A Metric England?

By The Metric Maven

As it became increasingly clear in the early 1980s that the US would not become metric, a professor of mine stated  “England doesn’t even use the English system—they’ve gone metric.” Of course, I had no idea. I’ve never been to the UK. I assumed that Britain had gone metric because the rest of the world had at that time. Then lingering doubt began to creep into my mind as the decades passed, and I began to believe that Britain had not become metric. It appeared that beer was still sold in pints, and the roads were all in miles. I vaguely heard about the “metric martyrs” and the EU throwing its hands in the air and finally giving up on metric only labeling from the UK. The BBC science programs I watched seemed to have a lot of “English” units, at least I seldom noticed metric ones (although I believe I see more used now).

Like most Americans, I figured they had done the same thing  as we in the US, they offered lip service during the world wide metric conversion, and then sat back, and never changed anything. All I had to do was look North to Canada for an example of a country which still has the Queen on its money, has the roadways all in metric, but almost everything else from cooking to housing construction appears to be in inches, feet and so on. Why would I believe that Great Britain, which had pints and miles everywhere, was metric. I really didn’t think about it much as I have enough problems dealing with the immovable and incorrigible metric object known as the USA. Worse yet, I’d read almost a century of authorities in the UK claiming the UK would become metric when the US did. I would then read US authorities over the same period claiming that we would become metric when the UK did.

Derek Pollard of the UK Metric Association could not help but notice that I saw Australia as an English speaking metric country, but not Great Britain. He took exception with this view and sent proof that UK construction is in metric, which clearly it is. Still, there is that nagging feeling that metric penetration into British society was a millimeter deep. Sure, construction of UK roads is in meters, but then they mark them in miles. Sure houses may be constructed in metric, but the streets are all marked in non-metric units. Beer may come from Belgium, but they sell it in pints. The US, of course, does neither, it’s all Ye Olde English, and when it’s metric, it is immediately converted to Ye Olde English and hidden away.

Derek must have continued to sense this leftover minor metric skepticism, because it seems to have finally caused him to send me iron clad, and unquestionable proof that the everyday UK of Andy Capp is almost entirely metric. Did Derek get an official letter that certified the UK is metric, have it signed by the Prime Minister, and then notarized by the Queen? No, he send me documents which have far more authority than that. He sent me some of his “junk mail.” He sent me a small paper flyer from a place called Morrisons:

British Beef Meatballs, British Diced Chicken Breasts, British Lamb chops all sold pre-packaged in grams! Meadow Park milk is shown sold in 2 litre plastic containers—not a pottle—that.

Included in Derek’s letter is a 32 page flyer from B&Q Warehouse which looks like a UK version of Home Depot–but, from a measurement perspective, that’s where the similarity ends. Want to purchase a door for your house?  Well look no further than B&Q for doors specified in millimetres:

Unfortunately,  as Derek points out, the strange numbers (1981 x 762 mm) show that they are probably converted from non-metric sizes as they are not not nice round integers. This is a hinderance to thinking metric when building, and realizing its maximum benefit.

There is paint sold in 2.5 liter cans, others just tell you the price per litre. There are 333 x 333 mm porcelain floor tiles. Ice melt is sold in 2 kg bags. Wild Bird seed in 12.75 kg bags—the British must feed their birds well. Everywhere one looks in these junk mail flyers, there is an almost complete absence of anything non-metric. There are no side by side sizes, one in metric and the other in Imperial—it’s all metric! Very simple. I did find my nemesis, the centimeter, but only in one tiny section for door mats:

Centimeters -- Appropriately Treated Like A Door Mat (click to enlarge)

Indeed, that centimeters would be used for door mats, and they were only a pound each, actually made sense—metaphorically. The other centibad was found in the Morrison’s food flyer. But this may not be the fault of the British merchants—it looks to be the fault of the French! A seventy five centilitre bottle of wine! Here is one of the few times I can thumb my nose and say I want a proper, American, 750 mL bottle of wine–you know a fifth. For the first time ever, I can feel sanctimonious.

French Wine with questionable metric usage

The French are not the people with whom you should discuss how to most effectively use the metric system. Their use has pre-metric vestiges of the prefix cluster around unity.

Derek pointed out that a radiator is rated in BTU’s on one page, and on the other they have one which is 2kw, which should be 2 kW of course—but my heavens, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything with kW on it in the US like this. I’m baffled by the fact that the flyers often don’t have spaces between the numbers and units, as evidenced below:

BTU?—perhaps that’s why it’s on sale?

When I look at these flyers, it makes me rather envious, and think that if the US was this metric, I would just stop blogging and go outside to play. It then struck me just how frustrating it must be to have metric all around, but not on the roads, or in the pubs. It would be a constant non-metric reminder one would see everyday when they left their residence. It would also seem more and more absurd as time goes by. I’m extremely envious of Derek’s junk mail, but it’s clear the UKMA has plenty of non-metric fires to deal with before Britain becomes completely metric. Here in the US?—well, my junk mail is metricless.


My friend Pierre keeps me informed on all matters culinary with an emphasis on metric versus Olde English. He sent me a graphic of a deep fryer with this comment:

Commercial fryers, like what McDonalds uses to make french fries are sold by volume. Like, there are bigger and smaller capacity ones.

Can you guess what unit of measurement one might use to specify them?

They are sold by the pound. That’s right. They are sold by how many pounds of oil they hold. This is a 14lb unit, which I’m sure you knew already by looking at it.

So, next time you are in Safeway …. , pick up a pound of frying oil for me, wouldja?

Here is a link to the fryer about which Pierre so eloquently opines. But there’s more! Pierre also checked out oils he might like me to supply for him, should I feel that generous, and indeed you can note that one will purchase a 35 lb box of oil, and not one using Olde English volume measures:

And just in case you think the labeling has liters on it. Here is a close-up of the bottom label:

So, should any of our friends from the UK decide they want home-made fish and chips on a visit to the U.S., and want to do it themselves, you now know the proper US units to use when using a fryer here.


International Dating

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

It is a strange aspect of human social interaction that often two people will become embroiled in an argument, part ways, go home, continue to fume, and then be unable to recall what the subject was that  precipitated the argument.

I have had an opposite situation occur when talking with my friend Sven. I find myself involved in a conversation, Sven brings up a point I’m only slightly absorbing. I tend to dismiss the information from my mind as not that important, pay little attention to it, and then go home. When home I suddenly become highly agitated as I recall what he said, think it over, and then violently agree with his point.

This has happened twice that I recall. One instance was my initial half-hearted entertainment of the idea forwarded by Sven that perhaps centimeters might not be a good idea. I only vaguely recall what that conversation was about. In the second instance, my mind cannot recall what initiated Sven’s comments at all. What I do recall, was what he said in response: “You know, you should consider using the International Dating method.” No, this is not a suggestion for a method I might use in order to meet and date attractive women from overseas. What he was suggesting is writing dates as YYYY-MM-DD or year first with a dash hyphen, month next with a dash hyphen and then the day. So the founding of the US would be on 1776-07-04. The Gettysburg Address was given on 1863-11-19. Pearl Harbor was attacked on 1941-12-07. The Day The Music Died was 1959-02-03. Strangely, by coincidence, my father called  for the ambulance that day.

My mind showed about as much interest in the information Sven offered as it might have when shown the losing numbers printed on a year old lottery ticket. I went home, my mind started thinking about what Sven had suggested. It first it struck me that this dating method was a bit odd and perhaps unworkable. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how useful it would be, and then began violently agreeing with him. I realized that International Dating (ID) could solve many problems I had with my business data, engineering data, my outside work—well—it would help with a lot of things.

It is common in the US to write a date like July 4, 1776 as 7/4/76. Of course this leads to a problem that without some prose to provide context, that the date could be interpreted as July 4, 1976, which was the bicentennial of the US. A person in say Britain could look at the 7/4/76 as April 7, 1976. Other countries use day first, month second and year third. These ambiguities are eliminated when International dating is used. It is important to understand that leading zeros must be included when using ID. So 1776-07-04 is the correct way to write July 4, 1776. 1776-7-4 is not a valid representation, there must be leading zeros as shown previously. The date 1976-07-04 is unambiguous as the date of the US Bicentennial.

Our Hindu-Arabic number system always has the largest digit first and the smallest last from left to right. So 1234 has the one-thousand digit first (1), the one-hundred digit second (2), the tens digit next (3) and the final digit is the ones (4). This of course continues if a decimal point is added: 1234.567. It only makes logical sense to have the year first, month second and day third like we do for all other numerical representations.

When dates are written using the international standard (ISO 8601) computers automatically sort files and folders by date. This may seem like a small and inconsequential thing, but it is not. It completely changed how I did my work as an Engineer and non-professionally. The first thing I realized was that I could use it to name engineering drawings and their revisions with greater utility. The file naming form is something like this for most of my files and folders.

Name or Title which is constant YYYY-MM-DD Changeable Title or Description.


Des Moines Register 1975-08-23 Islands in a Metric World.pdf

This allowed me to have a common method of naming technical papers, newspaper articles and other files so they would automatically sort into the name of the journal, the date and the title of the article. I create folders for my consulting projects with a Project Number-YYYY-MM-DD Client Name and Project Description. Here is a screenshot of my backup folders for this blog:

click to enlarge image

A UK website has a great explanation of the ways international dating can be implemented. It turns out that one can also uniquely add on the time of day using a 24 hour clock. For instance The Apollo 13 spacecraft was launched on  1970-04-11 13:13 CST. Yes, people forget, Apollo 13 was launched on the thirteenth hour and thirteenth minute that day–well in central standard time anyway. There are a number of useful variants allowed by the ISO 8601 standard.


Somewhere during my adventure with International Dating I realized that Pat Naughtin was a promoter of its use. I was sold. When people fly to visit me, I track them on a website that has the departure dates in international format. My father volunteers for a small town historical society. One of their projects was to scan all the old newspapers into electronic format. When I looked at the resulting files, the newspaper files were all named with international dating, and sorted themselves automatically. This provided confidence that the company that scanned them probably knew what they were doing. I don’t recall exactly when I discovered that my computer (PC) could be set for the international date standard—but set it I did. It can also be set for 24 hour time if one wishes. The USMA Website has a nice discussion of how to set your computer to display the international date. I have changed all my computers to display ID. The more I used the ID notation the more I liked it. My computer backup folders are always sorted, and I can erase the oldest with ease.

PC Display when set to International Date Scheme

It is after I used ID for about three to four years that I could really see how nicely it allows one to organize folders and files on a computer. This is yet one more important international standard, which we probably do not teach in our public schools.  Which like the lack of the metric system in our country, hinders our society, and keeps it mired in the past. The time for measurement and standards reform in this country has long passed. We need more than just a new metric board with Congressional authority behind it in this country, we need a US Standards Modernization Board which would implement the latest most efficient international standards into our country, teach them in our schools, use them in our government, and use them in our places of business. We can stand still and refuse to change, but the world will continue to progress forward, and we will suffer for it—even if we are not aware why.