Watch “Decimalisation (1970)” on YouTube

Our last article, on the subject of the decimal currency changeover in 1971, attracted several comments from our readers, one of which drew to attention to a film relating to the event. For technical reasons, it is not possible to post this after the original article, and so the Editor has decided to feature it in a new post.

 Here is the first:

Having viewed this, you may find yourself thinking,”The UK appeared to cope easily with switch to decimal currency. So how come we have made such a mess of the metric changeover, which began at around the same time?”

22 thoughts on “Watch “Decimalisation (1970)” on YouTube”

  1. Well there’s one statement there that will ring true and register with us all here – “…last major country to go over, though we were one of the first to start thinking about it…” – no change there then

    All puns are deliberate, I have no shame.


  2. If it makes Britain feel better my mum still can’t get her head around the decimal currency, how many times she has written 1000 pounds and I’ve had to double check. Did you mean 10.00 pounds or actually a thousand, no 10 pounds she’ll say, I always laugh and reply don’t write any cheques mum. But seriously there are people living in 3rd world countries with low literacy rate who’ve managed to change better than the UK and USA. I’m aware of Liberia and Myanmar but I’m not sure if they still haven’t changed yet?


  3. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the change to decimal currency (which I remember well). Time to make a proper push for completion of our metric changeover.


  4. Lee,

    I find it difficult to comprehend why anyone, no matter what their age and/or circumstance would write 1000 when they mean 10, even if they intended to write 10.00 and left out the decimal point. This goes beyond currency and goes deeper into innumeracy. Even if one grew up with pre-decimal currency, there is no reason why after just a few years one hasn’t adjusted. After 50 years, there is no excuse at all. It almost seems like this is deliberate and done for spite.

    I’m sure in pre-decimal currency days decimal maths was taught and used. So, what excuse could there be in not being able to do decimal maths for this entire time, especially if the person was still relatively young when the change took place? As for writing cheques for the past 50 years, it would serve a person right if they lost a huge sum of money. Maybe the next time they would do it right.


  5. I see one bad thing from the film when they introduced the decimal currency. They had a halfpenny. The cash registers in much of the video showed two decimal places but some had a final place as 1/2. Such as 8 1/2 pence I noticed on one shelf label and a 1/2 pop up on some of the cash register displays. It was like a half new, half old way of doing things. If that was the case, that a halfpenny was needed, then the cash registers should have had three decimal places with the third decimal place limited to a 0 or a 5. The coins should have been stamped with a 0.5 (or 0.005 to indicate its relation to the pound) instead of a 1/2 in order to be a true decimal system. As with metrication, it appears decimal currency was partly muddled.

    According to Wikipedia, it took until 1984 before the halfpenny was finally withdrawn.


  6. Daniel:

    You are right about the new half penny, but it was felt that there was a big step between the value of the old penny and the new decimal penny, which was 2.4 times the value of the old. The new half penny was therefore a “stepping stone” between the old penny and the new decimal one, at a value of a mere 1.2 times the old penny. As you say, the new half penny was eventually withdrawn. I would say this was less of a the new currency being “muddled” and more of a case of a pragmatic solution being found to a perceived problem. Bear in mind that the scale of values of salaries, wages and prices was vary different back then. A pint of beer in London around 1970 cost less than two shillings, less than 10 new pence. Today you won’t get much change from a five-pound note. All these things played into the decision to have that stepping stone, I’m sure. What bugged me after the changeover was people calling one new penny “one pence”, but that’s another issue altogether.


  7. Lee:

    Thanks for sharing your story about your mother with us. Perhaps, like many people, she has problems with numbers per se. My own mother (rest her soul) never understood Celsius. But I don’t think she understood Fahrenheit either. When she eventually got central heating in her flat, she never set the thermostat to a desired temperature. It was either off or on full at about 30 degrees Celsius. She was just glad to have the heating. Ultimately, it’s a question of education.


  8. @Daniel you brought to mind the continued use of fractions (n/10) instead of decimals on gas station prices in the US and I really cannot understand why people persist with fractions when they’re clearly not necessary as is the case of 10ths.

    On that note I think we can all predict the high probability of fractions continuing to be used if and when metric distance signs become a thing as I’m sure some luddite in the DfT will claim that replacing ½ M with 800 m will be confusing!


  9. @Lee,Daniel
    Decimal innumeracy.

    This is maybe part of the root problem.
    After the change over in 1971 I had great difficulty with my mother, then aged 69. She died soon after, so to use the phase of others, that problem died out.
    At the time I could not understand why she should not understand such a simple, basic concept. It has been only in recent years, due mostly to this on going problem, that I realised my mother had no decimal knowledge, and the idea of ‘moving the decimal point’, or indeed the use of the decimal point itself just was not within her grasp.

    Given that many seem to still have this problem, maybe a much greater teaching of basic decimals from infancy is needed, with a lot less time spent on those very vulgar fractions. I have no idea what is actually taught these days, but whatever it is, it is quite simply not working.


  10. Alex:

    I have heard both ‘half a metre’ and ‘half a kilometre’ on the BBC. Probably by analogy with ‘half a litre’. I don’t think fractions are going to disappear any time soon


  11. Jake,

    My point about it being muddled is they used a fractional representation for the half instead of a full decimal representation. As I mentioned the machines could have had a third decimal place, where the third digit could only be a 0 or a 5. Such that something that rang up as eight pounds and forty two and a half pence would ring up as 8.425. If it was just 42 pence, it would be 8.420. The shelf label would show 8.5 pence instead of 8 1/2. They didn’t go decimal 100 %. But, now it is just water over the dam.

    The US is bad this way too. Coins don’t say 1 ¢, 5 ¢, 10 ¢, 25 ¢ and 50 ¢. Instead the say one one cent, five cents, one dime, quarter dollar and half dollar. The rarely used dollar coin says one dollar instead of 1 $. There is no consistent naming.

    Also for bragging about being the first country to use decimal coinage, they miffed it with the coins. Besides the labeling as mentioned, there is no 2 ¢ and 20 ¢ and the 50 ¢ piece is rarely used if at all. It’s so difficult to pick out coins, most people pay with paper except for those using cards and just throw the change in a drawer when they get home.


    Petrol pumps in the US show the unit price to three decimal places with the third decimal always being a nine. So, a price of 2.50 is shown as 2.499, but the display for the cost is always to 2 decimal places. The advertisement displays only use the 9/10 as you noted.


    Manually changed price board:

    Digital price board:

    Just making the last digit a 9 of the same font size as the other numbers might be too numerate for American thinking.


    There is an old saying that you can’t teach an old dog a new trick, and I get the point that older people in the beginning will have the most trouble. I’m not sure if educating them will help. I’m in my 60s and if decimal numbering were to start now, I would have no problem adjusting. Of course I would make an effort.

    What I fail to understand is how people who were young 50 years ago, even though out of school, should have been able to learn the new ways even if they needed a little time. A 69 year old person today was 29 then. I can’t imagine a person getting hired for a job and then complain that they are too old to learn the company’s ways of doing business. You learn or your out. Gosh, when I got out of school and started to work, everything was still by hand. It was only in the ’90s that PCs came to the office and with them Word Processors, Excel, AutoCAD, SolidWorks, etc and the things that were not taught in school had to be self taught on your own. You either adapted or you’d be looking for a new job and the chances were great that the “new” job was also introducing computers at the desk. You can learn when you get older, so what’s the problem with currency and measurements?

    If you’re in a position where you don’t work and don’t care it still is necessary to learn and adapt to the changes lest you are taken advantage of. Thus it doesn’t matter what the age is that you make an effort. Those that don’t and make a lot of noise only set themselves up to be cheated and I’m sure many are/were. Nature is cruel and it is the survival of the fittest, not survival of the dumbest.

    I guess in the distant past with fractional measurements and currency decimal maths were never used, but that is no excuse not to learn them when the time came. Especially now 50 years later when there was plenty of time to figure it out.


  12. Decimalisation was a great British success story. I wonder why our political leaders did not learn lessons from the success of decimalisation to make a success of metrication.


  13. Ronnie’s point (2020-02-24)
    I suggest many/most political leaders [members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords], are perhaps ignorant or not aware of this issue and don’t see the problem – the need to complete metrication in the UK.
    If there was an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Metrication I’m sure it would at least be a step forward.


  14. Bill:

    I would prefer to see an APPG on Weights and Measures. It may not have the ring of ‘Metrication’, but it would amount to the same thing. A Committee of Enquiry to look into whether Britain is best served by the hotch-potch of weights and measures it has at the moment, or whether it would be wise to standardise and do away with the outdated units.


  15. Ronnie,

    It’s much easier to switch currency than to switch measuring units. You can refuse to switch measuring units and drag the changeover period on for decades but you can’t resist a change in currency, especially when the government physically removes the old money from circulation. In the case of England, only the coins changed, paper money stayed the same. Other countries took the currency change a step further and abolished the pound for the dollar or some other name.

    For the switch in measuring units to have the same success, the old units would have to be completely outlawed and all measuring devices in the old units would have to be confiscated, destroyed and new ones be manufactured and distributed in the new units only.

    England has yet to outlaw the old units and stop the selling of instruments with old units on them. I believe part of the success of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc was due to these countries outlawing old instruments with old units. By the time they abolished the law, the damage had been done and the population had made the mental switch and never looked back. As the years passed and the older generations who preferred imperial died out, the remaining population prefers metric. You only have this partially happening in England.


  16. I’m sure we all agree that Daniel hit the nail on the head by saying that legislation to force the use of metric equipment would likely be the only way to move forward, but the will to enforce the law is also important.

    We’ve read stories in recent years of hospitals buying domestic scales with imperial measures on them instead of the approved metric only ones. And we all know Trading Standards officers are unwilling to deal with traders who sell in imperial measures unless there is clear proof that people are being ripped off – partly because of lack of resources but also because of how unpopular it makes them feel.

    Units used on roads are still the biggie though. I’ve seen speedometers in recent cars (notably the BMW Mini) that are MPH only, even before the 2016 Brexit Referrendum, and suspect we might be seeing a lot more of this which will make any future changeover harder.


  17. Alex wrote: “Trading Standards officers are unwilling to deal with traders who sell in imperial measures unless there is clear proof that people are being ripped off”

    Hi Alex. It all depends on the definition of ‘being ripped off’. Surely, failing to display a proper price in the legally required units of measurement is itself ripping off the customer? With fruit and veg often sold by the bowl, how does the customer know how the price compares with the price per kilo at the supermarket and if the are getting better value? There’s more than one way to rip the customer off and the shops seem to know it.


  18. Re: Alex
    Here is an example of a Local Authority that fails to deal with a consumer protection issue. Worcestershire County Council’s Trading Standards Dept. that doesn’t even bother to visit a town’s Open Market to look at Fruit and Vegetable Stall(s) where the stallholders hide their scale. Photographic evidence has been provided. The local borough council, and the local MP aren’t interested in this issue of Consumer Protection. And the stallholders fail to provide unit prices in metric.


  19. @Jake
    Surely, failing to display a proper price in the legally required units of measurement is itself ripping off the customer?

    Unfortunately Jake that is not as it is. I have posted before about an air conditioning oil con.
    It seems that false advertising comes under the advertising standards agency, but to bring any action of fraud one really does have to be ripped of before the next level of bureaucracy kicks in with trading standards agency.
    Basically it is a no win situation, I have had my ‘exchange of opinions’ with the relevant agencies and it goes nowhere.


  20. It almost seems to me that the rule of law is degrading into anarchy. Self-centredness over what is best for the group or nation as a whole. Laziness and ignorance over the desire to learn and move ahead.

    This is not the sign of a great nation but a nation in decline. Compare this to the countries of Asia pushing hard to be learners and actually moving forward at the expense of the west.


  21. There is a bit of optimism in this PBS Terra report on Blood Falls in Antarctica:

    At the 3:05 minute mark the PBS producer asks the American scientist (Jill Mikucki) what the temperature is of the flowing water on the ground despite the below freezing temperature all around. Jill responds with the temperature in Celsius (of course) and the PBS producer asks her what that temperature is in Fahrenheit (so sad). The funny part is that the scientist pauses for a few seconds struggling to figure out the conversion, then gives up and says that the producer can provide that info in the voice over (narration).

    At first I thought Jill might be Canadian, but I looked her up and she is an American microbiologist at the University of Tennessee. I guess she has been down in Antarctica long enough and enough times with that international team of scientists that she has fully converted mentally to metric (much as I did when I lived in France).

    This reminds me of the American radio show I listened to a few years ago (cannot remember the name) where the host was talking to a Canadian woman in Halifax about the weather there and got back from her the temperature in Celsius. When the host asked to her convert that to Fahrenheit (presumably for the American listening audience), her response was: “I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand Fahrenheit.”

    That’s because Canadians have been using Celsius EXCLUSIVELY since the 1970’s. Same with kilometers on distance signs and km/h on speed limit signs. It just goes to show that a country can switch to using metric naturally and properly (see what the Irish have done since their road signs were converted to metric) if the government does a proper job (like in Australia) of pushing the conversion program to completion.

    Or you can do it the UK way and end up with the current muddle. 😦

    Let’s hope here in the USA we follow the Australian example once we finally wake up and convert on this side of The Pond!


  22. Ezra
    I agree with your comments that a country can switch to using metric naturally if the government does a proper job, just to add to the very British mess our very own Gibraltar uses metric road signs and uses a metric version of the UK Highway Code.


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