Martin Vlietstra, one of our regular contributors, offers his thoughts on an early pronouncement by the newly-appointed Leader of the House of Commons.
When he became Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg sent a detailed style edict for his departmental staff. The final point of the edict, “Check your work”, is eminently sensible; the point about double spacing after full stops is dubious – in today’s world most word processing packages look after this; the point about using the post-nominal “Esq” for “untitled” men is considered by many as archaic, while the demand that the imperial system of units be used is not only contrary to UK law but is also plain ridiculous. This article deals only with his requirement to use imperial units.
The Guardian records Mr Rees-Mogg as having the nickname “the Member [of Parliament] for the eighteenth century”. Since the imperial system only dates from 1824, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and for purposes of this discussion, allow the eighteenth century to run up to the end of the lives of any British monarchs who were born during the eighteenth century (ie start of Queen Victoria’s reign).
The metric system of today, or more correctly the International System of Units or SI, is based on seven base units, five of which describe quantities with which most adults are familiar. The five are time, length, mass, electric current and temperature.
When the imperial system was introduced in 1824, it covered only quantities that were based on the imperial yard and the avoirdupois pound. By implication the degree Fahrenheit and the second became accepted as part of the imperial system, though, as far as I am aware, there was never any legislation stating as much.
The observant reader will notice that electric current has been omitted from this list. If Mr Rees-Mogg demands that only imperial units be used, how does he intend specifying quantities related to electrical appliances? He could start by specifying power and energy consumption in imperial units, after all one horsepower is equal to 0.7457 kilowatts and 1000 British Thermal Units are equal to 0.2931 kilowatt-hours, but that is about as far as he will get.
Power is defined as the rate of energy transfer; it could be the rate at which electrical energy is transformed into heat energy and/or mechanical energy; it could be the rate at which chemical energy stored in a piece of wood or coal is transferred into heat energy by burning; it could be the rate at which nuclear binding energy is transformed into electrical energy in a nuclear power station. The SI unit of power is the watt and the SI unit of energy is the joule (both named after Britons, observant readers will note). This is regardless of the source of the energy. In the imperial system, thermal energy is specified in British Thermal Units (BTU) or therms (100 000 BTU), while mechanical power is specified in horsepower. Unlike the metric system where one watt is one joule per second, there is no simple relationship between BTUs and horsepower.
Why have imperial units never been used for electric current, electrical resistance or potential difference (voltage)? The answer is quite simple – at the 1881 International Congress of Electricity in Paris, a degree of agreement was reached on the names and magnitudes of various electrical units and the following year, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, using work done by Thompson (later Lord Kelvin) and Maxwell, tied up the definitions by linking the electrical unit of power to the mechanical unit on power when expressed in metric units. At the 1893 Congress, held in Chicago, various governments were represented as well as scientists who worked in the field. As such, the confirmation of the definition of electrical units adopted by the congress, much of which was based on the work of the British scientists Thompson and Maxwell, was passed into law in many countries.
Mr Rees-Mogg might request that the temperature in his office be defined in degrees Fahrenheit, named after a German scientist, but he has a problem here – I have not seen a thermostat (at any rate an electro-mechanical thermostat) that has Fahrenheit in years and for good reason too – a room with a temperature of 60 to 70°F is comfortable, but a hot water system with a water temperature of 60 – 70°C could be dangerous. If one is not alert, one could find oneself in hot water (literally). Possibly Mr Rees-Mogg does not deal with mundane things like with hot water systems so he might be unaware of this.
Given her husband’s promotion (and increase in prestige), however brief it may be, Mrs Rees-Mogg might like a new kitchen. There are many modular systems around, but they are all based on modules of 500 mm (1′-7.7″ or 1′-7 2/3″) and 600 mm (1′-11.6″ or 1′-11 5/8″) inches. Trying to calculate the combined length of a larger and a smaller unit in inches will be cumbersome, but again, Mr Rees-Mogg might delegate this to a kitchen fitter. Moreover, any built-in ovens, fridges or dish-washers are designed around these modules.
We must of course be thankful that Mr Rees-Mogg has not fallen back on on his classical education by promoting the Latin language (in use in England and Wales for fifteen centuries after the Roman conquest) and Roman numerals – this system of units predates the introduction of the Arabic numeral system and decimals into Europe and as such the quantity 1′-7 2/3″ would have been written in medieval times as “i foot, vii inches and viii lines”. (Note – the representation of fractions in Roman Numerals is very cumbersome).
Readers too may have thoughts on what retro measures they might support if they became Leader of the House: cars to be preceded by a person with a red flag unless drawn by horses, new houses to be thatched, second and third class carriages to be reintroduced on the railways, ….