And now for something completely different….

By Sven

Guest Post

Ok, not completely, as it obviously has to do with the metric system. But we think we have something unique: a detailed—and nearly forgotten—history of one of the world’s most successful national metrications. It will shortly be filed in Metrication Resources, where we hope it will gain recognition as the pride of the collection.

For some years, a couple of fellow metric advocates in Australia had been telling us of a mysterious book. Mike Joy, who had gotten us some excellent measuring tapes and rulers, unlike anything available here, was the first to mention it: If there was any metrication we had to understand, it was Australia’s, and if there was anything about Australia’s we had to read, it was Metrication in Australia, by Kevin Joseph Wilks. His own copy was lost, lent and never returned, but he could put us in touch with the author. Unfortunately, Mr Wilks was down to his last author copy, which he understandably would not part with. He had tried to get the publisher, DITAC, the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce, to reprint the book, but without success: the copyright was held by the Commonwealth of Australia, so he had no control. We could find only two libraries in the US claiming a copy: one in Los Angeles, unavailable at the time; one closer to home, but after diligent search the librarians had to report the book presumed lost. We were getting the impression—no great surprise—that the one-and-only edition had been very small.

It was another friend from Oz, Peter Goodyear, who finally tracked one down, and scanned the pages for us, giving us our first look. It was instantly clear that everything Mike and Peter were saying was true. (Aside: Peter’s task was much easier than it would have been in the US, because the library copy machine had a USB port. No need to create a huge pile of waste paper, just bring your own flash drive. What a fantastic and blatantly obvious idea. I’m sure this technology is available in the US, but I’ve yet to see it in libraries, or for that matter, aerospace companies. The US may catch up with Oz someday, but until then I am envious.) So, what is all the fuss about?

In 1972, Australia was an imperial nation. In 1982, it was as metric as any on earth. It got from point A to point B, not only in a single decade, but with the support of its citizens, with little trouble, opposition, or resentment—and very few missteps. The monetary cost was small, and recovered instantly. Australians have been enjoying the dividends ever since. This brief book—less than 90 pages in its original form—tells the story. How then did Australia metricate so rapidly, and so painlessly? A number of reasons, but here is one elephant-in-the-room clue, from page one:

It was sometimes asked why the decision to go metric was not reached by referendum. This would have presupposed that people would have had a comparable knowledge of both the imperial and the metric systems and of the impact such a change might have. While metrication has certainly had a massive cultural impact on people in their lives as ordinary citizens it is, nevertheless, a predominantly technical change, affecting commerce, industry, engineering, science and education. For referendum purposes, relatively few people would have had sufficient knowledge of both systems to make an informed decision.

The decision to go metric was achieved through an open committee of inquiry, appointed by the Government, which collected evidence from any person who felt interested or competent enough to give it.

In other words, it was recognized from the beginning that there was more than one way to frame the debate. The magnitude of the cultural change wasn’t ignored, but it wasn’t allowed to dominate the discussion to the exclusion of all else.

Metrication began with an Act of Parliament: the Metric Conversion Act 1970. This was binding legislation that committed the nation to an active program of metrication. Curiously, once this commitment was made at the national level, very little other legislation was needed:

The change was largely voluntary and no new legislation, other than the Metric Conversion Act, was introduced by State or Federal Governments to enforce metrication. In some cases where compulsion was necessary, metric units were substituted for imperial units in existing Acts and Regulations.

A Metrication Conversion Board was formed to conduct conversion at the national level. Although established in law, the Board sought to act as a coordinating service within and between industries and constituencies. What will be astonishing to US metric advocates is that the kind of inertia and obstructionism we’ve become inured to, apparently never developed:

At no stage did the Board seek to force a decision of its own on an industry committee. Instead, each industry, within the requirements of the Metric Conversion Act, decided, by consensus, when and in what way it would be practicable to metricate its industry. To that extent, conversion to metric must be seen as one of the most democratically executed government projects in Australia’s history.

What about the costs of metrication: weren’t they significant, even if only one-time? Here the problem was that Australian metrication was so highly coordinated and well-planned that, ironically, it was very difficult to say. One figure given at the time by metrication opponents was $2,500,000,000:

Even assuming, for a moment, this cost to be accurate, it represented $179 per person or $18 per person per year for ten years which was a small enough cost compared with the benefits which resulted from metric conversion.

One problem with such figures was that they probably included all sorts of things that weren’t really costs of metrication. Petrol pumps (gas pumps to us Yanks), may have been an example: prices were rapidly approaching $1.00 per gallon, at which point the mechanical counting mechanisms then in use would have overflowed. Their replacement was imminent, metrication or not. (With modern electronic pumps, the cost of switching to liters might be near zero.)

One extremely effective strategy for metrication was the “M-Day.”  Each industry would prepare for metrication on a given date, quite often within a year or less, while continuing to do business in imperial units. Dates for related industries were coordinated by the government Metrication Conversion Board. On its M-day the entire industry would switch, sometimes within particular states or regions, but the most successful M-Days were nationwide. So-called “transition periods” were reduced to near zero. The greatest success was in changing the road signs of the nation. Technically, it should probably be called an M-Month, but given the magnitude of the task, it was still spectacular:

One of the most important and publicly visible of the metric changes was the change in road speed and distance signs and the accompanying change in road traffic regulations. M-Day for this change was 1 July 1974 and, by virtue of careful planning, practically every road sign in Australia was converted within one month. This involved installation of covered metric signs alongside the imperial sign prior to the change and then removal of the imperial sign and the cover from the metric during the month of conversion.

Except on bridge clearance and flood depth signs, dual marking was avoided. Despite suggestions by people opposed to metrication that ignorance of the meaning of metric speeds would lead to slaughter on the roads, such slaughter did not occur.

The book is a how-to manual for national metrication. Most of it is an industry-by-industry account of the Australian experience. A wide selection of industries, products, and services is represented: agriculture, light and heavy manufacturing, raw materials, finished goods, health care services, sport and recreation. It is here that the value of the book for today may be greatest: it’s hard to imagine anyone reading through the success stories, and the few failures, without being disabused of the notion that metrication just happens. Nor is it possible to maintain that two disjoint systems of measurement can coexist, anymore than it’s possible to jump on a horse and “gallop madly off in all directions.”

The Maven and I were convinced this was something special, but while we might have shared it privately with other metric advocates, we both wanted a wider distribution. The problem was that it was still copyright Commonwealth of Australia. In its dead tree form it was very nearly a lost document, but it dealt with matters that should be of some national pride to Australia. Throwing caution to the winds, we decided to contact Canberra about the possibility of an electronic distribution. DITAC, the original publishing agency, no longer existed, but finding the proper people to speak with was fairly simple, and we were pleased and surprised when our request was not dismissed out of hand. We then learned that, even in a relatively civilized universe like Oz, the mills of government grind slowly—but to our amazement, they do grind. We had several indications that things were, in fact, going on, and probably our anxiety made this period seem longer than it was. Actually, it was quite short: a few months. And just last month, we were informed that Metrication in Australia was now licensed under the Creative Commons. Better still, it was “the most accommodating type” of license, allowing us to create a searchable PDF. This turned out to be essential, as the scan files were huge, and we could never have put them up in that form.

The book was formatted in the A4 (ISO 216) paper size. Our PDF retains this, but we increased the original font size slightly, and renumbered the pages as a result. The file is set up for double-sided printing, suitable for four-hole “888” punching, or comb binding. It should also print well single-sided, or on the bizarre “US Letter” paper size if you “scale to fit” (the margins will just look a bit odd). Not that we expect many Americans to try to find a ream of A4 paper, but if anyone still doubts the existence of the Invisible Metric Embargo, it might be an instructive exercise. Yes, you can find it, but online, not at your local office megamart. And lest our Australian friends are cringing: we were careful to have only the Australian English dictionary loaded in the spelling checker during all proofreading, so we’re pretty sure no American orthography has crept in. We’ve tried to make this book as good looking as our limited desktop publishing experience permitted.

Finally, some acknowledgments. To Mike Joy and Peter Goodyear for the initial heads up, a great deal of detective work, and a list of Australian terms that we used as the basis of a short glossary for non-Australians. To all persons involved in this effort, known and unknown to us, at the National Measurement Institute, Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. (Whew!) We have no idea what was going on behind the scenes, but we suspect it was significant. And to the author, Kevin Joseph Wilks, for having given us this record of a remarkable cultural transformation. We hope it may now inform metrication efforts for years to come. It’s almost enough to make us believe the Land of Oz really has intersected our own space time continuum.

Here is a link to download Metrication in Australia (built 2013-06-24).

Postscript: We’ve been notified of three minor OCR errors in our original PDF file of Metrication in Australia. Two occurrences of modern were rendered modem, and one occurrence of the word be was rendered he in the final paragraph. The current file corrects these. The glossary has also been slightly augmented. (Thanks again to Peter Goodyear.)

17 thoughts on “And now for something completely different….

  1. This is really cool. Thanks guys for doing this. It will be an invaluable resource.

  2. USMA is in possession of an originally published copy of the booklet, autographed by the author. It was a gift to us from the late Pat Naughtin, formerly of Geelong, VIC and one of U.S. metrication’s greatest friends. In March 2007, I had the extreme pleasure and honor of meeting Kevin Wilks and his wife Robin in their home in suburban Sydney, and he gave me valuable advice on our metrication goal here in America.

    My visit to Australia was metric heaven. I can testify to the utter totality of that country’s use of the metric system of measurement as its sole measurement language. Particularly impressive was going into the Mean Fiddler restaurant in Sydney and being able to order 300 g , 400 g , or 700 g steaks. At the airport in Melbourne, I walked over a sewer cover rated in kilonewtons. All office space signs had quotations in square meters. I beheld a box of cereal with 1 kg of contents. There were 600 mL jars of mayonnaise. The industry standard for a can of carbonated beverage is 375 mL. The only reference to non-metric units I saw during my two-week stay in the great Oz was a clearance sign over the entrance to a Melbourne carpark that was written in meters and feet, and looking like a very old sign at that. With appropriate adaptations, Australia’s metrication plan ought to become our own.

    • It is interesting how Australia was able to show greatness and the US was not. Both countries had a “voluntary” conversion but Australia used the term to mean something totally different than the US. It was a choice on how to metricate, not if to metricate.

      The US is one of those countries that loves to spend euros, dollars or whatever to save cents. No wonder the US economy is stuck in a permanent depression and no amount of excuses will change that for the better. So where the US saved possibly millions by not metricating, they cost themselves milliards or more. All of the lost business opportunities that the rest of the world gained at the expense of the US. Whatever it did cost Australia long ago recouped itself in gained profits.

      Another often never considered cost is the division “voluntary” metrication by the American interpretation of the word has created. The US has numerous companies that are internally metric but by being so can not efficiently do business with those that are not. How many businesses suffer of their own fault because they continue to use non-metric when trying to do business with a metric business or how many companies are ignored by metric companies because they aren’t metric? How many businesses will hire immigrants with a metric knowledge or export the work to a metric country rather than chance costly errors if done by native Americans ignorant of the metric system?

      It is the hidden costs that bring a business to bankruptcy. Obviously no one in the US has figured it out and it shows.

      But truthfully Paul, what has the USMA done in its 100 year history to bring about metrication that is visible? How many Americans are even aware the USMA exists? The USMA has to be more than just a fringe group that preaches to the choir. What are you really doing to make the US more like Australia and the other profitable metric countries in the world? How much farther down into the abyss will you let the US drop to before you do something?

        • BTW, in numbers, even if correctly using spaces between thousands, there is also the question of the decimal comma or point: again, which one to share and unify globally?

          And similarly for the 24-hour clock (incredibly still named “military time” in the US) – but here, it is evidently better than the old AM/PM, and thus could be immediately adopted, without major problems, worldwide (thus, also for the English-speaking countries)…

  3. Making “Metrication in Australia” available is a great deed! I will look this over to learn from it, and look for simulates and differences in approach, since the United States has 50 States each with its own regulations.

  4. Great work. The next step in improving access to this would be to make it available as an HTML document, and from there, it can easily be turned into an e-book. If I have time over the next week, I can see what I can do about that.

    • Are you sure that is legal? That is a copyrighted document. Don’t you need someone’s permission to copy and distribute it?

      • The book has a Creative Commons licence. This allows for royalty-free non-profit distribution. The new distribution has to include the CC copyright, has to acknowledge the original author/copyright holder and include a link to the Creative Commmons organisation. See the original CC copyright at the front of the book on page ii and follow the link to http://creativecommons.org

  5. Very interesting, indeed! 🙂

    BTW, even if not directly related, the iPad from which I’m writing this, IIRC, is designed with metric units: and this, for example, could be a good lesson to California, where Apple is evidently ahead of other areas of the industry (roads, etc. etc.).

    Or is the whole electronics industry already fully metricated in the US? Even better, if so…

    Anyway, Australia still remains the best example to follow, for you in the US.

    And personal freedom has obviously nothing to do with measurements, which rather are a question of acquired logical common sense.

    Thus, from the future, Spock says: please, US, finally go metric! 🙂

      • Thanks for the links: very interesting…

        And my namesake Sven says: “And if you were Apple Computer, you wouldn’t be using this program anyway, because your manufacturing processes would already be far better controlled, and completely, natively, metric to begin with.”

        So, it looks like Apple is indeed a virtuous company, on this front.

        Then, of course, almost everything is also assembled in China…

      • As for Star Trek and the future, it would be interesting to see how the metric system could evolve even further: for example, it’s not so elegant to have a base unit with a prefix, as happens with the kilogram.

        If I’m not mistaken, some decades ago the Italians and the Swedes proposed respectively the names “bes” and “gio” for the kg, but obviously they don’t sound so good and thus were not adopted.

        Another open question: the adoption of the 24-hour clock in English-speaking countries, where even Australia doesn’t seem to have widely adopted it, yet.

        While in Europe it is the standard way of measuring time…

          • Indeed, also the “grave” was a proposed name for the kg…

          • … But the simplest thing would probably be to simply introduce a “heavy gram” and rename the kg to (new) gram, thus solving the prefix irrationality for a base unit, while preserving a well-known name.

            Hmmm… maybe it could work, maybe not – who knows?

            Anyway, better names than grave, bes or gio could certainly be found for the good old kilo…

Comments are closed.