Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

On Imperial and Metric

The EU has announced it will allow Britain to continue using imperial measurements. And, perhaps surprisingly, I think this is a good decision.

Britain, as you probably know, is a late arrival to the Metric measurement party. Whereas most of the rest of Europe has been using Metric for yonks (a technical term meaning ‘a very long time’), Britain only really began using Metric in the 1960s, however it quickly became the measurement taught in schools and by the 1990s many goods were sold in Metric quantities and not in Imperial.

Fast-forward to today, and we now have a situation where kids are taught to use the Metric system and most products are sold in Metric measures, but we still buy pints of beer and our road signs still use miles and yards for distance (although I believe weight and height restrictions are in tonnes and metres now). You’d think this is a mess, and that we should all just pick one system and stick with it, but, certainly at the moment, that’s really not feasible. Here’s why:

  • First of all there’s the cost. We would have to replace almost every single road sign in the country to show speeds and distances in kilometres rather than miles. Considering how much it costs to make those signs and close of parts of roads to protect the workers, this would probably cost billions.
  • Then there’s the idiots. Again, on the roads, I bet within days of signs being changed over the courts will be full of people driving 50mph in a 50km/h zone (which is 30mph), and pleading ignorance over the change.
  • There are lots of people here born before 1965, many of whom will have difficulty adapting to Metric. Admittedly fewer and fewer things are sold in Metric now but go to any market stall and you’ll see every advertised in pounds and ounces, with the price per kilogram hidden away in the corner to keep them legal. Maybe this will be less of an issue in 30 years time when more people use Metric instinctively but right now we’re just not ready.
  • Considering the binge drinking problems we have in this country, I don’t think we’re ready to serve litres of beer yet – a litre being almost 2 pints. And you know that people (read: manly men) will be put off buying half-litres of beer in pubs, in the same way that manly men don’t buy half-pints.

I don’t think the situation is perfect – ideally we should start phasing in dual-measurement road signs if possible, which show speeds and distances in kilometres as well as miles. Then in, say, 30 years time, we can look again at consigning the imperial system to history, as by then the majority of the British population will have been taught to use Metric measurements at school (note that we are taught how to convert between metric and imperial measurements at around age 14, but we’re taught metric from around age 5). But the original plan to phase out imperial measurements by the beginning of 2010 is just barmy – a waste of money that will alienate scores of people in this country. No wonder no British political party really supported the idea.


  1. I think it is a good call. The trouble scrapping imperial measurements was out of all proportion to its importance. It was also bringing the entire European project into dispute in a country that is already pretty euro sceptic.

  2. The same applies to Ireland and we made the switch with no problems.

  3. About three years ago Gosport council put up some signs locally advising of “2 metre width restrictions” – ie. the usual width roadsigns with 2.0m written on them.
    They then found it the metric units were unenforceable and had to replace the signs to read the imperial version: 6’-6”!
    I’ve seen signs since then that show both (never metric alone), but not heard of any change in the law that accepts metric units.
    As redking notes, Ireland successfully switched over. When I was there talking to a taxi driver he suggested they managed to do most of them overnight: erecting the metric signs (covered) in advance, by using temporary stickers and covers to very quickly switch between the two, then phasing out the (now covered) imperial signs over time.

  4. Every country that has every switched from imperial to metric has had to do everything you’ve listed above. I’m sure there were growing pains but we all adjusted. I don’t know how Canada fared (though I’m assuming it went pretty smoothly since we are still a nation).
    As for serving half litres of beer. We still have pints in Canada. No one know what a pint is equivalent to but we know how much beer we get 🙂

  5. Did you know Sweden managed to switch from driving on the left to driving on the right virtually over night? Admittedly this was back in the 60s (or late 50s?) with much fewer cars on the road, but they managed to do that. Compared to that Imperial to Metric should be a dead easy though.
    In regards to beer, I don’t get your point. Beer isn’t typically sold in litres on the continent either. A typical beer in most of Germany is actually 500ml or 330ml, you only get a “Mass” (which is one litre) on the Octoberfest, in some large beer gardens and a few pubs in Bavaria.

  6. ahh. no
    nobody likes change. but then a gan compering to driving on the left then switching is like deciding i will now right with my left hand insded of my right.
    in Britain when you small you’ll have most likely bean told all about feet and inches and my garden is an acer and mss Norman is so pore she only has a 5 x8 yard garden. then when you hit school they tell you no you have a garden they is 4,046.85 meters squared. imperial evolved from meshering things with body parts; holding lumps of stuff in you hand and saying thats 2 pounds, and metric from round number.
    Theres only a problem as people can’t convert between the to as only anoraks can.
    miles are for the roads, feat and inches for height, stone for human weight; kilograms and tones for big thing; pounds for thing you hold in your hand; millimetres for small things and pints and gallons for liquids.
    But rely it all comes down to two different kinds of people; ones how arnt very good at maths but can imagine a pound bag of sugar and add on depending on the size. the other who is very good at maths but has no imagination.

  7. I don’t understand where’s the problem here… The Irish have done it without major problems, I’m sure that the British can do it as well. But you British like to be different from everyone else…
    How about driving on the left? I do remember that the Swedish have changed driving to the right side of the road overnight, back in the late sixties or early seventies, with no problem at all…