A day at the National Museum of Measurement

The summer holidays are in full swing, so John Frewen-Lord provides us with some light reading for a lazy day, plus a reminder that it is back to school in a month. Now where are my sun glasses?

“Class, here we are at the National Museum of Measurement. Please let us all stay together while I collect your entrance money and get us all in. Where’s Nigel? Nigel! Come here at once and put out that cigarette! You should know better – goodness me, you are at the bottom of the class as it is. Edward, where is your entrance money?”

“I don’t have it miss. My mum and dad went out last night and spent it.”

“Well, that was very irresponsible of them, Edward. We’ll have to see if someone can lend it to you for now.”


“Yes Nicola.”

“Why do we have to be here? I’d much rather be with my friends back home. I don’t like anyone else in the class.”

“Nicola, you really must learn to join in and get along with everybody.”

“Here we are class, at the beginning of the exhibits, and the first part of the museum is devoted to measurements used in ancient times, such as the cubit. There were three cubits at one time, each one different.”

“Miss, wasn’t that a great way of deceiving the people?”

“Indeed Tony it was, and eventually a single cubit was settled upon. But that was a very perceptive observation Tony – I’m sure you will do well in later life.”

“Right class, we are now in the display about Middle Ages. Some familiar units are beginning to appear. There were once very many more of them than there are today, and some are still in use, hard to believe as it may. Yes Nick?”

“Miss, why is there a photograph of a lady next to a sign showing something called a furlong? I didn’t think cameras existed in the Middle Ages.”

“Ah, Nick, of course they didn’t! That picture was actually taken just recently, but it appears here in the medieval section because it shows someone we call a Measurement Misfit. There are a few of them around, and they are trying to take Britain back to the Middle Ages, by wanting to use measurement units that were in use back then. They even have their own organisation, called the Association for the Right to be a Measurement Misfit, or ARMM for short. But they are misguided, and don’t really fit into today’s world, which is why we call them misfits.”

“Philip, you look a bit puzzled.”

“Well miss, shouldn’t the country be allowed to use medieval units if it wants?”

“Philip, one thing that you MUST learn is that every country in the world eventually legislates its weights and measures into a single system. Now, pay attention class, for we are in the year 1215, when an important law was made in England saying there should be one measure each for ale, corn and cloth, and one measure for weights too. This law was embodied in Magna Carta, which as you know established the principle that the king is subject to the law.”

“Why did Magna Carta contain such a law, miss?”

“Well, George, people were being cheated left, right and centre by merchants using differing measurement units that were hard to compare with each other, which just confused everybody, and sticking to just one measurement unit tried to put a stop to that.”

“Did it work, miss?”

“Yes it did, George, but lots of people will try to tell you it made no difference. But let’s move on to the next display. We are now in the Age of Enlightenment, which was a general movement towards reason, not faith, as the gateway to knowledge. Wake up Nigel, and pay attention”.

“Miss, whose picture is that?”

“Well, Nicola, that is John Wilkins, and Englishman who proposed a new logical measurement system, with measurement units linked by factors of ten.”

“What’s new about that, miss?”

“Medieval measures were linked by many different factors. Twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, five and a half yards in a pole and forty poles in the furlong that we saw earlier. But we must move on. We don’t have all day, class.”

“But miss, who are these other people in the display? They seem to have foreign names.”

“Quite right, Margaret. The British ignored John Wilkins’ proposal, and it was taken up by others, who developed the idea, and were the first to reap the benefits. They called it the metric system. But now, we in Britain have legislated use of the metric system too, as almost all other countries have done, as that is in our best interests. Now, by all means use medieval units in your home, Margaret, but they should not be used for trading or setting standards for general or public use.”

“Gordon, put that down at once! You are not allowed to touch the exhibits. What was it that you were holding?”

“It is called a compass, miss. I was just trying to see how it worked.”

“Well, Gordon, that is something we learnt in a previous lesson, but which you missed.”

“Yes John?”

“Miss, my dad says that it’s good to have two sets of measurement units. In fact, he likes to have two of everything.”

“John, it is fine to have two of lots of things, but not measurement units. Almost the entire world finds one is enough, that one is metric, and we in Britain should follow suit if we want to progress.”

“Class, we are now at the year 1824. Does anyone know what’s special about it?”

“The RSPCA is established, miss?”

“Very good Jeremy, but nothing to do with measurements, so wrong answer. You seem to get a lot of answers wrong, Jeremy – you really must get a better grip on things. The right answer is that it was the year that the first UK Weights and Measures Act was passed, legislating a single set of weights and measures, which became the sole permitted set of measures. They were used throughout the British Empire – remember that from your history lessons – and therefore became known as Imperial measures. They were largely replaced by the metric system before any of you were born. So you see, John – John, where are you? – John, the use of a single system, not two, is something that has been around for nearly 200 years, or even 800 years if you count Magna Carta.”

“Right class, we have reached how weights and measures exist today, and as you can see, everything is in metric units, or, as we sometimes like to say, SI. Other than a two or three aspects of British life, the metric system is the only permitted way of specifying or selling everything, so it is important that we all know what our common metric units are.  How many of you recognise the units you see here?”

“I know how long a metre is, miss!”

“And I know what a degree Celsius is, miss!”


“Yes, Andy.”

“What’s the difference between a kilo and a kilogram?”

“None, Andy. Calling a kilogram a kilo is just a more casual way of expressing it. It’s what is often used in Europe, and many other countries that have converted to the metric system often use it as well.”

“Do you have something to say, David?”

“Yes miss. My mum doesn’t understand kilograms, and only uses stones, pounds and ounces, and she says that I should do the same.”

“Well, David, kilograms are way easier, and they are what you should be using if you want to be seen as knowledgeable in today’s world. Your mum sounds a bit behind the times, to be honest, and is certainly not doing you any favours. In fact, she is making you look a very silly boy! Class, stop laughing this second – it’s not David’s fault his mother is keeping him stuck in the past.”

“Now class, we have to form a single line for the last few exhibits – Harriet, you are the class prefect. Perhaps you could go to the end of the line and make sure we don’t lose anyone.”

“I will, miss, but I still want to see all the exhibits. I like learning about measurements, although I do have trouble judging how fast I’m going on my bicycle.”

“Well, Harriet, pay attention, and perhaps the Museum will help you there!”

“Miss, is learning about metric measurements really that important in our lives?”

“Oh Tessa, you do frustrate me! You are so capable in sports, yet you do not seem to understand the importance of completing Britain’s metrication programme! You are aware, aren’t you, that athletics and swimming are only ever measured in metric units?”

“Er, yes, miss, I suppose I do, but I never realised that until you pointed it out to me.”

“Well, Tessa, if you want to succeed in whatever field you choose, you must ensure that you understand – no, actually embrace – the modern system of measurements.”

“I will try, miss.”

“Angela, as our visiting exchange student, your command of the English language seems excellent. I hope you were able to understand everything.”

Ja, miss, but vy are zer British road signs in old units? My vahter is an engineer, and says zat he vill not buy anyzink from Britain because zer road signs say Britain is not metric.”

“Well, Angela, as you can see, we ARE metric in Britain. However, as our road signs do indicate otherwise, your father may be forgiven. As for changing the road signs to metric units, like those everywhere else in the world except the USA, well, remember those Measurement Misfits, the members of ARMM that we learnt about in the Middle Ages section? We think that the British authorities may contain some of them at very senior levels, and they are preventing the road signs from being changed to metric ones. Rather silly of them, but one day some person in authority will see the error of their ways.”

“Well, class, I hope that you learnt something useful today. Now remember, even if your parents insist on using old units at home, if you want to play your part in tomorrow’s world, you really should get to learn – and USE! – the metric system. Class, you may be dismissed!”

19 thoughts on “A day at the National Museum of Measurement”

  1. @John Frewen-Lord
    Ho, ho. Yes, very amusing but…

    Although I understand the reason for the heavy and gratuitous bias, I do not think it actually does the cause any good. It gives yet more ammunition to the opposition.

    I see you are still trying to perpetuate the myth that the metric saturation level can be characterised by this naive statement: “Other than a two or three aspects of British life, the metric system is the only permitted way of specifying or selling everything”. When in reality, as we have seen in recent discussions, it is more accurately (and honestly) characterised by something like this: “other than in two or three tightly defined aspects of British life (related to selling by measure and legislation), the imperial system still dominates British daily life outside of the work environment”

    Also you fail to give the flip side of the metric system. A good teacher would explain the weaknesses of the metric system and describe where it falls short of the traditional system, and not just grossly exaggerate the limited strengths of the metric system as you did.


  2. @Charlie P
    You must have an awful lot of spare time to kill.
    In reference to “A good teacher would explain the weaknesses of the metric system and describe where it falls short of the traditional system”.
    How does the metric system fall short of the traditional “system”? The traditional “system”, as you call, it isn’t even a system. It would take more than a good teacher to explain where metric falls short. It would take a hypnotist or a conjuror.


  3. Charlie, come on! A good teacher would not be so biased. He or she would comment fairly on both systems of measurement. The metric system would not have taken over in almost all the world if it was inferior to what was used before.


  4. Hmmm… The “traditional” system basically has only one thing that the metric system lacks: fractions; which anyway could easily be integrated into the SI, of course mainly for colloquial, everyday use (industry probably doesn’t need fractions). For example: 1/2 L = 1 demilitre; 1/3 L = 1 tertilitre; 1/4 L = 1 quartilitre; 1/8 L = 1 octilitre; and so on (example made with the litre, as this is also a “popular” unit, not strictly part of the SI)…

    So, people want something of the old system in the new one? Could easily be done, with some new prefixes accepted for use.

    Anyway, ideally, the SI should be quite open to its own evolution and improvement: which probably also means that it should be substantially debureaucratised (as for the state and other institutions), if one can say so.


  5. @Charlie P:

    “Ho, ho. Yes, very amusing but…”

    No ‘but’. What a humourless character you must be, life and soul of the party…not!

    I stand by everything the article contains, regardless of whether you believe otherwise.


  6. What I find amusing is Charlie P’s typical anti-metric response. If the English public is openly opposed to using metric and road signs are a visible proof of that, then isn’t it a good thing if the rest of the world limits its purchase of English goods and services?

    I’m sure the Germans, the Chinese, the Japanese and others are more than happy that the English resist metrication, it brings business to their industries. England is stuck in a economy of austerity, these others aren’t.

    The US is in the same predicament. They are losing sales to the new giants, especially in Latin & South America. China and Europe (especially Germany) are aggressively pushing the US out. It is a win-win situation for all parties (except the US) as despite the difference of language, the measurement units are all the same.

    Up until 2013, Panama still used US gallons for petrol and pounds in the markets directly due to US influence. But a new, progressive president switched all of that to metric in 2013 as a signal of invitation to the world that Panama was expanding its horizons to do business with the world, not only with the US.

    So yes, gloat over and get that warm and fuzzy feeling about the English still using imperial, but be willing to pay the price for that. Are you?


  7. I’m surprised the Measurement History Museum didn’t have a section on pre-Norman decimal units, similar to the modern metric system, that even precedes John Wilkins.



    Interesting how similar the old English units were to what John Wilkins proposed as if John’s intent was to resurrect what was in fact Britain’s true historical units. Whereas metric haters claim metric is foreign, it turns out it really isn’t. It is imperial that is foreign. The world has in fact rejected their own traditional units for ones that can be traced back to pre-Norman England.


  8. As for the USA I learned today that the state of New York is the only US jurisdiction still waiting to amend its laws based on the following clause in the latest UPLR (Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulation):

    “The revision of 1978 provided for the use of the metric system (SI) on labels as well as allowing SI-only labels for those commodities not covered by federal laws or regulations.”

    Once the state of New York adopts the SI-only labeling amendment, any manufacture, distributor, etc. will be able to use SI-only labels on products not covered by other federal laws such as the FPLA (Fair Packaging and Labeling Act).

    It will be interesting to then see how quickly and to what extent SI-only labels appear in the USA on those products covered by the UPLR.


  9. @Charlie P

    “A good teacher would explain the weaknesses of the metric system and describe where it falls short of the traditional system”
    A good teacher would explain, without any bias, and using the evidence and the facts, which is better. The reality is that the metric system being more powerful, better, scaleable, easy to use, and a proper system – unlike imperial which is not even a system. And it is for all walks of life, not just specialists and industry. Please read this link here with an open mind, before you reply, if you choose to reply.

    No offence, Charlie P, but based on your latest and previous comments, I think you are in your own dream world, and out of touch with reality.


  10. To all those who have commented, but especially those who do not live in the UK, this is not about metrication per se, or even about metric vs imperial. This article is a very satirical comment on the attitudes of British politicians towards completing metrication in the UK, and to appreciate that, you really need to be able to know the history of many of today’s British politicians (both Government and Opposition), and the things they have done in the past that did little for the metric cause.

    As well as British politicians, there is of course a non-British politician in this article. Just think of a German politician whose first name is Angela…

    As a final bit of satire, I also alluded to a certain anti-metric organisation in the UK that blights our public areas (and even some private ones) with its vendetta against metric signs, legal or otherwise.


  11. @Sven G

    Fractions are indeed used with metric figures in continental Europe. In Germany, for example, wine is served in quarter litre (ein Viertel) and an eighth of a litre glasses (ein Achtel) in wine-growing areas. Ein Viertel Riesling, bitte!


  12. @Sven G.
    The metric system does not lack fractions. But the fractions are partially hidden, and perhaps not so obvious to some people.

    For example.. What’s the difference between 1/2 litre, and 500 mL? They are the same volume, but expressed differently. Both are fractions. The first, 1/2 of a litre, and the second as 500/1000 of a litre. The first is expressed as non metric, while the second is expressed as metric. The first follows the Imperial/USC thinking of a fraction of something larger, the second uses the divisor prefix “milli” which means the denominator of the fraction will be 1000, also something larger, although it is hidden by the prefix.

    If one was to find a weakness in the metric system, it is the lack of consistency around the metric base unit, “the kilogram” when compared to the other six base units.

    One of the strengths and advantages of the metric system is its consistency. Consistency in its interconnection of its seven base units. Consistency in its prefixes. Consistency in its symbols. But this consistency has an exception in the kilogram, because the kilogram, has the metric multiple prefix “the kilo” whereas the other base units have no prefixes. It is not something that stops or inhibits the use of the kilogram, but it is an inconsistency.


  13. @Jake & W J G: Yes, of course fractions can be expressed – in natural language – also in the metric system; but there are no SI prefixes for fractions, yet: it could be a nice thing to add them, mainly for use in everyday life; and also for music notation, for example: tone, semitone and so on.

    P.S.: A well-known example of fractions in music: http://www.musictheory.net/lessons/11 – i.e., 1/1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 and 1/16 note durations, which could be quite logically expressed with fractional SI prefixes, if they existed (BTW, music notation – together with time measurement – seems to be one of the fields where SI might be rather difficult to adopt systematically: will metric time and music be possible, at all?)

    The kilogram, i.e. a prefixed unit as a base unit, is indeed one of the major (historical) inconsistencies of the current implementation of the SI, together (IMO) with the fact that the litre is based on the cubic decimetre instead of the cubic metre (more logical and consistent, because the metre – and not the decimetre – is the base unit, here).

    Well, let’s hope that these and other glitches will be corrected in the future, sooner or later…


  14. Sorry for not responding to all the posts addressed to me, but I clearly do not have enough spare time, despite what some of you seem to think. I’m in France at the moment, but I’ll try and read that article that The Glob recommends, and try to find time to comment further soon, and with some of the negatives that have been asked for, which you (mostly) seem oblivious too. 😉


  15. @Sven G
    As you say “The kilogram, i.e. a prefixed unit as a base unit, is indeed one of the major (historical) inconsistencies of the current implementation of the SI, …”

    Maybe the time is coming when the physical kilogram becomes a museum piece. If the idea of the ball of silicon is adopted (or similar) then it would be an opportunity for the standard base unit to be changed from the kilogram to the gram.
    There needs to be no physical presence so the unit is infinitely scalable.


  16. @CharlieP

    Given all of the back and forth about SI vs Imperial and the relative pros and cons of each, I’m curious what you personally see specifically as the disadvantages or downsides (if any!) of using Imperial instead of metric.


  17. @Ezra Steinberg
    You ask what I personally see as the disadvantages of using imperial instead of metric. We’re talking away from work, right? Because where I work, almost everything related to our product specifications is in metric, with no question of using imperial. Out of work, I personally use whichever system is most suitable for the given situation, so avoid the avoidable disadvantages of either.

    The main disadvantage though that I have found in the past, if using imperial over metric, is in writing measurements down, particularly if they need to be tabulated and analysed in, say, a spreadsheet. Writing two numbers (st-lb, lb-oz, ft-in, …) is always more awkward than writing just one. If weight-watching for example, a single column to enter a decimal kg weight is more convenient than having to enter stones and pounds into two different columns. The same would be true with mpg logging for a car. The fuel till receipt gives litres, so it’s easier to just enter litres and, along with a column for odometer miles, let the spreadsheet do the work of computing the mpg.

    Apart from that, I can’t readily think on any other significant disadvantages of using imperial over metric though that would influence my decision on which to use.


  18. @The Glob
    You said: “Please read this link here with an open mind, before you reply, if you choose to reply.” Well I read it with an open mind. I don’t find it convincing though.

    Whether metric is easier to use than imperial depends on he application. What is a “proper system”, and why does that matter to a general user (as opposed to a scientist)? Similarly what do we gain when weighing apples from the fact, or otherwise, that metric is “powerful and wide ranging”? As an apple-weigher I don’t care that there is no imperial measure for electric current – I use amps for that. And what difference to my height of 6ft-8in does the fact that metric is a world standard make? None, as far as I can tell.

    What’s the relevance of whether it is a party-political issue, or not? Which papers have published articles supporting continued co-existence of it with the imperial system?

    The endorsements are nothing more than patronising and/or ignorant and/or bigoted imperial-bashing indulgences.

    The biggest turn-off on that page is the characterisation of potentially valid counter-arguments as “myths”.

    Nothing there would convince a normal well-balanced individual to demand km/h speed limits or to look for a 50 mm paintbrush in favour of a 2-inch one or to try to train themselves to visualise geographic distances in km rather than miles I’m afraid.


  19. 1 tonne = 1 cubic metre (of water, ideally); IMO, that would be the ideal unit for mass – from one basic unit (thus, no need for deci- or centi-) to another basic unit.

    Sadly, probably unlikely – but anyway…

    The gram, OTOH, is very, very small (an almost insectoid unit): it would have little or no connections to real life; while the metric ton… well, it would be really “industrial” (and thus powerful, also for pressure), so to speak.

    Only personal opinions, of course – as usual…


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