Two surprises from 1970

Metric Views remembers two announcements made over 50 years ago that came as a surprise to many.

Following the appointment of John Peyton as Minister of Transport after the general election of 1970, an article appeared in Commercial Motor Magazine of 26 June under the headline:

“Surprise choice for transport”

The article began:

“The Prime Minister’s choice of John Peyton as Minister of Transport is a surprise appointment.

Although a former chairman of the … backbench MPs’ transport committee, Mr Peyton’s preoccupations in recent years have been the coal and steel industries.

His only incursion into the transport field which can immediately be recalled was his sponsorship in 1962 of a Bill to amend the road vehicle licensing laws to enable a group of people to legally hire a taxi to take them to work …”

We can imagine the conversation that took place when Peyton first arrived at the offices of the Department of Transport, as it was then known:

Permanent Secretary. “Welcome to the Department, Minister.”

John Peyton. “Er. Yes. Hello.”

PS. Before you start, Minister, there is just one thing I would like to mention.”

JP. “Oh yes. What’s that?”

PS. “Did you know that your predecessor was planning to change all the road signs to metric?”

JP. “Er, no.”

PS. “At a cost of several million pounds….. paid from your department’s budget.  Isn’t there something else you would rather have this money spent on? Building motorways? Repairing pot holes?”

JP. “But I thought the metric changeover is a national plan, covering the whole UK economy. Surely road signs can’t be left out. That would cause a muddle, would it not?”

PS. “Oh no, Minister. Road signs can be considered as separate from other economic activity. And think of the money you would save.”

JP. “But in any case, the Government is proposing to apply for membership of the Common Market, which will surely insist we use its measurement system.”

PS. “Ah Minister, I am sure that won’t happen for a long time, and when it does, rest assured, we are confident we will be able to circumvent any requirements.”

JP. “I see.”

PS. “So, Minister, can we say that the Government will not be proceeding with the changeover of the road signs to metric in 1972, as currently proposed?”

JP. “Oh yes, I suppose so.”

PS. “And can we also say you have no other date in mind?”

JP.  “Obviously – you have only just raised this with me.”

PS. “Yes Minister.”

When the decision to postpone the changeover to metric road signs was announced in 1970 it came as a surprise to many. It has led to fifty years of procrastination against a background of escalating costs. It now sends a message of British exceptionalism and isolation to the rest of the world.  And the problems that were created by that decision remain, making the changeover inevitable whether it comes sooner or later.

Author: UK Metric Association

For a single, rational system of measurement

30 thoughts on “Two surprises from 1970”

  1. Two surprises? Maybe I misread the article, but there seems to be only one.

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  2. It is good to retain what little Britain has left. The exit from the UK (EU) has meant we dont have to comply with the outdated metric system,which Britain rejected a long time ago, since it was confusing and and not up to the standards required. The eastern world may use the metric system,the western world uses both, so lets keep it that way.

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  3. This seems chillingly accurate in the style of the TV programme “Yes Minister” from decades ago. but whereas the programme was amusing, this is not.

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  4. Hello, Imperialyes. Above you describe the metric system as being “outdated”. I have noticed you have made similar comments elsewhere on this forum.
    Can you explain what you mean by this? The metric system originated in France in the late 18th century. Imperial measurements evolved gradually centuries earlier than this. So the metric system is newer than the imperial. If the metric system is now outdated, what newer system is planned to replace it?

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  5. @imperialyes – Please explain the statement “outdated metric system”. If you visit https://physicsmuseum.uq.edu.au/standard-yard you will see that the standard yard was found to be shrinking at a rate of 15 millionths of an inch per year. On the other hand the metre was found to be stable. As a result, the “standard yard” has become a museum piece and the yard is defined as 0.9144 metres exactly.

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  6. I think that the reluctance of the DFT to metricate road signs has a considerable bearing on the acceptance of metric measures in the UK. Road signage has a massive impact.
    I visited Canada in 1982, 1990 and 2005. To me this was for all practical purposes a metric country. This impression arose from the metric road signs there. More recently I learned that this is not the case; there are still a few imperial gremlins there. I think it is ahead of us, however.
    If only we could start to metricate road signs here, I am sure many other things would fall into place.

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  7. Metricmac
    We are now at the start of an electric revolution in motor transport that will change everyone’s travelling experience and have significant knock-on effects on our
    use of units of measurement.
    Like many others, I have long campaigned for the complete changeover to metric units and will continue to do so.
    However, impending technological advances will mean some of these arguments will no longer necessary.
    The first of these, in approximately ten years time, will be the ending of the sale and use of liquid fuel. Therefore, no one will have any need to think about, or use the unit of gallons and mpg ever again.
    Secondly, the introduction of autominous vehicles will mean that road signs are no longer needed and will gradually be removed. People, if they wish, will decide for themselves on their electronic devices or vehicle display systems whether to use miles or kilometres. Vehicle speeds and their limits will be controlled autonomously and therefore of little interest to vehicle passengers. Note that everyone will be a passenger and drivers will not exist.
    In short, two of the main imperial units that have been allowed to cling on by successive short sighted governments will just wither on the vine and die out naturally.

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  8. Metricmac, I wouldn’t blame it on the DfT, but an specific individuals who worked for the DfT at the time and personally opposed metrication. What different outcome would have occurred if the head of the DfT had been pro-metric?
    In Canada, it isn’t just the road signs. Petrol is sold in litres, Weather is reported in SI, food in the markets is sold in metric packaging. There is more metric than there isn’t.

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  9. Yes, Daniel, it could be down to one person’s opinion, as you say. Perhaps we can hope for a change in holder of office at the DFT. My recent letter to my MP on this subject resulted in a disappointing reply from an under secretary at the DFT – it looked almost like a stock response.

    As you say, Canada is more metricated than the UK is, but there are still some vestiges of imperialism there. Canada gives a strong impression of being a metric country, and the road signage plays a major part in this.

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  10. Hello, Tim Bentley. You give an impressive vision of the future. However I don’t think my time scale is quite the same as yours.
    The sale of new petrol cars is set to end in about ten years’ time. But there will still be plenty of petrol and diesel vehicles around and they are not going to disappear overnight.
    Also, with electric vehicles, people will want some guide to the economy of their vehicles. “KWh per 100 km”, maybe? I would not wish to see something horrible like “miles per kWh” emerge.
    I think that even with self-driving vehicles, people will want an idea of distance, so they can relate it to fuel economy, journey time, etc.
    My car display controls include a metric/imperial option. But this is all or nothing – not really up to UK’s metric mix-up. If I set the metric option, the satnav works in metric terms, clashing with the signage. If I set it to imperial, the satnav relates to the signage but I have to put up with things like tyre pressures in pounds per dratted square inch!
    Also full automation of road vehicles will require assigning speed limits to every road in the country. At present we are a long way from that. Satnavs recognise speed limits on motorways and other major roads. But too many roads are still subject to that other outdated matter, the so called “national” limit, indicated by that stupid diagonal bar on a white circle. Officially it means 60 mph limit, whether on a big wide road where lorries can pass without impediment, to a winding single-track country lane with grass growing along the middle. In practice it means speed is up to drivers’ judgement, boy racers and timid old ladies alike. It is up to the DFT to sort that one out. (It’s up to the DFT – I’m reaching for my handkerchief.)
    I don’t think the days when everyone will be a passenger will happen in my lifetime.

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  11. Hello Metricmac
    The motor companies are investing billions in electrification and self -driving technology. It looks like self -driving trucks will be first to come into use and initially be confined to certain motorways after which a human driver will take over to complete the journey on the minor roads. By 2030 or before, I doubt if anyone will want to buy a car or van ( if any are still available) with an ICE as it will simply be uneconomic to do so. Already the major companies are drastically scaling back on some well known models, for example Audi have said that the current A1 will not be replaced.
    I share your concern that miles per kWh may be adopted in this country and hope that government and manufacturers use km/kWh. It is certainly in the manufacturers’ interest to do so as it sounds more attractive with it producing a higher number than using miles! I read today that Mercedes are saying they can build an electric car with a fully charged range of 1000 km range which sounds much better than 621 miles.
    Something which will soon be on the government’s radar will be how to replace the vast amount of tax that is currently raised from fuel duty which has already started to decline due to the rapid increase in sales of EV’s. This is a real and urgent dilemma for the Treasury and some decisions will need to be made in the next couple of years . Whilst not wanting to discourage people from buying EV’s, the government will have to claw back the cash somehow and road pricing may be the only viable option. If so, let’s hope (and encourage them if necessary ) to charge per km and not per mile! Again, this may work in favour of the metric option as by using pence/ km instead of pence per mile, it produces a smaller amount and therefore a more palatable figure to sell politically.

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  12. But km is not widely understood,this will confuse the public and will increase pricing. Miles is widely accepted throughout the world. We see loads of spoilt doumentaries on British tv which the announcer repeatedly says kilohmeters, instead of kilo Metres,certainly dont want this sloppy pronounciation. Some of these program are American based you can understand what is said in the film ,but is overlaid with metric speaker!
    Back to EV ,yes miles per KW/hr is what we have, the car owner can change this to KM/hr if he/she so prefers.

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  13. Metricmac
    You mention something horrible like miles per kWh on electric cars, well just to add to the very British mess I have a new Renault Zoe ev complete with miles per kWh that I can’t at the moment seem to change. Changing the units only changes the speedometer from UK medieval mph to world standard km/h all other distances , both ev range and distance recorder remain fixed in UK medieval miles. I can only hope for a software update that can correct this error.

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  14. Thanks for coming back, Tim. I think this is a very realistic clarification of what is likely to happen in the nearer future.

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  15. The car is meant for the western world!. However you should be able to change this in vehical settings, so it all changes to silly metric units,well you want to keep both?
    Metric is medieval, but this is the way its going for the future.

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  16. Tim talked about road pricing and I think that is the most likely new tax that will be used to replace the greatly reduced future fuel duty and vat receipts. It will probably be charged at pence per km. Why? Because it will result in a lower figure than charging per mile. Just as fuel switched from being priced in gallons to litres, and confectionary from qrt lb to 100 grams. It produces an initial ‘lower’ price and allows small price increases over time to go largely unnoticed.

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  17. Exactly,that is why prices have escalated. With the old imperial measures we knew exactly what we was getting and prices did not rise near as much as they do now. We bought sweets etcs in 4oz ,8oz. and 1 lb, measures. Now we get cans some 300gr others 290gr packets of materials not 500gr but 400gr, in other words we are short changed and high prices. Thank god for Metricfication!

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  18. Imperiayes said: ” We see loads of spoilt doumentaries on British tv which the announcer repeatedly says kilohmeters, instead of kilo Metres,certainly dont want this sloppy pronounciation. Some of these program are American based you can understand what is said in the film ,but is overlaid with metric speaker!”
    Yes, Imperialyes, I agree. I don’t like the pronunciation “kil-OM-etre”. You would not say, “cent-IM-etre”, “mil-IM-etre”, “kil-OG-ram”, etc., would you! However I don’t think this is a result of overlaying speech on American programmes. I believe this pronunciation came from the USA.
    At least is shows that the Americans recognise the metric system, even though they have their own weird way of pronouncing it.

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  19. Metrimac:
    I agree with what you say about the pronuciation of the word ‘kilometre’. People in otherwise solidly metric countries sometimes use this ‘off’ pronuciation too. It’s as though the word has moved away from its meaning and become a word that is not the combination of its two constitutive parts. It grates with me too. I suppose there is an analogy with words like thermometer, where you would have to be something of a linguist to know that it is really a thermos-meter, thermos being the Greek word for heat, a measurement of heat.

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  20. Yes, Metricnow, I think people sometimes latch onto pronunciation of word endings. There are quite a few words ending “ometer”, e.g. barometer, micrometer, cyclometer, hygrometer. There are fewer ending in “imeter”. “Altimeter” comes to mind, but of course has the accent on the first syllable. This I think explains the pronunciation without justifying it. Units of measurement are not the same things as measuring instruments. I look for consistency in measurement unit prefixes.

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  21. Compare “micrometer” (measuring device) and “micrometer” (millionth of a meter). Each is pronounced with the accent on a different syllable, so tonic emphasis does matter. While there are not 2 meanings of “kilometer” based on tonic emphasis, it does behoove speakers to follow the same pattern that is used for other prefixed forms of “meter”.

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  22. Ezra, your comparison is in error. Micrometer the device is always pronounced my-crom-e-ter. Micrometre the unit is always pronounced my-crow-me-ter. The spelling of meter versus metre signals the difference. The incorrect spelling of kilometre by ‘muricans is what generates the incorrect pronunciation.

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  23. Merriam-Webster is wrong and thankfully not an international authority. If they had any understanding they would see that the two spellings dictate the pronunciation of the word. The incorrect pronunciation of the word kilometre is a direct result of their spelling error for metre. My suggestion to you and others would be to burn any copies you have and suggest the same for others.

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  24. Customary American spelling uses “meter” for both a measuring device and the unit of measurement, hence blurs the distinction between the two.   Daniel’s suggestion that the spelling of “kilometer” generates the pronunciation with the accent on the second syllable seems to support my earlier comment.
     
    Webster’s dictionary has simliar status with the Americans as the Oxford dictionary has with the British. It may not quite have international authority but it is useful reference even for the British for studying the American variations of the English language.
     
    In the case of the word “micrometer”, Merriam-Webster is simply indicating the alternative pronunciations for the measuring device and the unit of measurement.
     
    With UK spelling, “micrometre” means a millionth of a metre, though this term is not widely used and “micron” is more common. I notice that Merriam-Webster endorses the micron.

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  25. @Metricmac
    I thought “micron” was deprecated or obsolete (much like “Centigrade”) in favor of “micrometer”.
    Anyone have a reference for that?

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  26. From the (electronic) pages of Wikipedia:
     
    The term micron and the symbol μ were officially accepted for use in isolation to denote the micrometre in 1879, but officially revoked by the International System of Units (SI) in 1967.[7] This became necessary because the older usage was incompatible with the official adoption of the unit prefix micro-, denoted μ, during the creation of the SI in 1960.
    In the SI, the systematic name micrometre became the official name of the unit, and μm became the official unit symbol.
    Additionally, in American English, the use of “micron” helps differentiate the unit from the micrometer, a measuring device, because the unit’s name in mainstream American spelling is a homograph of the device’s name. In spoken English, they may be distinguished by pronunciation, as the name of the measuring device is often stressed on the second syllable (/maɪˈkrɒmɪtər/ my-KROM-i-tər), whereas the systematic pronunciation of the unit name, in accordance with the convention for pronouncing SI units in English, places the stress on the first syllable (/ˈmaɪkroʊˌmiːtər/ MY-kroh-mee-tər).
      
    Notwithstanding the above, “micron” still seems to be in popular use, even if not backed by SI. It is simply another name for the same thing, and a more compact name, hence more attractive. It also helps to avoid the confusion between “micrometre” and “micrometer”, slightly different in spelling and pronunciation. And it is a metric unit, after all.

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