Hybrids, old and new

We have come across two examples of hybrid measures, and speculate if these might help in those countries struggling with the transition from old to new measures.

Metric Views feeds off the news, which has been dominated in recent months by Brexit. For our bloggers, there have been very slim pickings. This is likely to continue for some time – discussions on the UK’s future relationships with the EU and with the rest of the world have yet to begin. But the need to resolve the UK’s measurement muddle is not going to go away, even though many prefer to ignore it.

MV will continue to provide comment on measurement issues, with or without the help of the UK media. This week we draw attention to two attempts to steer a path between medieval and modern measurement systems.

TV buffs may be familiar with this web site dealing with the history of TV studios in Britain:


In the section covering the BBC Television Centre, there appears this comment:

“Where possible I have quoted sizes within fire lanes and in feet or ‘metric feet’ where applicable.  This curious measurement was adopted by the BBC and is 30 cm in length.  (If you think back to your old school rulers, they had 12 inches on one side and 30 cm, which is very slightly less, on the other.)  It does mean that a studio that is marked as 90 metric feet long is actually 88ft 6ins long.”

Wikipedia tells us more:


“A metric foot is a nickname for a preferred number length of 3 basic modules (3 M), or 30 centimetres (11.811 in). The 30 cm metric ruler was a similar length to the traditional imperial one-foot ruler. A metric foot is 4.8 millimetres (0.189 in) shorter than an imperial foot.
Although the term “metric foot” is still occasionally used in the United Kingdom, in particular in the timber trade, dimensions are most likely to be quoted exclusively in metric units today.
The sizes of the studios at BBC Television Centre in London, which opened in 1960, are specified and measured in metric feet, in contrast to film stages where imperial feet and inches prevail.”

One suspects that, 60 years on, the BBC has dropped this hybrid, though it lives on in my local timber yard.

However, another is to be found in the kitchen, in the instructions for my Morphy Richards ‘Essentials’ breadmaker. These instructions include Helpline telephone numbers and contact details in the UK and Ireland so are clearly intended for use on this side of the pond. But all the recipes are given in “cups”. So what is a “cup”? The instructions provide this explanation:
“The measuring cup is based on the American standard 8 fluid oz cup – British cup is 10 fluid oz.”

Noting that 1 US fluid ounce is 29.6 mL, hence 1 US cup is 237 mL, where does this leave the would-be British bread baker?

Having recently mislaid the cup supplied with the breadmaker, I headed off to Sainsbury’s, who stock a splendid set of chromium-plated steel measures marked as follows:
“1 cup (250 mL)”, “½ cup (125 mL)”, “1/3 cup (80 mL)” and “¼ cup (60 mL)”.

And the bread baked using these hybrid measures? Excellent.

But is there a future for hybrids such as these? In countries where the use of metric measures is well established, one suspects not. Even in fields where US influence dominates, for example in the description of TV, monitor, laptop and mobile phone screens, it is medieval inches not metric inches that are used.

But, around the world, what about the laggards in the adoption of modern measures, in particular the UK and the USA? Is there scope for the use of hybrids to ease the transition, and appease the traditionalists. A metric pint of 500 mL conveniently lying between the Imperial and US pints? A metric inch of 25 mm? The experience of France with ‘measures usuelles’ between 1812 and 1840 suggests they might only serve as stepping stones and are best avoided. Do readers agree?

9 thoughts on “Hybrids, old and new”

  1. Having checked carefully it is not 1st April, I have to wonder.
    Maybe those ‘metric feet’ were to keep “The One Show” presenters happy, otherwise the only point in them would be to spread yet more muddle and confusion and avoid confronting the problem head on.
    But is there a future for hybrids such as these? I certainly hope not!!!
    Just a point on the TV sizes, some are now boxed with metric (cm) sizes first and in much larger font (2 x linear), so that is one tiny step in the right direction.


  2. There is one common hybrid, the DfT metric yard, where road countdown markers are measured in metres then signposted as the same number of yds. Plus the invisible hybrid of motorway marker posts measured in km but posted as just a number.


  3. Maybe hybrid units would help. Who knows?

    Another struggling country is Canada. While distances and speeds are always metric (thanks to all-metric road signs since the 1970’s) weight still often shows up in “pounds” (although “kilos” also sometimes is used).

    I was reminded of this while watching The National (the flagship news program from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, aka CBC) which aired a program on ways to curb food waste and transfer such food to people to eat. I was a bit chagrined to hear the reporter refer to the number of pounds of food wasted per year in Canada (both because the number was large … wasting food is such a waste … and because she did not use “kilograms” instead).

    Not clear how hybrid units would help in Canada. I still hold out hope we here in the States will convert under a Democratic President after 2020, which will solve the problem both for Canada and the UK in one fell swoop.


  4. Ref: BrianAC
    Yes, I reckon it would help the muddle to continue.
    Consider the common 12 inch ruler (OK we know it’s 30 cm); not only is there the idea of ‘a metric foot’; there’s also the idea ‘1/3 of a metre stick’.

    Where can I buy simple metric only rulers that are either 25 cm long, or 500 mm long? I’m not talking about tape measures.
    Schools should have issued these metric only rulers many many decades ago.

    Now for consumers, probably more muddle:
    ‘1 lb [454 g]= a metric 1/2 kilo’
    ‘a metric pound’ = 500 g’

    And for road signage – why isn’t there a campaign to show the DfT’s lies; ‘yds’ on a sign means metres!


  5. It should be noted that the M module for construction is based on the 100 mm module and 300 mm being 3 time M is 300 mm, not 30 cm. Centimetres are not used, but millimetres are.

    The US cup is not 237 mL but 240 mL based on the FDA definition of the ounce being 30 mL. So if a person measures out 1 cup they are measuring out 240 mL, not 237 mL. The same is true for spoon sets. They are in increments of 5 mL. 6 teaspoons is an ounce of 30 mL and nothing else. This is another example of hybrid units.

    One good thing happening is that China is replacing the US as the #1 nation and China has no hang-up over obsolete units and even if they have to use old unit trade descriptors for items sold in the US and other countries, that doesn’t mean they use them to make the products nor are they stuck with decimal dust when manufacturing.


  6. I was wondering the other day about the the UKMA’s thoughts of units like the ‘metric mile’ (1500m) or the ‘metric stone’ (3kg in the Netherlands [according to wikipedia]). I assumed you’d prefer the unfiltered metric system rather than people saying something like ‘I’m 5 metric ft 25cm’.

    Personally I’d rather the hybrids not be too common. I’m sure there’s a bit of confusion with the metric tonne, the USC Ton, and the Imperial Ton, all somewhat existing in the UK at once (although I don’t work in a trade that uses the unit, so I can’t say for sure). Having to add the measurement system as a prefix to the unit might get confusing or tedious, sort of like how you might have to specify whether your food is spicy hot or temperature hot, it’s just a hassle, even if only a minor one.

    That said, I wouldn’t be completely opposed to it. After all, any use of the metric system is a step in the right direction!


  7. Hybridism on road signs does seem to be becoming more obvious to those who know what to expect.

    I read Terry’s comment above on a metric mile being 1500 m but I generally just round a mile to 1600 m since, particularly on motorways, a mile always corresponds to 16 marker posts. On the same basis I’m seeing an increase in signage for exits at ? and ? mile distances which do seem to correspond closely enough to 500 m and 1000 m to not make any difference, but in addition you can consider ¼ mile to be 400 m and ½ mile to be 800 m in the same manner.

    That said there are exit signs on the A1 around Stamford, Lincs. which though they state ½ mile they are actually closer to 500 m and nobody seems to have picked up on that!!!

    Countdown markers to junctions are a different matter and their location on motorways pretty much seems to depend on how long ago they were installed and by whom… some appear to be at 100 m intervals (based on positioning of the marker posts) but some are closer together. Off of the motorways I’m fairly certain the guidance in the Traffic Signs manual pretty much says that so long as they are evenly spaced the distance isn’t really important and so there is so much variance there it is unbelievable.

    The most visible place to see hybrid yards is at roadworks though; on motorways and dual carriageways you will ALWAYS see the countdown signs to the start (3 miles, 800, 600, 400 & 200 yards) placed right next to the marker posts and then the traffic cones to close lanes always appear to be set to a distance of 200 m again adjacent to the marker posts. In fact I think the official HA Traffic Signs manual actually tells contractors to do this!

    If it weren’t for the continued use of the abbreviations M and m for miles it would be a very simple change for the DfT to just replace yards with metre/m on distance signs.


  8. @Mary “Where can I buy simple metric only rulers that are either 25 cm long, or 500 mm long?”

    Having researched this myself a number of times I think the answer is “not in UK”. I do have a couple of 50 cm clear plastic rulers I bought in France, also a “classic” wooden school ruler of 40 cm (Rolex Trueline, Australia) which I bought as a memento in Papua New Guinea (not a place to go to buy a ruler)!
    There are some gems out there though, a 1 metre yardstick and my favourite hate Stanley 8m x 1″ Metric Only Tape Measure. At least they seem to have dropped the Imperial from the length which looked quite weird.


  9. I imagine a lot of people will buy measuring cups from the internet and not check the measurements. I can’t imagine it will matter for home baking as long as the same set of cups are used!


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