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

12 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.

    Liked by 1 person

  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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