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:
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.
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.
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.