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Shortly before Christmas, the Axminster Facebook page had the seemingly innocuous tag of ‘Metric versus Imperial?’ Clicking on the drop down link showed a vast array of different responses which seemed to go on forever down the page. Clearly, this one’s a veritable ‘hot potato’ and there are as many answers to the question as there are grains of sand on a beach.

All of them are relevant and all of them contribute to the whole picture, much like those grains of sand. So when tasked to blog on the topic, I found myself taking a sharp intake of breath together with a little sucking of the teeth.

A look at a Wiki page is an interesting place to start as it says… “Metrication in the United Kingdom remains equivocal and varies by context. Most of government, industry and commerce use metric units, but imperial units are officially used to specify journey distances, vehicle speeds and the sizes of returnable milk containers, beer and cider glasses. Imperial units are also often used informally to describe body measurements and vehicle fuel economy. At school, the use of metric units is the norm”.

A real mixed bag, which is generally the picture and for those of a certain age who remember and used imperial measurements regularly, the change from one system to another is about the longest ‘work in progress’ that anyone will ever undertake. It’s seems clear that most people use a mixture of both systems and the younger the age group, the greater will be the bias towards the metric system.

Like many people, I’m one of those who use both. In the workshop, everything is measured and made in mm. To measure off 17/64″ is mind numbing so it’s much easier to mark out 6.75mm and relatively easy, with a sharp marking knife, to split the last millimetre. Quite often, I have a calculator on the bench to work out various sums which is easy to do in metric but impossible using imperial. Try adding 19/32″ to 29/64″.

Room sizes are still estimated in feet, but I’m gradually coming round to using metres for gauging longer distances as in… “Look, there’s a nice walnut tree and it’s only a hundred metres away”.

I used to measure my weight in stones and pounds, but ever so gradually, over the last few years, I’ve started to think more in metric so I know that when the scales say xxkg it’s time to get down to the gym.

I now reckon fuel for the car in litres, as that’s how it’s dispensed at the pump, but I still know that it’s going to be 102.3 miles to Gatwick when I go on holiday, simply because that’s what Google tells me when I do a search…as do the road signs. However, drive on the Continent where all the road signs give distances in km and you very soon begin to think in km as well.

The issue is a ‘mind thing’ and like it or not, as long as we still have a formal, directed system of imperial measurements in place it seems to me unlikely that we will ever wholly change over to the metric system and that may, or may not, be a ‘good thing’. After all, could you ever envisage a certain well known politician arriving at his local with a cheery grin on his face and asking for “Half a litre of your finest ale, please barman?” I think not. A pint it has to be and a pint it will always be.

It would be interesting to re-examine the whole issue in another Blog a hundred years from now, though personally, I think the jury’s still out on the metric versus imperial question.

  • Steve

    … And then there is the timber industry that sells 2″ by 4″ wood in metre lengths! I find it most awkward working with plans etc that originate in the USA, they will insist on continuing with the Imperial system. With that amount of weight (inertia) behind the system, I suspect it’ll be around for quite a while!

    • Rob Stoakley

      I deliberately stayed clear of the impetus of the US of A, but clearly their influence is a major player in maintaining the status quo, which I don’t think will change any time soon…maybe in a hundred years time?

      • I did raise the issue of having to work with two systems with my MP and he did not think it was an issue. He did retired a couple of months after than though.

        • Rob Stoakley

          Working with imperial and metric systems, both at the same time? If I tried that, they’d be coming to take me away, but then again, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened to me long ago…

    • Knud Hetlelid

      Just for comparison, timber is measured in metre lengths and inches across, in Norway today. We started using the metric system about 200 years ago. The inches are defined in mm, and every different size is defined in mm – still inches are used in the industry and in talk among carpenters etc.

      BTW; Norwegian (Scandinavian?) inches were bigger than the imperial in those days several hundred years ago. A few mm bigger. It was said that this was convenient as the exported timber, measured in Norw. inches, on arrival in the UK, would have shrunk to the equivalent imperial size… 🙂

  • John Temple

    Try buying pipe fittings on the continent! They are all in inches and fractions thereof.

    • Rob Stoakley

      But probably an exact amount of mm’s?

  • Tony Short

    1 3/64ths. Easy enough. Also if you have a ruler marked in 32nd of an inch 17/64ths is 8 marks plus a half, easier to estimate than 3/4 of a millimetre. Mind you my education was ruined by switching between imperial and metric as I moved between schools and colleges. I still don’t know what the metric unit of work is (possibly the erg??)

    • Rob Stoakley

      For me, I’m gradually making the switch to metric as I try and shut out imperial measurements, but whichever way you slices it, it’s difficult and there’s no real answer as far as I can see. I was also brought up in the imperial/metric system, but I learned only yesterday that schools are now teaching both imperial and metric to the kids. Bonkers!

      • Giovanni Bianchessi

        Since I am Italian I always used and preferred metric units.
        In my opinion imperial units are too hard to use expecially when expressed in fractional (i.e 3.6714″ in fractional?)
        It is also very complex to me instantly establish if 5/8 is smaller or greater than 12/16… In mm I immediately see that 15.875mm is smaller than19.05mm
        When I have to use Imperial units I have to have a calculator by my side 🙂

        • Rob Stoakley

          Giovanni, good to see you catching up with all things Axminster…I assume you’re in Italy? There’s no easy answer to this one as everyone has their preferred method of working and measurement. As I mentioned, I try whenever possible to shut out imperial thoughts and concentrate on just metric, but it can sometimes be very difficult.

          • Giovanni Bianchessi

            Yes I am in Italy.
            Welcome new metric user 🙂

          • Alfredo M. Claussen

            I live in Mexico, and supossedly we have been alway “metric”. But with the nearness of the USA, the influence of the Imperial system has been too strong, so most of us tend to become “bilingual” in respect to measurement.

            As Giovanny well said, metric is totally straightforward in regard to absolute magnitude. Trying to guess which drillbit size is the next larger one is difficult in Imperial. With the advent of the dual selectable display in the digital calipers (now perfectly inexpensive and affordable!) you can easily and quickly see which is larger/smaller at a glance. The other day someone lent me a “fractional caliper”… instant confusion!!! I hope this makes it clear: having Imperial in decimal displays is better than wrestling with fractions!
            Regards. Amclaussen.

  • Stiubhart

    I’m now retired, well sort of, I’m 69 not out. My early working life was all imperial measures but I had realized the benefits of a metric system as far back as my last year of infants school.

    When the move to metrication started I was working as an optical and mechanical instrument maker and we decided that rather than use one or the other it was better to become ‘bi-lingual’ so to speak, but, on any particular job use only one system.

    Later on moving into the aircraft manufacturing industry I found they had done the same. all old drawings remained imperial, all new project drawing were metric. I don’t believe there were many who found this way of working a problem; just remember NEVER MIX SYSTEMS!

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