Thought Leadership

Not going metric

By Colin Walls

I have always felt that the UK is in a curious position. Geographically, we are part of Europe. Politically and culturally too, we have strong affiliations to our East. But we also have very strong trans-Atlantic ties, which affects our attitudes in various ways, as I have written about before.

A significant part of our culture, that affects our everyday lives, is how we measure things …

How we measure stuff does not really matter, nor do the units that we use to make such measurements – as long as we all agree on what the units are. And there is the problem. The world is more less divided between users of “traditional” units [the US] and the metric system [almost everyone else]. And there is the UK, where we cannot make up our minds. We use pints for milk and beer, but buy fuel by the liter [even though most people think in terms of fuel consumption being miles per gallon]. We mostly measure temperature in Celsius. Road distances and car speeds use miles, but most other measurements are rather random. I recent went to a store to buy a shelf. I knew that I wanted it 1.4m long. They could offer 4 foot or 8 foot lengths …

It is hard to understand why anyone would want to hang on to non-metric systems, which are so hard to use. Let’s take an example. Imagine that my house is exactly 2 miles, 450 yards, 2 feet and 4 inches from yours. If I moved 10% closer, how far would we be apart? The answer is 2 miles, 53 yards, 2 feet and 1.2 inches. It took me a while, with a good RPN calculator, to work that you. Let’s repeat the exercise using metric units. I live 3.6309Km away; 10% closer is 3.2678Km – I could almost do that in my head. QED

The transition to metric was not particularly smooth in the countries that do use the system. Napoleon started in France in the late 1700s. He was very much a “just get it done” kind of guy and would order various arbitrary changes to society, just because he could. For example, he changed the custom of driving carriages on the left to going on the right, with no logical explanation. At least his adoption of the metric system had efficiency as a goal. But even he fell foul of people’s affection for old units and, in 1811 [200 years ago – hence a good time for this discussion] back-tracked and allowed certain small businesses to revert to their old fashioned systems for local trade. It was another 40 years or so before metric was made truly universal.

Most other European countries followed France in due course, except for the UK. In 1995, the EU declared that all of Europe, including the UK, would need to come into line and go fully metric, but the UK could have an opt out until 2009. But, before the opt out expired, the EU canceled the order, so we stay in a muddle.

It might be assumed that at least the UK has good company, whichever units we happen to be using on a given day, as the US employs the same madness. But it is not that simple. Even though most units in the US and the UK are the same, volumes are problem. The US pint is 20% smaller than the UK one, which is confusing. This in turn messes up gallons, of course. And do not get me on the topic of using a “cup” for measuring cooking ingredients. I think I need a liter of beer …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at