Who is still stubbornly clinging on to imperial units in the UK in 2016? Metric views takes stock.
There has been much talk in recent weeks of the UK becoming more “outward looking”, more open to the world. A new Secretary of State for International Trade has been appointed and a new Department is being set up. We hear of a push to develop new markets in India and China. But looking outward begins, not abroad, but at home, where there appears to be much work to be done.
Despite the huge progress made towards the full adoption of the metric system that began in earnest with an announcement in Parliament in 1965*, there are many parts of British life that remain stubbornly imperial and appear to be unaffected by moves to the metric system over the last half century. If you want to know where imperial lingers on, keep reading.
Small shopkeepers and market traders
Some small shopkeepers and market traders display prices of fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces, while weighing in kilos. Despite being dependent on the success of the wider economy, they tend to have a narrower focus, in particular making prices appear lower. Trading Standards Officers (TSOs) are reluctant to prosecute for fear of creating new metric (Imperial?) martyrs and receiving bad publicity.
Estate agents normally advertise land and properties in acres and square feet, unless targeting international markets. The property pages in the press tend to follow the lead of estate agents where measurements are concerned.
Department for Transport (DfT)
The DfT retains imperial or dual units for almost all road signs that display measurements. Imperial units are also used for most of the national rail network, but not the CTRL. The new ERTMS signalling system is also metric. Successive Transport Ministers have resisted metrication ever since plans for the metrication of road signs were postponed indefinitely in 1972.
The tabloid newspapers tend to use imperial units for most topics while other national newspapers use more metric units. There is still substantial imperial usage in most non-specialist media outlets, even for news from abroad. However, all use metric for science, Olympic sports, weather reports and cooking recipes. In these areas, metric rules.
The oil industry uses the oil barrel for pricing, oil field capacity, production and consumption. The gas industry uses cubic feet for gas field capacity, production and consumption. The precious metals industry uses troy ounces whereas the non-precious metals industry uses tonnes. Some food commodities are priced in tonnes while others are priced in pounds and bushels. See, for example, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business/market_data/commodities/default.stm.
The DIY sector makes extensive use of supplementary indications and imperial descriptions and also sells many dual-unit instruments.
The clothes industry uses inches for waist sizes, chest sizes and trouser lengths.
Football commentators almost always use yards to describe distances on the football pitch or features of the pitch such as the penalty area. It is extremely rare for them to use metres. I am, of course, talking about football commentators who communicate with a British audience. Football is truly international. Most countries where the game is played do not use yards or other imperial units.
Weighing scales and measuring tapes
Scales and tapes sold in the UK are predominantly dual. It is hard to find metric-only versions. If you want metric-only measurement instruments, make sure you ask your suppliers for them. They will only make and stock them if they know that there is a demand .
While the Ordnance Survey (OS) is exclusively metric and has been for several decades, commercial maps for the British market may be dual. You will be hard pressed to find a British map on sale that is metric-only, and scales such as 1:20 267 are not uncommon. The paradox is the most commercial maps are based on OS metric data.
Maritime shipping and aviation
The sea and air industry clings to imperial units because international agreements in place permit them. International agreements for the use of legacy units are the result of American dominance in these fields. The use of nautical miles and knots are the standard units for sea and air transport. Feet are used in many countries for altitude while some countries use metres for altitude. The UK Hydrographic Office, the world’s foremost provider of nautical charts, is now metric and uses metres for depth on new charts.
Computer monitor and TV retailers
While manufacturing is metric these days, computer monitor and television sizes are normally described at the point of sale in inches. The number of inches for screen size is based on the diagonal length from one corner to the opposite corner. This practice seems to be common around the world, although the ISO standard on which it is based is metric.
Fast food, US style
Pizza sizes are almost always described in inches based on their diameter, while rolls in Subway are described by their length, again in inches. And then there is the quarterpounder beef burger.
Weight loss and dieting
The weight loss and dieting industry uses stones and pounds to describe body weight and uses feet and inches to describe body height. This reflects popular public usage of personal weight and height. Despite the fact that Body Mass Index (BMI) is based on calculations of weight and height in metric units, the weight loss and dieting industry tends to reflect common usage. Once the would-be loser of weight moves into the gym, he or she is likely to encounter equipment calibrated in metric.
Government communications and the Police
Despite the fact that metric units have been taught in British schools for the last four decades and that the government works internally in metric units, the government still often communicates with the public in imperial units. The National Health Service is a classic example of this; it records patients’ weight in kilograms but often converts to imperial units when this information is passed on to the patient. The police always use feet and inches to describe a suspect’s height when appealing to the public for information.
Car marketing and sales
Car reviews and advertising use many imperial units (e.g. miles per gallon, miles on the clock, miles for warranty purposes, mph for speed and acceleration, horsepower, etc.). Although some metric units are used (e.g. litres and cubic centimetres, g/km for emission levels), most car features are quoted in imperial units, no doubt strongly influenced by the use of imperial units on official road signs.
British horse racing uses miles, furlongs and yards to describe the distance of horse races. For horse trials, also known as eventing, metres are used.
Most main own-brand milk sold in British supermarkets is sold in pint-based sizes while most other brands of milk are sold in litre-based sizes.
Some Councils still use square poles to describe the size of allotment plots. Surely, many in Britain would not recognise a square pole (area not object) if they saw one – it is about 25 square metres.
While official bodies work in metric units, farming still uses some of non-metric units such as acres.
Tyre pressures are commonly described in terms of pounds per square inch (psi), and tyre descriptions includes inches.
Any other areas?
What other areas of British life stubbornly stick to imperial units? And how many are due to American influence? Metric Views is interested to hear from readers about other hold-outs.
* Here is the beginning of the written reply by the President of the Board of Trade on 24 May 1965 to a Parliamentary question. Note the emphasis on the importance to British exports of the metric changeover.
‘The Government are impressed with the case which has been put to them by the representatives of industry for a wider use in British industry of the metric system of weights and measures. Countries using that system now take more than one-half of our exports; the total proportion of world trade conducted in terms of metric units will no doubt continue to increase. Against that background the Government consider it desirable that British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units, sector by sector, until that system can become the primary system of weights and measures of the country as a whole.’
28 thoughts on “Imperial holdouts in the UK in 2016”
I Once came across an Oncologist at an NHS hospital who, whilst busy consulting notes, asked his patiently to step on the scales on the other side of the room and read out his weight. The patient did so in kg but then the Dr asked him to give him the conversion from the chart next to the scales!
That is not the only case where I have come across medical staff who think st lb for weight. It is quite common among nursing staff.
I once went for a health check by a private company (who claimed to do more than the NHS). It included recording my height and weight in metric. However the report they produced stated my BMI in lb/ft2! I’ve never been back since!
Anyone can sit down and make such a list as this and nit pick in order to come up with a big list that is designed to make the average person just want to give up trying to complete metrication.
Most of these are rare and obscure occurrences that the average person rarely encounters or will never encounter.
I for one would like to know if everyone who reads this would rate each of the categories based on how often they were in need of or encountered these services on a yearly basis. The only area I would be concerned with are inconsistent market practices and road signs. If any of the others are bothersome, then call or visit the business and waste their time asking them to convert to modern units.
You missed parents. It’s difficult to get parents or their children to understand that metric units can be used to measure the weight of a baby or the height of a growing child. Children are brought up using two units for measuring their height from a very early age and it gets stuck and passed on to their own children. That has to be tackled before we can make any more progress on metrication in this country.
Take your point but, unfortunately, some of the things mentioned are not all that rare. Certainly not when it comes to height and weight.
Whilst we should not understate progress we need to remind people in the UK that there is still much to be done if we are to learn to properly embrace a single rational system of measurement.
People are just muddling along and we need to point out that it doesn’t have to be like that.
A lot of it is nothing more than “dumbing down”… in many cases doctors, nurses, the police, etc., operate on the falacy that the general public cannot understand metric and so although they will almost always work internally in metric they are on autopilot when it comes to communicating with the public.
As for places that continue to sell footlong subs, quartrer pound burgers and 6 inch pizzas, the driving force behind these is predominantly American companies who on the same footing often use the same packaging as they do in their North American markets and as a consequence often also wind up selling us drinks advertised in “oz” with no indication that these are likely to be US fl-oz.
And then, despite the law stating that soft drinks are supposed to be sold in metric quantities you’ll be hard pressed to find a pub that won’t offer you a pint when you ask for Coke or lemonade.
And then there is the anomaly where health and safety legislation requires the use of metric units on warning signs yet this same legislation cannot be applied to health and safety on public highways. You almost never see an imperial height warning on a canopy of a petrol station these days and increasingly these are always metric yet the distances to emergency exits in road tunnels are almost exclusively in yards (though I do seem ot recall seeing some in metres in the recent past).
I do think legislation would be appropriate to force all branches of government to use metric exclusively when communicating with the public however I do think we’ve long passed the point where doing so wouldn’t cause a massive backlash from the Daily Mail set and so could be political suicide for anybody who tried to push it through.
As many have said, road signs do seem to be the key. If only legislation could be changed to scrap any specific prohibition of metric units on most signs (not speed limits at this point) we would likely see metric creeping into everyday life more rapidly and would at the same time make any further action by organisations such as ARM unarguably illegal in one go.
If I recall correctly, I believe distance signs in the Republic of Ireland were orginally slowly converted to metric over time. At some point the Irish equivalent of DfT decided that there was enough metric presence on the road signs because of all the metric distance signs that they could take the final step and switch all the speed limit signs as well (since they all had to be converted in one go).
So, a policy of gradually converting distance signs to metric only (no dual, please!) could move the needle over time enough so that the “Daily Mail set” would not be able to stand in the way of the final conversion (i.e. all speed limit signs).
@Ezra precisely what I’m trying to say. It’s the act of specifically banning metric that both stops it from progressing on its own while (in it’s own eyes) legitimising actions taken by ARM.
Even the USA doesn’t ban metric on its road signs!
For those who may be curious about the legality of metric signs there is a reasonably well informed analysis on this web page:
Not so much they are banned, but rather not approved for some signage.
How often is your weight and height a topic of discussion? I never discuss mine or other people’s weight or height. I can’t imagine others doing this either. There is a big difference between actual measurements done in metric and useless chatter in imperial or USC.
Whilst everyone would probably agree that there is still much to do, this article overstates the case in many instances and paints the UK as more imperial than is really the case. e.g.:
Small shops/ markets; the proportion of fully committed imperial holdouts is small and their collective turnover is tiny, presumably corresponding to customer base for same.
Estate agents; often true for residential (also plenty of dual there) but not commercial or land.
DFT; imperial cab displays for ETCS might never be used and metrication is considered an inconsequential benefit arising purely as a side-effect of the upgrade to ERTMS.
Measuring tapes; laser diastimeters, which are often more accurate than uncalibrated steel tapes and usually quicker and easier to use, seem to either be solely metric or default to metric. Those intended for USA market mostly require button presses to get to the [decimal] USA foots or [decimal] USA inches. The LCD on mine has elements for chinese foots (unknown whether imperial or metric)!
Massing scales; it’s wasteful and annoying that everyone has to pay for dual dials or electronics when they don’t want the imperial, but it is almost always secondary these days and possibly not used by many people.
Maps; 1:20267 is hardly a recognisable imperial scale either, and could be described in the smallprint as ~3.13 imperial inches per imperial mile. It is within 1.4% of 1:20000, which is a metric scale. Critically, these commercial maps very frequently either retain OS grid lines or replace them with their own rationally sized metre-based ones.
Farming; not so much IME—and even then, only colloquially.
Tyres; only true for motor tyres so should be in motoring section. Cycle tyres, to name but one, are metric primary (albeit mixed kPa/ bar for pressure).
We’ll just have to agree to differ. But the fact is I hardly ever hear personal height and weight being talked about or presented in metric units. It is a very common topic. The press and media are always on about it in one form or another.
It isn’t just idle chatter. People actually weigh themselves in st and lb rather than kg. The police describe suspects’ height in ft, in.
I’m sorry to have to say that it definitely is an imperial hold-out.
Over the past few days there has been much media interest in England’s World Cup win of 1966. This comment appears in this week’s Radio Times:
“West Germany had won the World Cup in 1954 but England had never lifted the trophy before; indeed for much of the World Cup’s history the Football Association had turned its nose up at a “foreign” competition.”
As with football, so with measures. Sooner or later, we have to come to terms with the fact that there is a wider world out there, and England is part of it no matter how much we dislike the idea.
“The tabloid newspapers tend to use imperial units for most topics while other national newspapers use more metric units”
With the notable exception of those Daily Telegraph retards.
Here’s anothe one for you. Has anybody here tried bying mattresses recently?
I need a new matress for my Ikea “Super King Size” bed. This bed was purchased before Ikea ventured into the sale of standard UK size beds however the mattress on it at the moment is a Silentnight so I work on the basis that they should still sell ones that fit now.
Cue frustration as I visit site after site there every single item is measured in feet and inches exclusively, including one that has a helpful link to “European Standard Size” mattresses with not a metric measurement in sight. Except, strangely, the matress thickness which almost every web site displays in cm.
I’ve been frustrated before by high street shops selling duvets and other bedding items in an inconsistent manner (some exclusively metric, some exclusively imperial).
Here’s a useful tip: 1 inch is equal to exactly 25.4 millimetres. So no matter what units the shops or websites use, you can always convert the measurements exactly to your favoured units.
Charlie’s idea that it’s up to the purchaser to convert between Imperial and metric measures puts the responsibility on the wrong person. Magna Carta, over 800 years ago had it right: there should be one measure. Comparison shopping should be easy and not a matter of juggling between two measurement systems.
@CharlieP you miss the point… in a country in which the legal system of measurement is (or at least should be) SI and where the education system, paid for by our taxes educated me (during the 1970’s and 1980’s) entirely in metric there is no good reason why I should need to convert.
In fact, having made an error during an “on the fly” conversion in a carpet shop when furnishing my first house, before metric was compulsory in THAT particular field, I made a very costly mistake and wound up with about 20 cm at one end of the room that I had to leave covered with furniture and other items so that the floor was not visible. Having been educated entirely in metric I had an expectation when I measured my house that metric would be the unit of choice… how naive I was in my late teens.
So, I refuse to convert myself. In fact if I do have to do business with anybody who advertises in imperial only I will insist that they do any conversion and cover the cost of any mistakes. If they will not do so I take my business elsewhere.
Charlie P wrote: “Here’s a useful tip: 1 inch is equal to exactly 25.4 millimetres.”
It would make more sense to have a single system of metric measures and let those people who cannot get their head round a decimal metric system (probably the one they learnt at school) do the conversion for themselves, if they need it.
Charlie P is making the wrong assumption. Mattresses are not made in inches and would not be made to increments of 25.4 mm. Mattresses are made to rounded metric sizes and the shop converts them and who knows how far off they are when converting to feet by rounding.
They should leave it in the units that the factory used and let the Luddites convert and round to their delight and if they get it wrong, they pay the price.
Dual units has its problems. I once took a carpet dealer to task for incorrect pricing when he converted between square metres and square yards using a conversion factor of 0.9144. not 0.9144^2.
I think we’ve already established that the “there shall be standard measures” as found in the Magna Carta meant that all measures should be based on the length of the same bronze bar, or distance between iron studs set in a stone, or whatever the state of the art was back then – rather than on the less universal human arm length, foot length or stride length. That way the yard, foot, inch, etc. are repeatable and controlled back to a common fixed length.
The equivalent standard today, as specified by the SI, is the speed of light. So given that both the metre and the yard can be expressed as the distance that light travels in a rational-number-multiple of a second (1/299792458 and 5/1639285094 respectively), then both can be said to be exact multiples of the accepted universal standard measure. Hence both pass the Magna Carta test.
@Alex Bailey and @Jake
Perhaps we should hold a national referendum to settle the argument as to which set of units should prevail. Would you abide by the majority view?
The Meteogroup is named as the company to replace the Met Office as the BBC ‘s weather forecaster from Spring 2017.
Let’s hope we will see wind speeds in m/s or km/h added to weather forecasts.
MPH wind speeds are an imperial holdout that is not required in a otherwise very well presented metric weather forecast.
“Perhaps we should hold a national referendum to settle the argument as to which set of units should prevail. Would you abide by the majority view?”
Yes, as long as it is a WORLD majority. Settling for a measurement system that less than 5% of the world uses is utter stupidity. I think even you Charlie P understand that.
Sadly, speed limits on UK road signs in Imperial will continue to be an obstacle. Once Ireland made the switch, for example, publishing wind speeds in km/h (only) quickly followed.
Even more telling (given its proximity to the overpowering “Imperial” neighbor to the south, the USA), Canada has been giving wind speeds on their weather web sites in km/h ever since they converted their road signs to metric in the 1970’s. They also give temperatures in degrees Celsius and barometric pressure in kPa as well as visibility in kilometers. (I also have not seen any option to convert the display to Imperial on those web sites, which tells me Canadians have not been clamoring for a return to Imperial.)
I strongly suspect that the UK will follow the same path as Canada and Ireland once road signs are finally converted to metric such that all weather data will be given in metric, including wind speed.
@ Charlie P who wrote: “Perhaps we should hold a national referendum to settle the argument as to which set of units should prevail. Would you abide by the majority view?”
If the tricks used in the last referendum are anything to go by, then I would not support the principle of a referendum. The nation’s system of measurement is a matter for government. As it is, that system in the UK is metric with various exemptions. It is those exemptions that need to be addressed, not the underlying metric system as a whole.
Charlie P, Even if both the metre and the yard can be checked against the speed of light, they are still different measures. A mixture of measures is just not fair to the consumer. It does not matter if it is some land described by the hectare or the acre, men’s belts described by letters such as S, M, L, XL, XXL and so on, or by centimetres or inches, or milk sold by both the pint and the litre, the consumer loses out.
Now that trade is world-wide, the use of a single measure for common goods is in everyone’s interest.
CharlieP is being disingenuous.
The UK faces the choice between using one system of measurement or two (three if you include the the US system), and not between metric and Imperial. This has been so for over a century. In particular:
* there have never been Imperial units for electricity. The pioneering work of British scientists in the 1850s used metric measures to define the basic electrical units. Who today would go into an electrical shop and expect the power of common electrical appliances such as TVs and microwave ovens, sourced from around the world, to be specified in BTU/hr?
* science has used metric exclusively since the end of the nineteenth century, and has been taught in metric for as long as anyone living today can remember.
* the Olympic Games have been metric since their inception in 1896. This affects every level of sport in the UK, even down to primary schools.
Since the UK Government’s decision in 1965 that British industries should adopt metric units, the proportion of our trade with metric countries has risen from around half to over 90%. Many areas of the economy have long passed the point of no return, for example:
* pharmacies adopted metric in 1969;
* the construction industry began the change in 1968 and had substantially completed the job by 1975;
* the automotive industry, prompted partly decisions in the US and by the international nature of the supply chain, began the change in earnest in the late 1970s;
*many other British industries, despite ignoring the Government’s target date, also concluded belatedly that the choice was change or die.
The policy of government and many industries to keep metric hidden creates a false picture of the true nature of the UK economy – a ‘Top Gear’ presenter may describe a car’s performance in Imperial, but its only Imperial items could be the speedometer dial and the tyres. And those Imperial road traffic signs are also specified and located using metric units.
Metric units were permitted in the UK for all purposes in 1898. That decision had little direct impact. But since then, the UK has been influenced by world events, in particular the end of Empire and the obvious need for an international system of measures accepted by all. As others have commented, metric units have prevailed, both around the world and in the UK. A referendum would not change that.
I see Charlie P is still plugging away with his `singular’ theory in the hope that someone will eventually believe him if it’s repeated often enough. Presumably, he’d be delighted if I went around randomly changing the speeds, distances and loading gauges on road signs in terms of exact fractional seconds of light in a vacuum, what with it being endorsed by Magna Carta and all? The fact that his speedometer and odometer do not [yet] display in those units would just be an opportunity to whip out his calculator and demonstrate his conversion prowess in each instance…
In any case, I shall be using 1143/374740572500 as the basis for my new signage because Charlie is trying to be clever, but not quite clever enough!