A Dickensian surprise

Charles Dickens is enduringly popular for his memorable characters and his portrayal of the social evils of Victorian England. One of our regular readers, Martin Vlietstra, draws attention to an unexpected contribution he made to Britain’s long-running metrication debate.

Charles Dickens edited the magazine All the Year Round as a vehicle for publishing his works in weekly instalments. The magazine also had commentary on current affairs, some of which was written by Dickens himself and some by guest writers.  One such article which appeared in 1863, entitled “At your Fingers’ Ends”, was a commentary on the state of metrication in the United Kingdom.  The article appeared while a bill to make the metric system obligatory throughout the Empire was being debated in Parliament.  The bill itself was passed by 110 votes to 75 only for it to fall by the wayside due to the Parliamentary recess. I have been unable to find out whether or not it was Dickens’ own work.  Nevertheless it made interesting reading.

The author of the article wrote “Let us measure and weigh by tens, as we count by tens, and we may rub every trace of vulgar fractions off the slates of our National scholars, and set free for more useful knowledge half the time now spent in learning by heart confused or complex tables, and in the practice of long arithmetical processes that no longer touch on real business life.” He went on to say that the United Kingdom was lagging the rest of the civilised world in this respect and that at the Great Exhibition of 1851 the juries were embarrassed by the variety of systems of weight and measure followed by the exhibitors.  The upshot of this confusion was that the juries of Paris Exhibition of 1855 issued a declaration recommending uniformity of weights and measures while the Prince Consort, at the opening of the London Congress of the International Statistical Society [in 1860] had called attention to the “difficulties and impediments” caused by different weights, measures and currencies in which statistics are expressed.

The article went on to describe the “very British mess” that existed at the time: “Twenty different bushels in various parts of the country, some defined by volume and others by weight. Similar differences of meaning also applied to stones which varied from five pounds for glass to thirty-two for hemp, to hundredweights which could mean 100 lbs, 108 lbs, 112 lbs or 120 lbs and to a variety of other units of measure.”

The author then proceeded to describe the benefits of using a decimal-based system citing many instances where it had simplified matters and quoting Professor de Morgan who was of the opinion that “the whole time of arithmetical education, by adopting the decimal system, might be reduced by one half, or probably more”. The French “metrical system” (as it was called) was examined and praised for its simplicity though expressing reservations about the strange names and in particular of the prefixes used. The proposed solution was to adopt the metric system, but to give the units English names: “the “new yard” for the metre, the “reputed quart” for the litre and so on. [At the time the Dutch used their own names for various units in the metric system: the centimetre was called a “duim” (thumb), the kilometre a “mijl” (mile) and kilogram a “pond” (pound).]

What has happened in the 150 years since the article was written? First of all, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a remarkable degree of rationalisation of units of measure took place. In 1914, when the Germans invaded Belgium, the Belgian survey office, based in Zeebrugge, were able to move their mapping copperplates to the United Kingdom where they were used to assist the Allied forces in Flanders. In the 1920’s after having seen the advantages of the metric system over the imperial system, the War Office set about resurveying the United Kingdom using metric units for use on the military version of the Ordnance Survey maps. One such map in use in 1940 can be seen in the Cabinet War Rooms off Horse Guards Road. (A different grid is in use on today’s ordnance survey maps, though the principle is the same).

Then, on 24 May 1965, a century after Dickens published the article, the President of the Board of Trade announced that the Government had agreed to a CBI proposal for a phased change-over to the metric system over a ten-year period.  After an initial period of planning, the metric system was introduced to many other sectors of British life. By and large the engineering profession adopted the metric system, as did the retail industry.  Teaching of the imperial system was all but dropped from the school curriculum. Although roads were built using metric units, organised whingers (I can think of no other term for them) complained about the changes in general. While industry had already picked up the bill for its part of the conversion (and in many cases recovered their costs within a few years), the government of the day, who had a very small majority in Parliament, used cost as an excuse to appease the whingers and to abandon metrication of road signs. In 1980, when the Metrication Board was abolished, most of British industry had made the change, but the general public were misled by the degree of metrication, particularly when the press converted most metric units into imperial. And it still does. Thus we see the top speed of the Eurostar train being quoted as 186 mph when in fact the design specification was for a train that could travel at 300 km/h.

While our children no longer have to spend half their time learning “long arithmetical processes that no longer touch on real business life”, their lack of exposure to the metric system in either the playground or at home means that they are not experiencing how to be “in touch with real business life”.  As a part-time A Level physics tutor, I regularly come across students who are unable to express their own height in metric units or who confuse millimetres and centimetres. As long as we allow the completion of the metrication process to stagnate, we will see a decrease in the degree of numeracy within our schools and the nation as a whole will suffer.


2 May 1863 “At your Fingers’ Ends” in All the Year Round – A Weekly Journal. Editor: Charles Dickens, Vol 9 (210): 233 – 237. URL: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=RdUNAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA233&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false  Accessed 30 April 2017

2 thoughts on “A Dickensian surprise”

  1. The students mixing up millimetres and centimetres might not be only a lack of experience, but the confusing and quite unhelpful tradition of rules and tapes labelled as millimetres but numbered in centimetres sub-divided into tenths, too. That probably is a historical accident rather than a premeditated act of subterfuge. The French are a bit obsessed with dividing units into hundredths rather than thousandths, possibly because of the counting words. Surviving rules since at least around the time of the Mètre Des Archives, long before formal internationalisation, are laid out like that. In UK it is possible to buy steel rules numbered in millimetres instead of centimetres, but there does unfortunately seem to be a premium for that. Whether that is because they tend to be more accurate or imported, I do not know. Cheapskates like me make do with centimetre-and-tenths but choose the models with 500 µm lines at the start as an aide mémoire not to use the numbers directly. Students who struggle with this might be well advised to replace their misleading centimetre rules with pure millimetre ones—or carve in all missing ‘0’ suffixes?

    The Metric Maven has a whole category of his ‘blog sledgehammering the undue prominence of centimetres in length measurement and another trying to deprecate non-engineering form prefixes altogether, even outside engineering fields. It also has one trying to promulgate the incorrect Tesco kilo prefix! Go figure.


  2. The ‘ Dutch Metric System’, the French version with Dutch names has much in common with what Wilkins proposed. More: people who are doing historical research often fall into a trap. The ‘Dutch ell’ was the name for the metre. Someone finds that a field measures 100 by 100 ells and then assumes that that is 68 by 68 m (the old ell was about 68 cm). Before metrication the ell was exclusively used for the measurement of textiles. In the 19th century about 4500 ‘Dutch pounds’ of archival matter was sold as scrap paper at Nijmegen. Somebody who found this out divided that by 2. However, the Dutch Pound was officiallly equal to a kilogram, to the common people it became equal to 500 g. The destruction of this archival material was done by the authorities, who had to adhere to the law.
    If it should be possible to prove that Charles Dickens was the author of that text, more proof that the metric system is also part and parcel of British culture.


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