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Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Friday, 19 December 2008

Gonna take a centi-mental journey


Warwick Cairns (imperial) v Derek Pollard (metric)

Plans to abolish imperial measurements in the UK were officially dropped by Brussels this week, much to the delight of "metric martyrs". But why do we get so passionate about cold, hard units of measurement, asks Warwick Cairns?

It's nearly a decade since Britain officially "went metric" - or mostly metric, apart from road signs, beer glasses and one or two other special cases.

It's well over a century since the change was first mooted in Parliament. Yet after all this time, passions still run extraordinarily high on both sides of the argument.

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There's still a UK Metric Association, dedicated to pushing through final, total metrication. There are still "metric martyrs" - die-hard opponents prepared to face criminal charges rather than sell their bananas by the kilo.

You could sort of understand it, if people as a whole, or just British people, weren't keen on change in general. But over the same space of time we've embraced all sorts of other changes without a second thought.

We swapped our VCRs for DVDs and our cathode-ray televisions for LCD flatscreens. We got microwaves and dishwashers, up-to-date hairstyles and cars, changed our mobiles and the cut of our trousers, all to keep up with the times.

David Davis and a metric martyr
Fruit and veg sellers refused to use metric measures

But when it comes to measurements, things are altogether different - and always have been. Often when a government has decided that its people might be better served by swapping their traditional system for a new one, many of those people have been less than enthusiastic, and often surprisingly stubborn about it.

For many people, changing one way you measure things seems to be much more than a simple practical step. This is because at the heart of every system of measurement lies a whole way of seeing the world.

Every culture in the world has - or has had - traditional measures, with roots in the far distant past, when Neolithic farmers would measure the length of their fields by pacing them out, or the height of their cattle by "walking" up them with their hands.

These measures have been shaped by millennia of history - like the mile (mille passus), pound (libra pondo) and inch (uncia) we get from the Romans - and then altered and adapted over countless generations to suit everyday human proportions and purposes.

Graph showing a foot, a Kanejaku and a metre

The result is that most of the world's traditional systems end up being remarkably similar. The English foot, for example, is almost identical to the Japanese Kanejaku, and both are as long as the sole of an average man's shoe.

But because of the way they've come about, what you don't tend to get from traditional measures is neatness, order or scientific rigour.

And if you think of the world in traditional measures, then you think of it in a way that's broadly traditional, and none too fussed about strict adherence to logically thought-out principles. Whereas if you think of the world in a metric way, your perception is somewhat different.

This was why, for the French revolutionaries, traditional measures had to go. For them, old units like the pied de Roi (King's Foot) kept people chained to ignorance and superstition, and had to be swept away for Reason to take hold.

And that, pretty much, has been the argument between the two sides ever since.

Metric is by far the best and most consistent for the world's scientists and engineers and it often appeals also to those who are tidy-minded, who like the idea that life is run according to ordered principles.

French resistance

Traditional systems, meanwhile, appeal to those who value a living link to history and prehistory (plus lots of handy human-scale units) - but they also appeal to bloody-minded individualists who just enjoy sticking two fingers up at bureaucrats' neat plans.

Shakkanho is the traditional system of measurement
It dates back to ancient China
Replaced by metric in 1924
It was forbidden in 1966
But it is still used today, chiefly in agriculture and carpentry

The tidy-minded versus the bloody-minded: it is an argument in which the two sides hardly speak the same language; and it is one that - if historical precedents are anything to go by - is likely to run and run.

In France, decades after the Revolution, people remained so hostile to the metric system that Napoleon eventually allowed them to go back to the old "mesures usuelles".

It was only after Napoleon went, and a government of hardcore modernisers got in, that metric came back; and only when the full force of the law came down on them that the people saw that the game was up, and did what they were told.

But even now, in street markets, people still ask for their pommes in livres - even though the livre is now a nominally metric one of 500g.

The pound in weight is not going to disappear from sight, after all

In 1924, Japan officially abandoned its ancient Shakkanho measurement system and "went metric". However, people took so little notice that they had to do it all over again in 1966.

Despite this, large areas of life continue to operate in Shakkanho - and although, in theory, it's against the law to use it for official purposes, it's creeping back even there, with the 2005 census allowing people, once more, to describe their properties in traditional units.

Traditional versus metric: there's much more at stake here than simple convenience.

And short of both sides agreeing to disagree, it's likely that there'll be "metric martyrs" - and their opponents - for some time yet to come.

Warwick Cairns is author of About the Size of It, which supports traditional measurements.

Below is a selection of your comments.

This is one area where the British predilection for compromise is not appropriate. The idea that maintaining the 'imperial' system is our way of rebelling against Brussels is just fatuous. Who does it hurt? The EU? No, us. 12"=1', 3'=1yd, 1760yds=1 mile, 16oz=1lb, 14lbs=1st, 8st=1cwt, 20cwt=1 ton.. I ask you!
Geoff, Bayonne

Why does your graph show the Kanejaku as "11.83in"? Shouldn't that be 11 7/8in? Oh, no, wait. That's not even close. 11 13/16in? Nope. Still not right. 11 27/32in. Doh! Still not right. I know! 11 83/100in. Yes. That works, and it's darn well not metric.
Allister Jenks, Wellington, New Zealand

I'm lucky that I can easily slip between the two both in measures and weights. Having worked as a haberdasher for a few years, the conflict between metric and imperial was obvious on a daily basis. I think it should be phased in - it's senseless expecting people who have used imperial all their lives to suddenly adopt metric. Everyone learns metric in school now, it's only a matter of time, so what's the big rush?
Anna, Belfast

I don't get the fuss about this. I am 35, and only learned metric at school in the UK. Imperial measures were learned as a bit of fun. Eventually all those people who learned imperial measures at school will be gone, and we'll be able to use metric. Even my parents who refuse to bow to metric (thanks Daily Mail) still buy ham as five slices, or five oranges - they would never say "half a pound please." They have no idea how much they would be getting. It's just that staunch British refusal to conform to the rest of Europe.
Angela, Seoul, S Korea

As a photography teacher I always measured chemicals in metric - 300ml per film. Then I found the other teacher was telling the students 10 fluid ounces per film. Not only that, but some were using Imperial fluid ounces and some US fluid ounces. No wonder the students got confused. I thought we decided to go metric over 40 years ago. Only Britain would get halfway there then stop. The worst of all possible outcomes. Oh, and I think cloth is still sold by the foot in width but the metre in length. What madness!
Martin Winson, Bath, Somerset

I use a combination of both metric and imperial due to a confused schooling system and inherited domestic skills such as cooking and baking. Recipes handed down through generations of my family use lbs and pints AND proper size eggs - not small, medium, etc. So much of our heritage resides in everyday things, it is no wonder we like to cling to "old fashioned" methods. When shopping and I buy a lb of bacon I know what it looks like - I have no idea what 100 grams looks like. There is no harm in having the metric as an official system, but there is a great deal of value in keeping the old system too.

Why should we drop metric? Because the decimal system is inefficient. We should be using binary-based systems, such as octal or hexadecimal (based on eight and 16 respectively) for measurements. This would speed up computer calculations enormously. And if you think that might be difficult - pints and gallons is an octal system, and pounds and ounces hexadecimal, and we all managed with that for centuries. Just to prove how inefficient decimal is, by using just your fingers to count, you can only add up to ten in decimal, whereas using binary, you can count right up to two to the power 10 - 1, or 1023. Point proved, I think.
Kirsten Elliott, Bath

We should move to metric measures exclusively now. Standard measures are needed for proper comparison and understanding. What on earth is the point of being almost the only place in the world using imperial measures? No one has difficulty with decimal currency so we would all grasp metric measures easily if the old ones were faded out. If we go on using both we will never change. I go crazy hearing BBC weather forecasters constantly converting Celsius temperatures into Fahrenheit. Please let us join the rest of the world and use generally understood international standard measures.
R Munting, Norwich

Surely this article misses the point of why many British people hate metric. The EU is perceived as forcing us to adopt metric. The fact that every country in the world (bar America) use metric is besides the point - this is a EU conspiracy! We stubborn Brits will never bow the knee! Its our way rebelling against those eurocrats, who've stolen our country.
Stephen, Middlesbrough

I would agree with you if your 'system' was more or less workable. The first time I came to the UK I had no idea of your measurements. But I pretty soon learned how much beer is in a pint. So I asked people how many pints there are to the gallon, just to get a rough idea, but nobody could tell me. Metrics may seem overly tidy to you, but if hardly anyone knows how many pounds to the stone I think it would be wiser to change. The children that grow up with the 'new' system will have no problems with it, but all the benefits.
Kees van der Krieke, Rotterdam. Netherlands

There are pro's and cons to both sides: Imperial: Easier to do mental arithmetic using base 12 rather than base 10 as it has more divisors (same reason we use 360 degrees instead of 400 gradians). Metric: MUCH easier to parameterise computationally due to the ease at which computers can handle floating point operators. (example, Try telling a computer that you want to divide three and one eighth by two using c or c++ without using decimal points). Also it's much easier to gain an idea of proportions as we count in base 10 in everyday life. Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to science it really doesn't matter whether you measure velocity in metres per second, miles per hour, feet per second or furlongs per month - all that changes is the factor of proportionality.
Dave, Cambridge

I have never understood the English (and American) obsession with Imperial weights and measures. As the article points out, because they are based on human proportions, it means that you have to think in so many different number bases e.g. 12 inches = 1 foot, 3 feet = 1 yard, 1760 yards = 1 mile. We count in tens, so lets adopt the system that uses that as its basis - metric !!
Colin Harrison, Leeds, England

I really don't see what these metric people have against the proper measurements. Why can't we just use which ever takes our fancy or is appropriate for the job? I use mm and such like when doing science, and feet and inches, pounds and ounces when shopping, cooking or making things in the garage. Frankly there is NO excuse with modern electronic scales, or with old fashioned balances, to FORCE one system or the other, let people use the one they like.
Dave, Mildenhall

I agree with Dave; I use the units that I think is easier to visualise and handle. I prefer Celsius over Fahrenheit; stones, pounds, and ounces for weight; acres for large areas; millimetres for tiny lengths; inches and feet, for longer lengths; and metric for design drawings. Generally, I prefer to deal with small numbers, or small fractions (ie 1/2 an acre), for everyday things, hence why I prefer Celsius over Fahrenheit. I am not sure which I would prefer for measuring hours in a day: 10 hours/day, and sub parts, would probably be better than 24 hours/day.
Gary Russell, Gosford, Australia

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