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.)
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 not of direct importance to metric education. It 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.