Then and now

We take a look at a film from 1973 made with the aim introducing the metric system to the general public.

One of our regular readers has drawn our attention to a 15 minute film entitled “Simply Metric”, produced in 1973 by the Central Office of Information on behalf of the UK Metrication Board:

The film explains in simple terms the principles of the metric system and introduces some of the measurement units that the public are likely to encounter. It concludes by saying that the metric system is “simple, straightforward and systematic and is the measurement system of the world.” Which is more that can be said for the Imperial measures that it was intended to replace.

Viewed 45 years after its production, the film illustrates some of the things that have changed in the intervening years, for example we have switched from ‘gramme’ to ‘gram’, timber is now sold in lengths that are multiples of 300 mm, and the sexism, though humorous, would probably be unacceptable today. But eleven Olympic Games later, the UK is nowhere near bringing its metric changeover to a successful conclusion.

There was steady progress after the announcement in Parliament in 1965 that “the Government hope that within ten years the greater part of the country’s industry will have affected the change”. But it was quickly realised that it made little sense for industry to “Go metric” in isolation. In 1969, the UK Metrication Board was set up to promote the voluntary changeover of the whole UK economy, and the film was one of its initiatives. As we know, the planned changeover, which had proceeded smoothly during the mid-1970s, was abandoned between 1978 and 1980, and this resulted in the muddle and confusion we live with today.

The Prime Minister’s visit to China this week illustrates the shortcomings of the policies on the metric changeover of successive governments over the past 40 years. Then, China was weak and introspective, having suffered decades of disruption, culminating in Mao’s ‘Cultural revolution’. Today it is the third largest single market in the world and its second largest economy, forecast to overtake the US during the next decade. And in common with almost every other country around the world, it uses metric as its primary system of measurement.

The UK is now likely to face the even bigger challenge of exiting the EU. We must hope we make a better job of it than we did of the metric changeover. For a start, there is that 50 year transition period …

7 thoughts on “Then and now”

  1. One of the many failings in the British metrication process was the government’s maxim that costs should be borne where they fell. Industries that could benefit from metrication did so quickly and recouped their costs (for example the engineering industry who were able to halve the range of nuts and bolts that they had to keep in stock). On the other hand, industries for whom there was little or no benefit, such as market stall holders, dragged their heels. Finally the government played one of the biggest insults of all by reneging on their responsibility to metricate road signs.


  2. China is majority metric, which I just love, but old units still hang on here and there, one is the Mu (?), around just over 650 square meters, which is often quoted in government documents dealing with land area at the small scale, usually farm plots and the like. Presumably this is a hangover from the bad old feudal days. Real estate thank god is quoted in meters squared.

    Also note that China adopted the metric system fairly early on, starting in the republican era. It is really not credible to link its economic development with metrication as metrication was solidly in place way back when it was economically weak. No doubt having a single unified measurement system helped but there are may other forces at play in China’s economic rise.

    (Editor. The article was trying to make the point that completing the metric changeover in the UK is even more important now than it was in the 1970s, due for example to the tremendous increase in China’s industrial and economic strength. It did not intend to suggest that this increase was due to the adoption by China of the metric system, though clearly it helped.)


  3. @Ramsden
    I do not understand your point about China. Which areas of UK business, commerce, education, engineering, manufacturing, science or technology do you think do not currently use metric as their primary system of measurement and would struggle in dealings with China?


  4. @Charlie P:

    You semi-skilfully evade and dissemble, as ever. You know, I know and all UK locals here know that we are fully metric capable. But even long-time English speaking commenters from abroad in this ‘blog do not appear 100 % convinced! What chance the rest?

    Try empathising with the Chinese for just a moment. How are they supposed to know—or readily establish—if UK can be trusted in measurement when they see ‘m’ on the road signs out by a factor of ~1600, etc? That it is the UK’s own government which instigates these mixed messages and uncertainty for purely lazy & parochial reasons does not temper the harm they do to sectors of UK economy overseas. Your ‘primary’ qualifier doesn’t exactly help, either, whether or not you ‘understand’ why.


  5. In the spirit of issues to be confronted when converting from Imperial to metric and convincing people and governments of the virtues of conversion, I share this video on YouTube which I found by accident that addresses these same concerns for the USA:

    Still, I am confident the day will come when even over on this side of the Pond Fahrenheit will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of history.


  6. Well, I suddenly realized that the young woman in the video I included in my previous post is almost certainly Canadian. This matches what I have heard from every Canadian I have ever talked to about temperatures in Fahrenheit; even the ones who have moved here (to the USA) feel more comfortable with Celsius and often never “get” Fahrenheit.

    The remarkable thing is that Canadians made this mental switch decades ago and have maintained that mental switch despite the American behemoth looming over them day in and day out just south of the border blasting them with almost 100% everyday use of “Imperial”.

    How did they accomplish this unlikely feat? Just by doing what Australians did; switch over completely to metric and dump Imperial totally. Period, full stop. In no time at all the population internalizes metric and begins to think in metric. Pretty soon, Imperial ends up seeming like a foreign language you don’t understand. It’s all quite simple, actually.

    All the UK needs is for the government to drop Imperial in all areas of life that it controls or influences along with polite cajoling of private media to do the same (and they could even ask them to do it for Queen and Country! 🙂

    Maybe after the next election?


  7. May I correct an historical inaccuracy? The official abandonment of metrication in the UK actually began in December 1970, when the changeover of road signs (planned for 1973) was cancelled and no new date was fixed. This was the result of a campaign by some right wing Conservatives following the unexpected defeat of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. I think it was the key event since our road signs are an ever present and ubiquitous reminder that the UK is not a fully metric country, and the programme never really recovered.

    Two years later the Metrication White Paper insisted that the changeover must be voluntary and gradual. In effect this ensured the survival of imperial units, especially in the media, and subsequent governments have done the absolute minimum consistent with their legal obligations.


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