We take a look at the past year on Metric Views and speculate about what the future holds.
The past year was one of the most active on Metric Views with forty articles posted, and 750 comments received from around sixty different contributors. Thank you to all those who contributed articles and comments, and to our readers who make their efforts worthwhile.
There is clearly continuing interest in the UK’s measurement muddle and progress towards resolving it, as well the development of the international measurement system which is now the primary system in all but a handful of countries. Since 1820, when the metric system was adopted in the Low Countries, progress in its use around the world has been relentless, and continued through 2016. Metric Views looks forward to reporting further developments in the coming year.
History and tradition have their place in every country, but we shall continue to comment on the activities of those who, when it comes to measures, wish to remain in the era of the horse and cart.
With the energies of UK governments likely to be focused on Brexit for the next decade, we may expect little progress on the adoption of a single, simple and logical measurement system. But the world moves on. Will the UK move on too or be left behind? Watch this space.
A Happy New Year to all our readers and contributors.
18 thoughts on “Should auld acquaintance be forgot”
For the last ten years or so, the BIPM has been moving towards redefining the kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin and the mole. The idea is that the Planck constant, the charge of a single electron, the Boltzmann constant and the Avagadro number should all be given fixed values and that the kilogram, ampere, kelvin and mole defined accordingly. The second and the metre are already defined that way.
30 June 2017 is a crucial date for that process as it is the last date for which experimental data supporting the new definitions will be accepted in order for the new definitions to be presented at the 26th CGPM (late 2018). During the intervening 16 months the data will be thoroughly checked and the final numerical values allocated to these constants of nature. A draft of the 9th SI Brochure has been written and can be seen at http://www.bipm.org/utils/common/pdf/si-brochure-draft-2016b.pdf.
The benefit of these new definitions will be a greater precision that is currently available and, in the case of the kilogram, the replacement of the existing artefact (of which there is only one in existence and about 80 near-identical copies) with a constant of nature with (in theory at any rate) available to anybody who can afford to build a suitable laboratory.
All the best to Metric Views and the UKMA from across The Pond!
Looking back across a lot of the posts, there seems to be an over reliance on the (faint) hope of the road signs being changed over. As, for the foreseeable future, there is little to no chance of that happening, isn’t it about time that some other means for changing the ubiquitous non metric mind set in the UK was sought?
Otherwise, won’t you still be here in another 40 years saying “well we need to change the road signs in order to…”? Repeat ad nauseum.
Anyway, all the best for 2017 to one and all.
Not sure your pessimism about converting road signs (though quite understandable) is totally justified.
If the Hard Brexiters (e.g. Leave Means Leave plus some former high officials in various organizations) have their way (meaning the UK in pure WTO Land, i.e. no Norway, Switzerland, or Turkey arrangements), then Northern Ireland and Scotland will have a tough choice to make.
It is not inconceivable in that scenario that NI opts for unification with the Republic and Scotland bolts the UK. In the first instance Imperial road signs will disappear quickly since Dublin won’t tolerate the old signs up there and will in any case quite reasonably want uniform road signage through the (now expanded) Republic.
In the second instance it won’t take much to convince Sturgeon and her lot to convert road signs (many fewer than in the UK and thus cheap to convert) both to demonstrate their allegiance to the EU and to demonstrate their independence from their former masters in Westminster.
So, hope lives! Let’s just see what PM May has to say once she invokes Article 50 by the end of March.
As the Chinese say, “May you live in interesting times!” 🙂
I agree with Bodrules that the UK Metric Association that simply concentrating on a wholesale change of road signs could be a waste of time and effort. Other moves could have more chance of success. Some of these suggestions might be achievable:
# Lobbying for distances in kilometres be added to the signs on the main road from Dover to London. Indeed, signs showing the distances in both kilometres and miles should be phased in to all the motorways.
# Pushing for consistent advertising of real estate in square metres or hectares, with the phasing out of square metres, acres and any other ancient measures still being used.
# Lobbying the sporting codes for consistent use of metric measurements in all sports. The concentration should be on the sports that are already partly metric, because it’s confusing to mix the units that are used.
# Pushing for consistency in advertising. It appears that carpets are consistently advertised by the square metre. Good. If it is not illegal already, it should be illegal to advertise or price carpets by the square yard or any other measure.
# Pushing for a clarification of the law so that busybodies can be prosecuted for going round and changing signs.
# Drawing attention to areas of the economy where metric usage has prevailed. (Carpet sales seems to be one such area.)
At least some of these measures should be investigated.
@ Michael Glass:
“I agree with Bodrules that the UK Metric Association that simply concentrating on a wholesale change of road signs could be a waste of time and effort. Other moves could have more chance of success. Some of these suggestions might be achievable:
# Lobbying for distances in kilometres be added to the signs on the main road from Dover to London. Indeed, signs showing the distances in both kilometres and miles should be phased in to all the motorways.”
I brought this up before. In the light of present moods and apathy, road sign metrication isn’t going to happen any time soon. Yet, there is a desire as seen in the number of metric signs that do appear, yet are altered.
If the law forbids metric on signs, either stand-alone or in conjunction with imperial, then the law must be changed to allow metric only on signs. This would allow any jurisdiction the right to install a metric sign and protect it from vandalism.
Communities that want to erect metric signs will do so and before you know it they will be in abundance. This will eventually develop into a movement to complete the sign changeover.
UKMA needs to be a force to have the law changed or clarified that metric only signs are perfectly legal. If metric height/width signs are legal, all signs should be legal. The law doesn’t have to force metrication, just fully permit it.
I do not think that your pessimism on changing road signs is justified. Last year, UKMA successfully got a change in the regulations to make metric units mandatory on vehicle dimension signs, an important step in the right direction.
The units used on British road signs has an enormous influence on British society. For example, you only need to look at the numerous areas where long distances are expressed in miles and how Britons think about and express speed and long distances in terms of miles. I wrote about this issue in a recent Metric Views article.
The problem is that since the early 1970’s, successive transport ministers have thought that their department should be exempt from metrication. They wrongly believe that the rest of society can go metric while their department can remain an imperial traffic island in an otherwise metric country. As we can see from the ubiquitous use of medieval units all around us in the UK, this is and always has been nonsense. UKMA continues to challenge the Department for Transport and their political masters over their resistance to metrication. UKMA are right to do so.
I am sure that UKMA and Metric Views readers would be interested to hear your ideas for changing the ubiquitous non-metric mind set in the UK. What else can be done to make more progress on metrication in the UK? Please post your ideas here.
@ Ronnie Cohen
“Last year, UKMA successfully got a change in the regulations to make metric units mandatory on vehicle dimension signs, an important step in the right direction.”
This year UKMA needs to work to get the law changed such that metric only signs are fully legal and to make their defacement a punishable offence.
“The problem is that since the early 1970’s, successive transport ministers have thought that their department should be exempt from metrication. They wrongly believe that the rest of society can go metric while their department can remain an imperial traffic island in an otherwise metric country. As we can see from the ubiquitous use of medieval units all around us in the UK, this is and always has been nonsense.”
Which is utter nonsense and hypocrisy on their part. The only area they are refusing to budge are the measuring words on the signs. All of the engineering and work done by the DfT is fully metric. Even the measuring of where the signs are located is done in metric. It is one thing to allow metric yet make no effort to change the signs it is totally ridiculous to forbid metric only on signs.
“What else can be done to make more progress on metrication in the UK? Please post your ideas here.”
First and foremost, work for the legality of metric only on signs and it will be a short matter of time before the signs get changed en masse by choice or bit by bit by chance.
Michael Glass says: 2017-01-06 at 00:18
“# Pushing for consistent advertising of real estate in square metres or hectares, with the phasing out of square metres, acres and any other ancient measures still being used.”
“# Pushing for consistency in advertising. It appears that carpets are consistently advertised by the square metre. Good. If it is not illegal already, it should be illegal to advertise or price carpets by the square yard or any other measure.”
This has already been done, see posts under “Government to clarify law on metric units in advertising” Posted on 2014-11-30 by Robin Paice” and the post by Erithacus.
This effort by UKMA, to which I contributed documents as “letters from the minister” culminated in the house of Lords “clarifying the law”, that is, it went all the way to the top. The result was basically nothing.
I have complained about adverts myself to the advertising standards agency (after nil response from the company) with this response “Thank you for contacting the ASA.
We’ve assessed the ad you highlighted and from the information we have, we think the ad is likely to have breached the Advertising Codes that we administer and have therefore taken steps to address the issue.” Nothing happened until I emailed them again saying they were a ‘waste of my taxes’. After that the company did change the ONE advert in the ONE website to which I specifically referred, the other sizes remained unaltered, this was fraud, not just USC / metric. The complaint was not so much about the metric but the fact they used (deliberately I felt) an incorrect conversion from US measures to metric which gave them a small but real price advantage over the adjacent German advert selling correctly in metric only.
Now, if downright deliberate commercial fraud is allowed to persist without correction I think we are not going to get very far with mere measures.
If the Ministers think a mixed muddle of measures is the right way then we are not going anywhere.
Whilst the Government is 99.9% occupied elsewhere we may just sneak in under the radar.
How `ubiquitous’ is this supposedly `non-metric mind set’ in UK (as compared to USA, where it seemingly is)? Here is a transcript of a 98 s scene from a TV entertainment programme last week re-building an iconic 1960s food mixer by a 53 year-old presenter:
Not so much as you might like to believe, I suspect.
One and/ or two measures, throughout the realm?
ISTR optional [supplementary?] metric road signs are/ were permitted in USA. Perhaps you could clarify how successful a metrication strategy that was?
Dual measure road signs are an `important step in the right direction’ only if the goal is to get new generations of users accomplished at converting metric into imperial, making a complete switch less likely and ensuring that we shall still need a UKMA to exist in another 50 years or WHY. As we have seen with the loading gauge signs, they require larger plates (25 % increase in default roundel diameter for a mere 6⅔ % increase in x-height/ legibility distance) and then distractingly provide readers with ~300 % the necessary text to process which has obvious danger implications for those already working near maximum cognitive load.
I think your characterisation of the DFT metric stance is back-to-front. It’s more plausible that they and their allies [correctly] recognise road signs as the most effective way to cling onto their yearning for British/ Roman empire, even after it has disappeared everywhere else. As Dr. Metric and others point out, road signs are the main immediate priority because they are the most visible remnant of archaic units still in daily life. That is also probably why, as you and Ezra Steinberg observe here, they have a domino-effect into other areas of discourse.
I think with the situation in Britain is communication, for example if someone uses lbs to weigh themselves but another person uses kgs it can lead to confusion. For example I lost 20pounds this week but am I talking money or weight? So I might not be happy but everyone else is congratulating me, just a thought.
“ISTR optional [supplementary?] metric road signs are/ were permitted in USA. Perhaps you could clarify how successful a metrication strategy that was?”
Totally different situation. You are comparing apples to oranges.
Except for some major multinational industries the bulk of the US experience is almost metric free. What little exposure Americans have to metric is more often than not ignored. So with this in mind, even with the right to have metric signs put in place, there is no motivation to do so.
The UK is entirely different. There is more exposure to metric in the marketplace, industry, jobs, home life, school, media, etc than in the US. Because of this, many communities throughout the UK have erected metric road signs and continue to do so. This shows that there is a desire in the UK to erect metric signs. If the law never existed and it was illegal in the UK to damage signage, the majority of those signs would still be there today and as others would see them there would be a feeling from other communities it is OK to put metric signs on their roads. The metric signs would appear in increasing numbers. Couple this with the number of private signs showing metric only that doesn’t exist in the US.
It hurts no one and costs no money to change the law to make metric signage fully legal in the UK as well as make it a punishable offence to damage or alter them. At least now it is legal and required to have metric on height and width signs.
Rather a lot of unwarranted optimism in your comment. Many (all?) of the metric TSRGD-like signs we still see from local councils in GB (unsure about NI) are installed on walking routes.† A cynic might suppose that this is because they are the cheapest signs to fabricate or easiest/ safest to vandalise and the councils dislike walking as a mode of transport, so resent having to provide signs for it at all and are not bothered whether they are defaced/ stolen. DFT’s response to the initial court cases was to confirm metric as forbidden and instead unilaterally authorise [the less precise and usually inaccurate to the point of uselessness] `hr’ and `mins’ for distance. Note the refusal to permit SI symbols there, likewise the un-Roman 24-hour clock. Around the same time, this was extended to cycling signs where it is even more meaningless, probably because DFT hate cycling every bit as much as the local councils do walking. The same indignity was not conferred on their mutually ideologically beloved motoring, of course.
You are correct that outside of highways, the public are exposed to metric far more than in USA. Arguably, rather than `apples and oranges’, this would make our highway authority employees less motivated to put metric on cherished carriageway signs where their fellow motorists might see it. If it were optional, you’d most likely see no change from the status quo, prosecutions included. If compulsory, with indefinite savings for existing signs, it’s very likely that they would splurge obscene amounts of cash refurbishing and restoring imperial signs long past their natural life-expectancy—as they did (& do!) with height/ width/ weight signs in arc-minutes, arc-seconds and teslas. Road signs are the last major bastion of imperial here and you can expect them to be jealously guarded beyond reason!
Dual height/ width signs are sufficiently complex and unclear that anything less than an order of magnitude reduction in the number of motor crashes into bridges will allow DFT to argue that we might as well revert to imperial-only. I do not trust them to act in good faith concerning metrication.
† :- A positive thing; Ordnance Survey 1:25 000 maps, primarily aimed at walking, are metric throughout. Their 1:250 000 maps,‡ primarily aimed at motoring, while composed entirely in metric—unfortunately also have imperial mile distances overlaid for main roads, but emphatically not waterways or railways.
‡ :- Observe that the full-size raster image has pixels of exactly 100 µm × 100 µm. It will have been originally released at that consumer-quality resolution, albeit as losslessly compressed GeoTIFF tile(s) or similar.
@Mark Williams 2017-01-27 at 22:44
A post fitting to my own cynical outlook.
However, I would say that in many cases, countryside (walking) signs are often erected by the Parks and Gardens or National Trust and such like. These may (or may not) ultimately be Council funded, but for sure would be erected by metric mindset personnel, and get ‘de-modified’ when defaced. In an area I will not specify, this is directly shown by the fact that the maps and guides installed in public include such things as the area in hectares, even if the paper ones are dumbed down to acres!!
In response to a recent approach to a council by ‘the other lot’ about metric signs, the council replied effectively saying they are ‘doing what most councils do’, that is metric signs in the country (off the highway.)
From this I still maintain the will is there at grass roots level (pun intended), we just need the DfT and government to catch up.
@ Mark Williams
I would never blame the DfT for the muddle with the sign issue. I would blame the individual in charge. The previous manager (Hammond) , director or whatever his title was was strongly opposed to any incursions of metric on signs, even dual height/width. The present manager’s position on metric is unknown but he is the one who at least put metric on the height/width signs.
Dual height/width may be complex and not the right way to go in the long term, but they are the proverbial foot in the door and if there is to be a further change to return to single units signs, it will all depend on the personal whim of the man in charge whether the move is forward or backwards.
For changes to come to the DfT it needs a manager who is pro-metric and is not afraid to step on imperial toes and will take the steps to move in the metric direction. Blame the people making the decisions, not the institution itself.
I take the view that there is no shortage of blame—plenty enough for all involved :-)! The transport minister, of which there have been two since Philip Hammond, is really just a liaison between the national parliament and DFT. Here, the [unelected, permanent] government department can—and often does—have a policy which is counter to that of the [here today & gone tomorrow] politicians. There is no doubt that the DFT has had its own anti-metric policy and has been successfully blocking metrication of road signs for at least forty years, possibly fifty—entirely independent of what the succession of individual ministers have had to say on the matter, if anything.
My amateur belief is that road signs can be metricated, quite easily and inexpensively, but it will involve being very explicit about the objective (complete switch, in the national interest, within a reasonable time-frame and using predominantly existing budgets) and a clear commitment to carrying it through in the face of inevitable short-term screaming and wailing from imperial fans (within and without DFT). That shall mean holding the permanent civil service’s feet to the fire in a way which nobody, UKMA included, yet seems ready or willing to do and shall probably have to be backed up with a credible threat of removing road signs from DFT’s remit at least during the transition period.
I was asked sometime ago to opine on what I would do – solutions not problems! – and I’ve been remiss in not replying, so here goes for my 2p’s worth for you all to have a pop at 🙂
* weather forecasts to be in all metric i.e. km/h for windspeed; meters / km for visibility; mm / cm or meters for rainfall / snowfall; Celsius only no backsliding to Fahrenheit in summer!
* all government produced materials to be in metric
* ensure all advertising is in metric, no imperial allowed for instance in house selling sq.m not sq.ft or land purchases advertised in hectares only; ban mpg give fuel economy in l/100 km etc
* ban the use of imperial as a supplemental indicator in pricing
* all news programmes to use metric as the default
These are some practical suggestions for getting the use of metric out there in the population without touching the thorny issues of pints in pubs / pints for milk or road signs.
Okay, so have at 🙂
This is what happened in South Africa and in Australia with the additional restriction that in both countries the retail industry was prohibited from selling devices that were calibrated in non-metric units. The result is that both countries met their metrication targets.