a kilometre (including 55% of the 60+ age group)
    · 33% of respondents were unable to answer correctly how many pounds there are in a stone (including 24% of the 60+ age group)
    · 38% did not give the correct answer when asked how many grams there are in a kilogram (54% of the 60+ age group)

    These findings suggest that many adults in Britain are unable to understand or make use of information provided for their protection or benefit – such as quantity indication on package labels, unit pricing (the small print at the bottom of price labels), recommended medicine doses, product descriptions and instruction manuals, health and safety warnings etc. This problem would be bad enough if there were only one system of measurement: the existence of two systems can only make it worse.”


  19. CharlieP says: 2014-03-21 at 14:52 “Outside of work though, people, young and old, clearly prefer the traditional units. And what’s wrong with that? It is a healthy indicator of freedom of speech and freedom of choice.”

    So what about my freedom of choice? Quite clearly my freedom of choice, to use the units the whole world understands, and which also happens to be the units of this land, is only acceptable to the likes of you and Steve if it happens to be in line with your way of thinking. It seems you consider me a social outcast because I use more sensible units to describe my height and weight. In practice you are right, if either subject comes up I have the freedom of choice, either go with the flow or keep my mouth shut. I simply say “I have no idea what those things mean”, then keep my mouth shut. Then my friends can talk around me. Nice innit? As Steve says, I should really get a life, or leave the country. Hopefully I will be able to do both one day. In the mean time I only have the life I was given.
    Just remember please, we are ordinary everyday folk who would find life much easier if we had to learn and understand one measuring system along with one language. I do not see why, as Steve suggests, I should have to learn French or Spanish just to move to a country that properly uses the measurements that are prescribed for use in my own country. I never did get to grips with those stupid units, they made no sense as a child and make even less sense as a septuagenarian. The metric system comes as a breath of fresh air, as did the decimal currency, lets get on with it and give future generations a chance of a life.
    In my view metric is for us old folk, so easy and understandable, even a child could learn it, that is if they were taught it as a subject and a system. Not as it seems from this thread just ‘used for certain subjects’. No wonder the poor little mites are so confused.

    It is my belief that the continued use of obsolescent units is quite simply a question of inertia, or as this title says, old habits die hard. Habits are bad, often very bad, this one is the worst ever. It has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom of choice.
    Factually this muddle costs this country a lot, an awful lot in terms of hard cash, that surely is not hard for anyone to see.


  20. The ‘freedom of choice’ argument has always been a red herring. Petrol is sold in litres, there is no ‘freedom of choice’ to sell to your customers in any other units. We are still stuck with ‘miles’ on the roads. There is no ‘freedom of choice’ for those of us who would like to see our road signs show the units taught in school as the country’s national system of measurement. You cannot legally sell anything in a shop in units other than metric units. That is the law, you do not get to choose your units.

    Having said that, I agree people should be free to speak whatever language they like in their own private sphere and indeed use any measurements they like in their own private sphere. But when it comes to the national life of the country, we are better served with one single system of measurement that is taught to everyone and everyone can be expected to know and use. In the same way as many people (including me) say that anyone living in Britain when dealing with the authorities should be able to speak and understand the one national language of English.

    One single system of measurment for everything in the public and commerical domain is what virtually all the developed countries in the world, bar the USA of course, have. We copy the USA in many different ways, but going down the route of two or multi systems of measurement is a waste of time and money. And a a waste of the metric education taught in Britain’s schools. Having a single national system of measurement does not restrict anyone’s freedom of choice to measure in any other way they like in their personal lives.


  21. Steve, the imperial statute mile of 1.61 kilometres only came into general use around the seventeenth century. In the time of King Alfred’s reign in the ninth century the mile was around 1.52 kilometres. The Romans invented the mile and the name is derived from the word, millia, which is “thousand” in Latin. Their mile was a more logical mile than the imperial mile because it was a thousand paces whereas the
    imperial mile isn’t a thousand of anything. The Roman mile spread throughout the known world and varied between 1and 15 kilometres. The mile in Sweden refers to a distance of 10 kilometres. Over time parochial measures were dropped country by country and replaced with the universal system of measurement. I have yet to meet anyone from any country who laments the loss of their traditional measurements.


  22. Steve writes
    “I accept that science is best served by the SI units but in everyday life people should be free to use what they want.”
    I agree. As individuals and in the security of our own homes, we are free to use whatever measurement system is best for us. That could be Imperial, USC, metric, Egyptian cubits, or any number of measurement units.
    That is one of the freedoms we have, and should never loose.
    However outside our homes, there is change. A change from old measurement units to metric units. People adapt to what they see around them. Some call it progress, others call it forced change. But the result is that metric units are here to stay.
    To remain with old units, is to live in the world of conversions.
    When you receive your electricity account, you are free to convert from kW/h to horsepower. When you purchase a car, you are free to convert engine capacity, from litres to cubic inches. When you read a nutritional label, on food packaging, you are free to convert kilojoules to British Thermal Units, and grams to ounces.
    However most will change as the country changes. The advantages of one system of measurement, the metric system, will not be seen, until the individual shakes off conversions and thinks in metric only.
    This not something that may happen. It will happen, as it has happened in many countries around the world. The only question is when, not if.


  23. A pleasingly virtuous website (completely using metric units):

    … and, sadly (and quite strangely, indeed…), a not-so-virtuous website (still using miles and feet):

    … while, of course, also this website should use kilometres and metres.

    Both very important UK projects, BTW; and, probably, the second website’s still obsolete units being also a consequence of the missing metrication of UK road signs (i.e., motorways in miles, and also railways in miles: aaargh…!).


  24. Despite some ferocious resistance, the UK is slowly changing to metric units. Here is the evidence from Still a Mess

    Support for the metric system is 25% overall but 19% in the over 60s and 33% in the 18-24s.

    Support for the metric system is stronger in London (31%) than elsewhere in the UK.

    Support for the metric system is greater in the higher social grades (28% ) than the lower grades (21%).

    Support for the metric system is greater in men (32%) than amongst women (19%).

    Support for the metric system is greater in those with the most education (35%) than those who left school at 16 or less (17%).

    Men were more in favour of the metric system (32%) than women (19%)

    There was little difference in support for the metric system between Labour (28%) and Conservative voters (25%) but a striking difference between Lib Democrats (48%) and UKIP voters (14%).

    Only 10% of the over 60s preferred kilograms when weighing themselves while 29% of the 18-24s preferred kilograms. This may have something to do with the preference for metric weights in some sports.

    There is clear majority support for temperatures in Celsius (61%). This rises to 75% in the 25-39 age group and 80% in the 18-24s.

    The evidence therefore supports the Times opinion of a “… trend in the UK to move gradually towards all-metric use…”


  25. @ Michael

    I think you have missed the main point that “Still a mess” was trying to make, and have drawn completely the wrong conclusion. Please re-read the Executive Summary, especially paragraph 2.6, which reads: “It is concluded that, without Government action to complete metrication, the present dysfunctional muddle of two incompatible measurement systems – the “very British mess” – will continue indefinitely.”

    Notwithstanding your selective quotations, and pace the Times, there is no “trend in the UK to move gradually towards all-metric use”. That is the problem. That is why Government action is needed.


  26. Erithacus, I think the difference between us is a glass half empty/class half full situation. Yes, firm Government action would make a huge difference, but with twice as many people against further metrication than are in favour of it, don’t hold your breath.

    I note you object to my quotation of statistics. However, if you check the report, I think you will find that the statistics do suggest a slow increase in metric use.

    Take, for instance, opposition to the metric system. It was 64% in the over 60s, 55% in the 40-59s, 34% in the 25-39s and 36% in the 18-24s. Younger people were clearly less opposed to the metric system than older people.

    A similar picture emerges if you look at support for the metric system. It was 19% in the over 60s, 25% in the 40-59s, 29% in the 25-39s and 33% in the 18-24s.

    The ratio of support to opposition went from more than 3 to 1 against in the oldest age group to near parity in the youngest age group. Still not a plurality, but getting close, and better than the present position, which is 2 to 1 against.

    The trend is towards increasing acceptance of the metric system in the UK. Would that the process wasn’t so slow and halting!


  27. Michael, you wrote:
    “Despite some ferocious resistance, the UK is slowly changing to metric units. Here is the evidence from Still a Mess…”

    That only shows a snapshot, not a trend. And I thought previous surveys showed greater use and support of metric – so the latest survey surely showed a change away *from* metric units. To show that there is change *to* metric units, you also need to provide evidence of an increase in support over time.


  28. Furlongs per Fortnight !
    I read with interest the views expressed and would like to add a further twist to the very British mess. The highway code has metric quoted for reference in many places especially in the speed and stopping distance area and I have a metric speedometer in my car, so I am at liberty to drive using km/h right?? as does most of the entire world, I assume this is not illegal as every day many hundreds of vehicles from europe with metric speedometers enter our country through Dover and many other ports.
    I accept that many of our leaders are quite happy to drive along using outdated measurements, they may well go shopping using the Bakers Dozen and weigh themselves in Bushels, but I use metric everywhere that I can because its clean, clear and concise.


  29. @Rob
    I often thought about fitting a metric dash to my UK Renault while in France, I am not sure that would go down too well in a UK court or MOT testing station. The ruling factor here is (I believe), that the vehicle must be road legal for the country in which it is registered. Thus a European car with metric speedo is fine, but don’t bank on the metric side of UK law to back us up against the Imperial road version. The real mess here is UK HGV’s having speedos in miles and tachographs in km!
    Someone please correct me if I am wrong on this, but that is as I see it.


  30. @Michael
    I am afraid you are still misinterpreting the data. The fact that young people use metric units and support metrication more than old people does not indicate a trend. An alternative interpretation is that as people grow older, they tend to switch to imperial. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. I would hypothesise that as young people enter the world of work (where older people predominate) they conform to peer group pressures and forget the metric that they learnt at school. As long as the ambient popular culture is imperial, especially in the media, this is likely to happen. The only way to establish whether there is a trend would be to repeat the survey in, say, 5 years time.

    What little evidence there is of a trend can be read in Appendix D. This quotes the Metrication Board survey in 1979, which found that 31% of people who knew about the change supported it, and 46% opposed it. The 2013 YouGov survey found 25% supporting completing metrication and 50% opposed. I quote: “This finding conflicts with the theory that support for metrication will grow as younger metric-educated age cohorts replace older cohorts in the population.”

    Incidentally, it is not even true that the 18-24 age group is more pro-metric than the 25-39 age group. To quote from Appendix A of the report (p. 20) “However, the 25-39 age group was not significantly more anti-metric than the 18-24 age group (34%-29% compared with 36%-33%). Indeed the youngest group contained more persons who were strongly opposed than the 25-39 group, and 60% of the latter were supportive or indifferent. This finding is at variance with the widespread assumption that the teaching of metric units at school will eventually result in a majority of the population becoming pro-metric as the age cohorts progress through an ageing population.”

    Unfortunately, the Government uses this fallacious assumption to justify its refusal to take any further steps to complete metrication. If the whole problem will sort itself out naturally in time without any further Government action, this neatly absolves them from any responsibility to manage the changeover.

    Michael, I hope you can understand now why it is important not to lend credence to this fallacy.


  31. There are a number of these metric / imperial surveys out there. The results depend mostly on how the questions are worded and who is conducting the survey.
    An AA survey on miles v km on UK roads give a large majority in favour of keeping miles, even though many have no idea of what a mile is, even less able to calculate anything using them.
    The most annoying part of these surveys is that when they get a result is favour of metric they ignore it anyway!
    So, is this just habit, part of the mess or are people truly anti metric?
    I cannot believe and do not accept that the average UK Joe Blogg population are the only persons in the world to be so opposed to such a sensible system as accepted by all the others.
    Force of habit? Yes, certainly. A confusing mess? For me, yes, I really cannot cope with two systems. Really opposed? That I cannot really see. Why should we be so different from everyone else?

    [The AA survey was what is known in the trade as a “voodoo poll” – a self selected, unrepresentative sample from an untypical group (AA members), and its results can be discounted. The YouGov survey was a professional survey by a member of the British Polling Council, based on a weighted, representative sample of all GB adults. – Erithacus]


  32. BrianAC, the answer to your question is: yes, we are different.

    Like the English language, imperial measures are part of our national identity. At a time when our world influence is much diminished, when we no longer have an empire and when our sovereignty is gradually being whittled away, they are something that that we can defiantly and stubbornly cling on to as marking us out. They are one of the few remaining tangible links with our glorious history that we have a chance of preserving. After our £sd currency was ruthlessly ripped from our bosom in a carelessly unguarded moment, we are certainly not going to let our stiff upper lips get in the way of our indignation at the idea that we should use metric measures, other than at work, because, we are told, that everyone else does.

    We will continue to speak the English language, drive on the left, have an NHS, have a Royal Family, whinge about the weather *and* use imperial measures away from our workplaces – while there continues to be be no convincing or sustainable reason not to.


  33. Indeed, the real problem is that the government is not willing to finish the job, hasn’t been transparent and hasn’t even tried to refute the myths and propaganda. Once that changes – starting with the conversion of road signs – everything will fall into place.

    Until that happens, I believe that the numeracy problem is going to get much worse. Do the government really want 90% or more of the population to be unable to measure at all?

    Once the long-delayed changeover is finally done people will wonder “What was the fuss about, and why did it take so long?”.

    As was seen in the Australian changeover – which was largely complete before I was born, most opposition was based on fear of the unknown – that turned to support once their changeover was done, and seen to be smooth and quick. No reason why this shouldn’t happen for the UK if the changeover is relaunched and done properly.


  34. CharlieP, The Julian Calendar was part of British culture. However, in 1752 the British Empire changed to the Gregorian Calendar. This calendar then became part of British culture while the Julian Calendar receded into a historical reference..

    Fortunately, the British changed the calendar in one hit. The attempt to do it slowly in Sweden, by leaving out 10 successive leap years, was an abject failure. The Swedes had to abandon this attempt, return to the Julian Calendar and then switch to the Gregorian Calendar in one hit. See

    Cultures change. The ell and the league have dropped out of ordinary use. Shillings and pence are now a part of history. Rotary phones have given way to touch phones. Mobile phones are being replaced by smart phones.

    The same thing is happening about at least some metric measures. Celsius temperatures are preferred by 47% of the over 60s and 57% of those aged 50 to 59, but 75% of the 25-39 year-olds and 80% of the 18-24 year olds. Those who prefer the older measures show a corresponding gradation. See

    The trouble with changing measures this way is that it is agonisingly slow, piecemeal, inconsistent and inefficient. A much better approach is for the government to take change and organise the change in a systematic way. Then you get the kind of changeover that was achieved in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.


  35. philh, yes we all *know* that imperial units are British, part of our identity, mark us out as different and all that. That is why it’s futile, as we saw in that article you cite, to try to kid ourselves otherwise. A successful attack on the imperial system will need cleverer tactics than the erection of such weak straw men.


  36. CharlieP, you miss the point of the article. It was to show that imperial units are not uniquely British.


  37. We do not seek to attack the imperial “system”. Those units are part of history and may live on in historical record. They may be of enduring interest but that doesn’t mean we have to keep using them in our everyday lives when it makes no real sense to do so.

    UKMA is trying to encourage the full adoption of the modern international system of units in its own interests. To achieve this it is important for people to learn them properly. Most people cannot do this by trying to live with both imperial and metric. The measurement muddle is real and people in Britain don’t see it because they don’t know any different. They have grown up with it – rather like people who were born with a disability don’t suffer the traumatic sense of deprivation an able bodied person would if they suddenly became disabled in later life.

    UKMA is simply trying to put that right.


  38. The argument that something is traditional, is not a valid argument that it should be retained. One wit (often wrongly identified as being Sir Winston Churchill) argued that the Royal Navy had three traditions – rum, sodomy and the lash.


  39. Perception Is Everything In Life

    It’s not what you physically look at that matters in life, it’s what you see in it.

    Example. Officially and legally, both petrol and diesel, are traded (sold and bought) by the GBP/ litre.
    But.. That is not the perception of the buyer.
    When fuel pumps started to display the trade and transaction in terms of the monetary value, the perception of the buyer, shifted from the fuel amount (litres), to the monetary amount (Pounds). The emphasise shifted, from what one bought, to what one paid.
    The trade in metric units became secondary and in effect hidden.

    Imperial units may not be uniquely British, but it’s what people see in them, that makes them British.

    The key to understanding measurement, is how we think of measurement.
    Mentally when we think of measurement, do we “think in metric” or “think in Imperial” or “think in metric” for some measurements and “think in Imperial” for others.
    If there is a lamp post across the road, do we think it’s about 30 feet distant, or about 10 yards distant, or about 10 metres distant. What is the individual thinking?

    It’s a fallacy to suggest that “the British have an advantage over those with knowledge of only one measuring system” and “the British are fluent in two measuring systems.”
    When one thinks about measurement, they will think in one system of measurement. Although sometimes the measurement systems will be different, for different values of measurement.
    For example. One may think of short lengths in millimetres, or metres, but think of longer distances in miles.
    But. Where problems occur, is when one person, thinks of a measurement in metric, and another person, thinks of the same or similar measurement in Imperial. Communication is impeded, and conversion is needed.

    One cannot be fluent, in one, or two measurement systems, if conversion from one system of measurement, to another system of measurement is required.
    When one individual is “thinking in metric” and another individual is “thinking in Imperial” there will be a breakdown when they communicate. One or both will be forced to convert and therefore forced into thinking in a measurement system that is not their native system of measurement.

    This puts the British at a disadvantage, whereas other people, in other countries, who are fluent in only one system of measurement, are almost completely “conversion free.”


  40. The analogy used by some that Britons are “bi-lingual” since they use both Imperial and metric is a false one. I believe a better analogy is one where someone speaks a hodge-podge pidgin of two different languages without being particularly fluent in either one. These people can more or less “get by” in situations that are not too demanding, but otherwise they are quite in over their heads and just give up or simply get it wrong.

    Only by adopting an approach like that of Australia or South Africa can the UK clean up its act when it comes to measurement and educate an entire populace that is fully literate when it comes to measurements.


  41. I work at the Regional Archives at Nijmegen and indeed, I find many old measuring units in the records, especially our own versions of rods, poles, acres etc. Our acre-like units were called ‘morgen’, ‘bunder’, ‘gemet’ etc. Sometimes new housing estates are given the names of old field names, which also remember us of our non-metric past.
    In archival work these old units are left as they are; that is how they live on in a certain sense.
    Winnie the Poeh lives in the Dutch translation of that book in the ‘100 Bunderbos’ and not in something ridiculous like ‘40.46856 Hectare Bos’ as some opponents of metric would claim will happen through metrication.
    I also have a treasure trove of 18th en 19th century weather data from a meteorological station between Amsterdam and Haarlem. Temperatures were measured in degrees Fahrenheit and air pressure in inches of mercury, and I found Amsterdam, Rhineland and British inches, the latter of course recognizable through the celebrated 29.92 in Hg.
    This is a special case where I actually do use the Fahrenheit scale, so that I do not need to convert continually. It has meaning to me when I am busy with these historical data, but as soon as I revert to our own age temperature in Fahrenheit is meaningless again. If I give such old data to someone else, I convert to Celsius, of course . The Netherlands was a metric Fahrenheit country for decades. Around 1870 this station abandoned the inch of mercury and adopted mm.Hg.


  42. Han forgot to tell us that the English, Rhineland and Amsterdam inches were all different – the English and Rhineland feet and inches differed from each other by about 3.3% while in Amsterdam there were 11 inches in the foot, not 12.

    The difference between the English and Rhineland foot had repercussions in Johannesburg. The Dutch settlers brought the Rhineland foot with them to the Cape where it became known as the “Cape foot”. When, in 1885/6 the City of Johannesburg was being laid out, one team of surveyors laid out the northern half of the city centre and another the southern half. One of the teams used the Cape foot (the legal unit of measure for land in the South African Republic) and the other the English foot. Of course, the two halves of the city did not match up and to this day the roads that cross Bree Street have a kink in them.


  43. I thought that is was common knowledge that the English inch and the Amsterdam and Rhineland ‘duimen’ are not equal. I stated that the English inch Hg was recognizable through the value of 29.92, implying that the other two have another value for mean air pressure. I think that when a barometer broke, they replaced it and did not bother whether the unit of pressure was the same or not on the new device. In the 1870’s the change to the mm Hg was also sudden and not announced. One day air pressure was in one of the three diiferent inch Hg and the next day it was mm Hg.


  44. CharlieP wrote “Martin, an interesting tale about Bree Street, but apparently just another urban myth”. The reference that he gave is interesting – it attributes its views to a book published in 1964, written by GA Leyds.
    The following text “[Dr WJ] Leyds’ nephew, the historian GA Leyds, who drew heavily on his uncle’s reminiscences, leaves no doubt as to whose side he was on in his 1964 book ‘A History of Johannesburg’ (Nasionale Boekhandel)” appears on the website Given that Leyds snr was State Attorney of the South African [Paul Kruger’s] Republic at the time, one cannot dismiss the possibility that the Cape foot/English foot story is true and that Leyds snr spread disinformation to cover up a blunder for which his department might well have had responsibility.
    I went onto Google Earth and made a number of measurements along Bree Street. I noticed that Harrison Street had a kink which was consistent with Leyds’ “five foot” explanation, but the other kinks were much larger. My conclusion is:
    1. There is insufficient evidence to ascertain what units of measure were used to the west of Harrison Street.
    2. The location of the roads branching off Bree Street between Harrison Street and Wanderers Street (a distance of 435 metres on the northern side and 418 metres on the southern side) is consistent with Cape feet being used on the northern side and English feet on the southern side. (1 Cape foot = 1.033 English feet)
    3. To the east of Wanderers Street, the kink is consistent at about 17 metres. This suggests to me that the same units of measure and the same plans was used either side of Bree Street, but that neither team was aware that they were using different reference points.
    In short, the surveying job was not brilliant – there were probably a large number of errors, one of which was the Leyds “five foot error” and another of which was the Cape/English foot mix-up. Either was, 125 years later, Johannesburg is still living with the mess.


  45. Here in the USA we also have old habits that die hard.

    However, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) has just published in Pharmacy Practice News several easy-to-implement drug safety recommendations to reduce the frequency of several serious adverse events (AEs), including the two below that apply to metric usage:

    Problem: The ISMP has received multiple reports of care providers weighing patients in pounds but then recording their weight in kilograms (ISMP Medication Safety Alert! Aug. 26, 2010). Dr. Rich said this can lead to a greater than twofold increase in weight-based drug dosing and a variety of significant drug-specific AEs.

    Recommendation: Ensure that scales used for weighing patients are set to metric and then weigh patients and express their weights only in metric units.

    Dr. Rich urged hospitals to replace scales that only measure weight in pounds with scales that only measure in grams or kilograms. If hospital scales use both measures, he said to lock out the ability to measure weight in pounds. “Also ensure that information systems, printouts, preprinted order forms and medication device screens, such as infusion pumps, list or prompt for weight only in metrics,” he said.

    Problem: There have been more than 50 reports of oral liquid drug measurement errors due to confusion between metric and non-metric container labeling, with some leading to injuries and hospitalization (ISMP Medication Safety Alert! Dec. 1, 2011). “These include mix-ups between milliliter and household measures, such as drops and teaspoonfuls,” Dr. Rich said.

    In one case reported to the ISMP, a child prescribed 1 mL midazolam syrup for sedation before a procedure was inadvertently administered 1 teaspoonful of the drug by a nurse who was using an oral syringe that included both measures, Dr. Rich said.

    Dosing cups and droppers are two other devices that commonly include both metric and non-metric measures, the ISMP has noted.

    Recommendation: Purchase oral liquid dosing devices that only display the metric scale. If patients are taking an oral liquid medication after discharge, supply them with (or provide a prescription for) oral syringes to enable them to measure oral liquid volumes in milliliters.

    Dr. Rich said there are a variety of products that can help hospitals comply with these best practice recommendations. Health Care Logistics supplies Narrow Graduated Medication Cups marked only in milliliters, and Baxter manufactures the Exacta-Med Plastic Oral Dispenser with Tip Cap. Additionally, NeoMed oral syringes will now display measures in the metric system only, he said, adding that “there are likely other similar products that ISMP is not aware of.”



  46. Unfortunately, the rise of UKIP in the elections for the European Parliament is only going to add fuel to the fire of those who believe it is vital to “save the mile and the pound”.

    Look for the muddle to continue, if not get worse, I’m afraid. 😦


  47. @Ezra:

    You may be right, but not necessarily so. It depends on just how the relationship between the UK and the EU may be able to be changed in the coming months and years. As has been pointed out in these pages before, much (and perhaps even most) of the British electorate associates metrication with an EU edict – something that is plainly untrue (the UK decided to metricate before it decided to join the EU).

    IF (and admittedly it is a big if) the UK’s relationship, and indeed its very membership, of the EU can be renegotiated to revert to something on its original lines (i.e. a free-trade area agreement), with far less interference and control by Brussels into and over mundane everyday matters, then perhaps (and it is still just a ‘perhaps’) the British public will start to look at completing metrication on its own merits. Hopefully they will see the overwhelming advantages that would accrue, and vote to finish the job.

    It is therefore up to, in the first instance, the Prime Minister to convince the British public that he can bring about real change vis-à-vis the EU, at least to the point that the British public feel that they have repatriated a sufficient degree of control over the way the UK is governed. If that can be achieved (and it is a daunting task), then the British public may (just may) feel that they can, for example, convert the country’s road signs to metric units without feeling that they are kowtowing to Brussels. I’m not holding my breath (I’m too old for that), but there is some hope there.


  48. I keep hearing these weird examples of how old habits die hard in the UK.

    I was listening today to the BBC World Service and got to hear a couple more good examples of this both from the reporter (who should know better) and from the people being interviewed.

    The reporter described a certain machine as being 7 meters tall but later talked about some place that was “several miles” away from where she was. As for the people being interviewed, one woman surprisingly described the amount of weight (mass) she gained in kilograms (she used the full word — and I was fully expecting to hear “stones”!) while some fellow described the size of his workshop in square feet.

    Once again we see the drag on metrication played by the media, which still insists on using degrees Fahrenheit, feet and yards, etc. while the Imperial road signs continue to reinforce “miles” in the minds of Britons.

    Compare this to the Canadian trapper from the Yukon Territory I watched on YouTube recently who spoke quite unselfconsciously about degrees Celsius and how many kilometers (pronounced KILL-oh-meters!) his cabin was from Dawson (the nearest town). Because Canadian media use Celsius exclusively and because all road signs have been in kilometers since the seventies, Canadians don’t give using those metric units a second thought even though they are bombarded by US Customary via the American media that floods Canada every single day.

    Who knows? Maybe David Cameron will actually do something useful if he persuades Britons to pull out of the EU, which will maybe then remove the excuse that finishing metrication is tantamount to kowtowing to Brussels. The decision to do that would clearly be driven by the notion that doing so is advantageous to the UK rather than being driven by strange-sounding Eurocrats on the Continent!


  49. Ezra
    It is all so true. Very sad to hear this perception of UK from across the big pond, not just the channel.
    To make this even more bizarre for you, it is quite normal for UK people to use kg for weight gain, however weight LOSS is measured in stones, get it right please!! Kg for gain, stones for loss, right?
    Distances of less than a few metres are given in feet, thereafter in metres. Longer distances are of course in miles.
    Lengths of less than 30 cm are in inches until it is down to 3 cm, then it is OK to use mm so long as it is compared to a finger nail or something.
    Degrees Celsius (centigrade to me) is used in winter, Fahrenheit in summer, that makes it all sound better.
    Snowfall is in cm up to about 2.5 cm, then in inches or even feet if it is in USA. Flood water is always in feet, it sounds better then metres. Tide height is metres as is normal water depth, unless it is very deep, then feet sound better.
    There seems to be emerging a very definite set of ‘rules’ for the integration of the two systems and I do not think they (the media) even realise just how ridiculous it sounds. I personally find it very difficult to follow and frankly am more than a little embarrassed by it all.
    I feel it is so ingrained into our culture (yes, our culture thing!) that it will never recover. Remember ‘old habits die hard’ and this habit is here to stay. Bad habits are easy to start, not so easy to cure.
    Quote me in 50 years time, those that are still posting here then.


  50. Re Ezra’s comment: “Who knows? Maybe David Cameron will actually do something useful if he persuades Britons to pull out of the EU, …”

    A bit off topic but just to set the record straight. The Conservative party line is to “renegotiate” the terms of UK membership rather than withdrawal. The latter is more the territory of UKIP.

    The Conservatives say they will hold a referendum if re-elected next year but only after they have done their deal. My guess is that if that comes to pass then whatever the outcome they will spin it as a great success and urge people to stay in.

    No criticism Ezra I can well understand confusion given all the rhetoric. I do agree though that the EU factor is a nuisance for metrication but I think it would be better to explain to people that the case for it remains in or out of the EU.


  51. If members the British public wish to continue with imperial non-units in their private lives – at home, in informal conversation (in my opinion) – that’s their personal choice, so long as they keep this away from their professional lives and official usage (including when they drive – but this is after the road signs changeover).

    Of course, life is a lot easier when one thinks only in metric – time is saved and mistakes are avoided, it’s simply a lot more efficient and better. From my own experience, I refused to use imperial when I was younger even for my own height and weight – conversions were just horrible and luckily for us, they were not examinable for my GCSE Maths (or Science, Geography etc). I believe, sadly, that I am one of the exceptions, most of my age group and younger have adapted to this wasteful measurement mess.

    People will, I think, adapt to only using metric units, once the changeover is complete – provided that they are given help, support and publicity beforehand. It is difficult to expect people to change their habits if the government is not giving the lead.

    Indeed, it is ultimately up to the government to sort out this mess, by finishing the metrication job at last. This whole issue needs to be depoliticised without further delay.

    Speaking of depoliticisation, I was wondering when the media and certain politicians will get the message that metrication has nothing to do with the EU? They seem to forget that that the UK wasn’t even allowed to join the then EEC when metrication finally started.


  52. Thanks to all for the clarifications. What a mind-blowing mess over there in Old Blighty. The word “muddle” is more than apropos even if too mild!

    Yes, confusion on all fronts (political, measurement, etc.) is the rule of the day in the UK. Completing metrication would certainly help enormously though apparently not likely anytime soon. And Labour doesn’t seem to be well positioned to take over the next Parliament from what I read over here.

    Now, if only we in the States would even just get started metricating in a serious way! Not much chance of that anytime soon, alas. (Although I was both pleased and surprised to watch fairly recent National Geographic nature programs using metric exclusively. That gives me a sliver of hope! 🙂


  53. May I back up the last poster’s statement “Speaking of depoliticisation, I was wondering when the media and certain politicians will get the message that metrication has nothing to do with the EU? They seem to forget that that the UK wasn’t even allowed to join the then EEC when metrication finally started.” My understanding is that in the early part of the twentieth century, the argument for retaining imperial units was to lock existing importing nations into staying with British products. By 1960 this policy was back-firing so the forerunners of the CBI petitioned for a change-over to the metric system.


  54. Thanks to BWMA I have just read an article from the Mail (22March2014) about Basingstoke Council changing the way they measure the allotments. (
    Apparently allotments are measured in RODS (poles or perches), yes, really, a ‘tradition’ going back 600 years. Anyway, ‘everyone’ is up in arms about them changing to the dreaded METRE.
    Very strange it seems, as the EU no longer require us to do this, yes, they do say that!!
    So, if metric change is not dictated by EU law, we should not be doing it, thus we should oppose it. If it was dictated by EU law it would be an imposition, so we should oppose it.
    We can’t win, can we?
    It also suggests in the article that land measure for allotments is still officially poles (apparently a pole is 5.5 yards (5.0292 m), but I guess you all know that.
    Long live the pole, bring back the cubit.
    Strangely for the Mail though, most of the comments seem to be pro metric in tone.


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