Towards a metric Britain (in fits and starts)

We highlight some events during the UK’s prolonged transition to a single, simple, rational and universal measurement system, and look forward to an important anniversary later this month.

Almost two hundred years, and still counting. That is the period since the industrial revolution during which government has been tinkering with the UK’s measurement system to make it fit for purpose. Progress has not been steady, with long periods of stagnation punctuated by bursts of activity. We look at five of these.

The report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Weights and Measures

This report led, a year later, to the appointment of a Royal Commission to consider more uniform weights and measures. In their first report, the Commissioners agreed that a uniformity of weights and measures would be desirable, but linked decimalisation of measures to decimalisation of the currency, and recommended simplifying English customary measures rather than using the metric system.

The proposals of the Commission were the basis of the Weights and Measures Act 1824 and of the Imperial system that followed from it. Uniformity of weights and measures, however, was slow in coming.

The Report of the Select Committee, the work of the Royal Commission, and its outcome will shortly be the subject of an article on Metric Views.

The Parliamentary Select Committee on Weights and Measures

The report of this Select Committee was discussed in an article on Metric Views in March 2013:

The report supported the change to the metric system, but the resulting legislation of 1864 was permissive, restrictive in application, and had little impact.

Another Parliamentary Select Committee on Weights and Measures

Metric Views described in an article in June 2013 the findings and recommendations of the 1895 Select Committee:

The Select Committee recommended, “That the metrical system of weights and measures be at once legalised for all purposes”, and this was included in the Weights and Measures Act 1898. It had little immediate practical effect, but removed obstacles that might have arisen later, for example, in the teaching of science in schools and universities, in scientific research, in manufacturing, and in electricity supply.

Sale of electricity in Britain by the BTU! It sounds odd. Did it ever occur?

The Hodgson Report

Sir Edward Hodgson, a retired civil servant, was invited by the President of the Board of Trade to chair a departmental committee to “review existing weights and measures legislation and … to make recommendations”. The Committee did a thorough job, consulting 187 sources, and made an unexpected recommendation – that the UK should adopt the metric system. This was rejected by the Government in 1951.

The Hodgson Report will be the subject of an article on Metric Views.

24 May 1965
The President of the Board of Trade provided a written reply to a Parliamentary question by John Horner MP on the subject of the adoption in Great Britain of metric weights and measures.

This reply was the most significant of the five events described in this article in terms of the practical adoption of the metric system in the UK. To coincide with its fiftieth anniversary, an article on Metric Views will provide further detail.

One thought on “Towards a metric Britain (in fits and starts)”

  1. So how about metric road signs for the UK that would show metric road distances and speed limits?

    I believe Arizona’s I-19 may have road signs, with the exception of the speed limits, that are exclusively metric. Furthermore, I believe the US may have other metric road signs showing distances and speed limits.


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