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As metrication has spread round the world in the last two centuries, there has been opposition. According to the U.S. Metric Association and a recent CIA survey, all countries except Burma (Myanmar), Liberia and the United States of America have officially adopted the metric system.[1][2] Actual usage, however, is more complex. According to Warwick Cairns, Guyana has officially adopted the metric system every three to five years, on average, since 1981, each time with little success.[3] Also the United Kingdom and Canada continue to use some Imperial units in both official and everyday usage, often in combination with the equivalent metric units. Certain measurements in the United Kingdom remain exclusively imperial; for example, road signs are required by law to give distances in miles and yards, although widths and heights can be given in metric as well (but not instead).


Anti-metrication arguments


Natural evolution and human scale

This derivation of the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, depicts nine historical units of measurement: the yard, the span, the cubit, the Flemish ell, the English ell, the French ell, the fathom, the hand, and the foot. The Vitruvian Man was drawn to scale, so the units depicted are displayed with their proper historical ratios.

One argument used by opponents of the metric system is that traditional systems of measurement were developed organically from actual use.[4] Early measures were human in scale. In English, traditional expressions such as a stone's throw, within earshot, a cartload or a handful illustrate the thinking behind traditional measurements. These measures were often relational and commensurable: a request for a judgment of measure allowed for a variety of answers, depending on the context of the request. In parts of Malaysia, villagers asked the distance to the next village were likely to respond with three rice cookings; an approximation of the time it would take to travel there on foot. Everyone is assumed to know how long it takes to cook rice. Named units referring to seeming standards also were contextualized. The aune, a French ell used for measuring cloth, depended on the sort of cloth you were measuring, taking price and scarcity into account; an aune of silk was shorter than an aune of linen.[5]

Traditional English units of measure, reflect these ways of measuring, including their lack of standardisation. There are several ounces: an ounce of grain weighs about the same as an ounce of water in the UK, slightly less than an ounce of water in the US and significantly less than an ounce of gold. Some units, such as the foot, share their name with physical objects, even though they do not always match the size of that physical object. For example, the "foot" is slightly longer than the length of an average human's foot. Folklore relates the yard to the length between the nose and thumb of several kings of England. Tradition also relates the fathom to the distance between a man's outstretched arms: an estimate reflected in its names in other languages, such as French brasse and Italian braccio. Human-scale units used or formerly used in English include the digit, finger, palm, hand, span, and the Biblical cubit, traditionally defined as the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the outstretched hand. These units were not scientificically precise, but were easy to learn and use for making rough estimates of size. They could be a handy "rule of thumb".

There are arguments that the metric system is less suitable for home carpentry and air safety [6] or that no system of measurement is ideal for all applications [7]. The British Weights and Measures Society has argued that metrics led to a greater complexity for consumers because, unlike the ounce, the gram is too small for measurement in everyday life.[8] and that the introduction of the metric system leads to concealed price rises as manufacturers downsize the packages [9]. Similarly the British Weights and Measures Society claim that the Fahrenheit scale [10] was designed specifically for the purpose of weather-measurement. The scale therefore provides an accessible reference for the varying temperature ranges likely to be encountered in temperate climates. Celsius, on the other hand, uses both negative and positive numbers in the common temperature range, giving it the strong advantage of clearly pegging the freezing point at 0 °C, an extremely important temperature in every day life (especially road conditions) and agriculture.

High modernism and legibility

One claim is that the metric system originated in the ideology of "Pure Reason" from the more radical element of the French Revolution.[11] or that it was devised in France to try to make France "revenue-rich, militarily potent, and easily administered."[12] or that it was part of a conscious plan to transform French culture. "As mathematics was the language of science, so would the metric system be the language of commerce and industry," meant to unify and transform French society.[13]

In his 1998 monograph Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott argues that central governments attempt to impose what he calls "legibility" on their subjects. Local folkways concerning measurements, like local customs concerning patronymics, tend to come under severe pressure from bureaucracies. Scott's thesis is that in order for schemes to improve the human condition to succeed, they must take into account local conditions, and that the high-modernist ideologies of the 20th century have prevented this. Scott cites the enforcement of the metric system as a specific example of this sort of failed and resented "improvement" imposed by centralizing and standardizing authority.[14]

While the metric system was imposed on France by the revolutionary government in the end of the eighteenth century, it failed to displace traditional measurements in the popular mind, and its use was initially associated with officialdom and elitism (still, it gained much popularity after standardized education was introduced into France). In 1828 Chateaubriand remarked, "Whenever you meet a fellow who, instead of talking arpents, toises, and pieds, refers to hectares, metres, and centimetres, rest assured, the man is a prefect."[15]

Price inflation

The British Weights and Measures Association argues that adopting metric measures in shops, especially in supermarkets, gives an opportunity for traders to increase prices covertly.[16] For instance in the United States, when liquor started to be sold in the international standard (750 ml, about 0.198 gal) instead of in fifths of a (U.S. fluid) gallon (0.2 gal, about 757 ml) and the price remained the same.[16]

However, most common metric units are a little larger than their nearest U.S./imperial counterparts: one metre is a little more than a yard (1 m = 1.094 yd), one litre is a little more than a U.S. quart (1 L = 1.0567 qt) (though a little less than an imperial quart), half a kilogram is a little more than a pound (0.5 kg = 1.102 lb). For example, Pepsi was the first to sell soft drinks in two-litre bottles (called the "Big Boss")[17], at a time when two-quart (US)(1.89 L) bottles were prevalent. This was quite successful, and now two-litre bottles and other metric bottle sizes are well-established in the American soda market, especially for larger sizes, though ounces remain the usual unit of measure for cans.

Unit proliferation

An often cited argument is that imperial units are based on "natural measures". However, there is no clear systematics between them. Factors between units include 2, 3, 4, 6, 12, 14, 16, 20, 110 and 231. The idea of "natural measures" has also led to an enormous proliferation of units: teaspoon, tablespoon, ounce, cup, pint, quart, gallon, to name only some frequently used measures of volume.


For some, anti-metrication is a form of traditionalism, looking to a history of usage that stretches back centuries or even millennia. Sometimes it is even considered part of patriotism.

The non-metric units have changed values many times throughout history. At the time of the French revolution there were over 5000 variations on the foot alone, making it almost impossible to determine which is traditionally correct. The present imperial system is the result of a clean-up in 1824, some 30 years after the founding of the metric system.

Metric units, however, have not been exempt from redefinitions or refinements. The metre, for instance, was intended to equal one ten-millionth of the length of the meridian through Paris from pole to the equator. However, the first prototype was short by 0.2 millimetres because researchers miscalculated the flattening of the Earth. It is now defined as the length travelled by light in a vacuum during the time interval of 1299,792,458 of a second; however, a reference standard (a rod of platinum-iridium alloy) is maintained by the inter-governmental organisation the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, and calibration of a standard metre is usually achieved (to one part in a billion, or slightly better in some recent installations[18]) by counting 1,579,800.298728 wavelengths of the ultra-fine (3s2 to 2p4) emission line of helium-neon laser light (this wavelength being approximately 632.99139822 nm in a vacuum).

These redefinitions of the metre did not change its length, merely the precision and consistency with which it was defined.

Government compulsion

Another common argument is that the adoption of metric units has almost always been a matter of government compulsion, prohibiting people from using units they were used to, and that such policies are wrong in principle. In fact, standardisation of weights and measures has a long history that predates metrication in Common Law countries. Clause 35 of the Magna Carta (1215) is an early example of standardisation that the barons forced onto the king. The habit of 'short' measure meant that legislation became essential, but the idea of compulsory standards has a long history. In 1824, for example, the Weights and Measures Act ("An Act for ascertaining and establishing Uniformity of Weights and Measures") consolidated the various gallons in use at the time and established a new imperial gallon, simultaneously prohibiting the use of the older units, including what the United States now calls "customary US measure".

Anti-metrication in the UK often manifests itself in conjunction with Euroscepticism because of the belief that the European Union is responsible for compulsory metrication, although metrication had been recommended by government advisors in 1950. The process was initiated by the government establishing the Metrication Board in 1969, four years before joining the European Economic Community, (but nine years after the original application). The EU's own Units of Measurement Directive dated from 1971 and was substantially revised in 1979.

All of the metrication laws in the years since 1985 have been passed using powers derived from the European Communities Act 1972. This has the effect of substantiating the Anti-EU sentiment as the British Parliament does not have a vote on such measures. In more recent times, anti-metrication supporters have asserted that the (claimed) legal compulsion to adopt the metric system instead of their traditional weights and measures is an infringement of a right to freedom of speech, though this claim has been consistently rejected by the courts. On 25 February 2004, the European Court of Human Rights rejected an application from some British shopkeepers who said that their human rights had been violated.

On 8 May 2007, several British newspapers including The Times[19] used correspondence between Giles Chichester MEP and EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen as the basis of reports that the European Commission had decided to allow meat, fish, fruit and vegetables to continue to be sold in pounds and ounces. The reports did not mention that pounds and ounces would only retain "supplementary unit" status. On 10 September the EU Commission published proposed amendments to the Units of Measurement Directive that would permit “supplementary units” (such as pounds and ounces) to be used indefinitely alongside, but not instead of the units catalogued in the Units of Measurement Directive.

In the U.S., there is also government compulsion with regard to measurement units. Federal and state laws control the labelling of goods for sale in the supermarket, drugs, wine, liquor etc. For example, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations mandates that beer labels must have a non-metric volume statement.[20] The U.S. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act mandates "measurement must be in both metric and inch/pound units". Thus metric-only labels are forbidden by U.S. law. Similarly, a U.S. wine or liquor producer would be committing an offence if the product were delivered in non-metric bottle sizes. The Code of Federal Regulations requires wine bottled or packed on or after 1 January 1979 to be sold in only the following sizes: 3, 1.5, or 1 litre, 750, 500, 375, 187, 100, or 50 millilitres. Wine may also be bottled or packed in containers of 4 litres or larger if the containers are filled and labelled in quantities of whole litres (4 litres, 5 litres, 6 litres, etc.) [21]

Multiplication factors

Only few parts of the imperial or US customary systems actually feature the factor twelve, namely the inch-to-foot ratio and the obsolete troy ounce-to-troy pound ratio. Powers of two are more common, especially in volume measures, along with other factors including (rarely) five, seven and eleven. It is true that 12 and 16 have more proper factors than 10, and this fact might have been an advantage before decimal numbers were widely understood, but modern education and the use of calculators mean that quarters (and thirds) of metric measurements can easily be calculated and written in decimal format to any required accuracy.

See also


  1. ^ "Metric usage and metrication in other countries". pp. 1–2. Retrieved 14 January 2007.  
  2. ^ "Appendix G - Weights and Measures", The World Factbook, Washington: Central Intelligence Agency, 6 September 2007,, retrieved 25 December 2007  
  3. ^ Warwick Cairns About the Size of It, p. 145. (Pan Macmillan, 2007) ISBN 978-0230016286
  4. ^ Lovegreen, Alan. "Past its Sell-By Date". The Yardstick (#1). British Weights and Measures Association. Retrieved 18 January 2007.  
  5. ^ Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, p. 25. (Yale University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-300-07016-0
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Fahrenheit temperature scale". Sizes, Inc. 10 December 2006. Retrieved 9 May 2008.  
  11. ^ Alder, Ken. "A Revolution to Measure: The Political Economy of the Metric System in France," in The Values of Precision, edited by M. Norton Wise. (Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 39-71. ISBN 0-691-01601-1
  12. ^ Alder, supra, p. 48
  13. ^ Alder, p. 55
  14. ^ Scott, Seeing Like a State, pp. 30-33.
  15. ^ Quoted in Witold Kula, Measures and Men, tr. R. Szreter (Princeton, 1986: ISBN 0-691-05446-0), p. 286
  16. ^ a b "The Great Metric Rip-Off". British Weights and Measures Association. Retrieved 13 January 2007.  
  17. ^ "PepsiCo - Company - History". PepsiCo. 2006.  
  18. ^ A Canadian standard laser
  19. ^ The Times, 9 May 9, 2007
  20. ^ Code of Federal Regulations Title 27 Part 7.27
  21. ^ Code of Federal Regulations Title 27 Part 4.72

Further reading

Books supporting metrication
  • Metric Signs Ahead (UKMA) (2005) by Robin Paice (ISBN 0955235123)
  • A Very British Mess (UKMA) (2004) by Robin Paice (ISBN 0750310146)
Books opposing metrication

External links

Anti-metrication groups online
Pro-metrication groups online


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