Metrology and Culture

I don't feel at home any more. I don't mind using metric units, when I choose to, but I don't like being forced to. In a world where consumer choice is all why are we being forbidden to choose the units we prefer? Our own Government is stuffing the metric system down our throats, banning our own Imperial units, and I just don't feel this country is home any more.

Quite apart from my emotional reaction and from any and all the arithmetical arguments against the metric system, there are serious cultural implications and objections to having this change forced upon us.

Nowadays, especially in the USA, people are busy discovering their roots and taking an interest in what makes them who they are; ethnic diversity is becoming the norm.

In the face of this trend the British Government, while encouraging individuality in setting up self-governing Parliaments in Scotland and Wales, seems at the same time determined to suppress it by eradicating all trace of its efficent native measuring system and replacing it by the clumsy monolithic metric system that no-one here likes or actually wants.

It's about time we made the point that the metrological language used by a society to describe its world is as vital and integral a component of its culture and identity as its language. It is not something to be surrendered, thrown away or eradicated; on the contrary, it should be defended with the same vigour as ancient monuments, rain forests and endangered species.

Those who are imposing the metric system on us - and making our own measures illegal! - would have us believe that measuring systems are no more than tools of convenience, and nothing to do with a nation's culture. What does it matter what system we use, they ask, as long as we all use the same one? The convenience of the user is far from their mind. They cannot understand our arguments about the advantages of our own system because for the administrator the idea of "advantages" is just irrelevant. Here is the system we have chosen for you, they say; use it.

Popular public opinion resists changes to their metrological systems while governments tend to encourage them when they lead to uniformity. metrication. It doesn't matter whether the govemments in question are dictatorial or democratic - in a democracy a governing party with an abolute majority is not very different from a dictatorship. (Can we call our own government democratic, when it has banned Imperial measures without ever asking us, the people who use those measures, if any of us wanted metric?) Is change needed? No. The Imperial System is not broken; it does not need mending. Did we ask for change? Why should we?

In France, where the metric system was invented, uniform implementation of the metric system was also imposed by law. At least the French had an excuse - they had a mess of different units, with no one well-established country-wide system as we had; they needed a change - but the change they were given was not welcome, even if it did establish a single system for the country where one had not existed before. Napoleon didn't like it; and he allowed popular resentment to create such hybrids as the "metric foot", which persisted for several decades until outlawed by legislation passed in 1837. In Germany, where every kingdom had its own system of weights and measures, metrication was seen as a unifying force in the establishment of the German Empire; it was imposed there too.

Attempts to introduce the metric system by the U.S. government in the 1970's were so strongly resisted by the public that the plan was shelved. Unable to achieve metrication openly, Congress surreptitiously placed an amendment to the Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 requiring federal agencies to use the metric system when procuring supplies. Yet this requirement is being conveniently ignored by all concerned. Public opinion and resistance has made several States scrap decisions to demand all contracts to be in metric, and has reversed decision taken to increase the compulsory use of metric units.

The British public have ignored the Government's attempts to metricate Britain. Although we have been officially going metric for 26 years, no-one young or old, uses its vocabulary in everyday life, though some architects seem to have taken it up.
So official agencies - especially the BBC - pontificate metrically to a predominantly Imperial public.
The BBC's use of millimetres for rainfall, instead of inches, is paricularly irritating and makes people feel they are in a foreign land. English Heritage, who should know better, use metric measures at their sites. Hospitals may happily give the birthweight of babies in kilogrammes, but any mother asked for the weight of her baby will use the more natural and human-friendly units of pounds and ounces.
The language of the market place remains pounds and ounces; so the Government now hides behind legally binding directives from the new European law-makers in Brussels to destroy this. (EEC Directives 801181 and 891617). We don't want metric; so the only way to make us use it, they think, is to make our own measures illegal.

The Imperial system is user-friendly; the metricists would have us believe that it is a difficult system to use; that the metric system is easier; that Imperial is old-fashioned, out-of-date - and they continue to tell lies to convince us that we are wrong to hang on to what is tried, tested, trusted and our own.
Metricators want to impose a single metrological language on all humanity; their motive is the imposition of uniformity. they sometimes try to justify metrication as introducing measures which are "more scientific". By this they imply "more accurate" - which is arrant nonsense; the Imperial System, they suggest, is not accurate enough for the modern world... If you're going to tell a lie, tell a big one.
Our Industrial Revolution was built on the inch and the pound and the non-use of metric units has not impeded the modern economic and technological growth of the USA, and its ability to make rockets that have enabled Man to land on the Moon.

But they cannot metricate everything, however much they might want to.

We all live happily with an irrational annual calendar of 365 or 366 days, divided in the most irregular and non-metric of ways into months, weeks and days. We have had "Celsius" imposed on us in Britain - but why must having 100 degrees between freezing and boiling be considered scientific? Temperatures are relative, and Fahrenheit is user-friendly, has smaller degrees, avoiding the need for decimals in everyday life. No-one seriously thinks of re-designing the measurement of time. The division of the circle into 360 degrees is far more convenient than division into powers of ten. The monitors of our computers have 72 (or 96) dots to the inch; printers are geared to output artwork in lines per inch; the unit of size for type - the point - is standardised for Desk Top Publishing software at 72 to the inch; there is no sense - and no advantage - in using centimetres.

Metrication boils down to a desire for uniformity, with no deviations from the norm. You can also see this trend in your television programmes, as they iron out the differences between nations and make local colour, ethnicity and culture give way to a world culture. Why should those aspects of a nation's culture that make it a nation, and different from other nations be pushed aside?

All this when we are now beginning to enjoy, rather than to eliminate, cultural differences. Ethnicity, in North America, though not in Europe, is now fashionable. (How long now before the countries of Europe rediscover their own cultural heritage of non-metric user-friendly man-sized units of weights and measures?)

Our unique system of traditional weights and measures deserves to be nourished, not just for its practicality and usefulness, but also as part of our contribution to the world's cultural richness.


Napoleon allowed the Système Usuel in which the pattern of popular French measures was applied to metric units.
The unit of 2 metres was called a toise and was divided into 6 pieds (feet), the kilogramme was equal to 2 livres (pounds). Dozenal and binary divisions were also kept.