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Anybody know when the UK went metric?

by Bill Osler / June 20, 2004 7:32 AM PDT

I found myself in a bizarre conversation today while talking to somebody about the "Horatio Hornblower" novels.

She knew that the UK uses metric units, and she was puzzling over the fact that all of the distance measurements in those novels were in miles. And before anybody asks: no, she isn't blonde.

I had to suppress my laughter when she asked. She's a physician, and she ought to know better. I asked her what the name is for the mile-foot-pound-pint-inch type measurements we use. It took her a minute to remember that the US uses "English units" for its common measurements.

Anyway, it made me wonder. I know that the UK is (mostly) on the metric system now, but when did it make the switch from English units to metric units?

And, in keeping with the Hornblower theme, does anybody know what system of measurement the French were using back in the Napoleonic era?

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Answer for the first part!
by Cindi Haynes / June 20, 2004 7:39 AM PDT
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I would say that ....
by Mosonnow / June 20, 2004 10:13 AM PDT

your link is pretty accurate as regards the UK. That is, we have to be metric, but many things are quoted in both metric and imperial measures simultaneously.

This leads to silly-isms - e.g. cars are still sold with the selling point of "miles to the gallon", yet all of our petrol is sold in litres, and you will notice that kilometres are not mentioned in that equation...

Children now do all of their mathematics in metric - and this generation don't know what an inch, a foot, or a yard is. Worse than that, they don't have the implicit gauging skill that one has with imperial measures. E.g. a foot (12 inches) is about the size of one's foot (der), but ask a kid to guess 30cm...

Also, one can intrinsically guess a pound (1 lb) in weight, but not half a kilo. A calculator does not help in this regard of course. The problem arises from things being sold in packs of 100, 200, 250, 500 gram packs etc. I.e. Imperial was 1 lb, or a 1/2 or a 1/4. Metric is anything from 100 grams to 1000 grams, so "natural" identification is totally subordinated to reliance upon scales.

Try it with your kids on metric: A car travelling behind the car in front should be 3xcar length distant - i.e. about 14 ft x 3 = 42 feet. Ask your kid (or yourself!) to tell you when you are 12.6 metres away from the car in front.

Not a comment - just an observation.


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And I thought "Whitworth" was still the standard....
by lylesg / June 20, 2004 10:44 AM PDT
In reply to: I would say that ....

as that's what we called the wrenches (little pack of wrenches came with the bikes) we used to work on the Triumph motorcycles with. Happy

Perhaps Whitworth refered to thread pitch and bolt size?

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I think it refers to the bolt size ...
by Bill Osler / June 20, 2004 11:07 AM PDT
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ahhh Whitworth wrenches/spanners.....
by lylesg / June 20, 2004 12:06 PM PDT

sizes refer to the thread and not the measurement of the bolt head. That's why a 1/4 whitworth wrench was a loose fit on a 1/2 bolt (AF) in those days. Happy

TG I don't own an old Triumph bike anymore. Happy

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I don't know about Whitworth, I have......
by Mosonnow / June 20, 2004 11:07 AM PDT

a drill gauge that goes from 1/16 of an inch up to a half inch, by 29 gradations would you believe? but no manufacturer name is shown.

As to Triumph motorcycles, I am also without knowledge with one exception. Our friend used to rev up his Velocet in the early hours - we were really popular with our neighbours - but I believe Triumph had better leg-guards.

In the UK we now have motor cycles with a hood over, which I presume is intended as a safety-cage in the same way that cabriolets are better than open-topped sports cars, given the roll-over consideration.

But for the life of me, I really don't know if any of them use Whitworth wrenches. Wink


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Thanks ...
by Bill Osler / June 20, 2004 10:38 AM PDT

I did not realize the process of metrication in the UK was so recent.

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(NT) (NT) When they surrendered to France without a shot fired? (
by James Denison / June 20, 2004 9:22 AM PDT
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Napoleonic era weights and measurements...
by Edward ODaniel / June 20, 2004 10:08 AM PDT

Hi Bill. That one got my curiosity up so I went looking.

"Dr. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, a founding father of modern chemistry, discovered the role of oxygen in combustion and metabolism. He also was the initiator and proponent of the metric system of weights and measurements which was adopted by the French Revolutionary Convention in August 1793.(6) Lavoisier was hurried to the scaffold complaining that he had not been given enough time to finish a paper on chemistry. He, like many other aristocrats, was beheaded during the Terror."

The above from the footnotes of http://www.haciendapub.com/jmag2.html which I think you, as an MD might find interesting.

Also here if you want to do some English/French conversions -- http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/abstract/miscellaneous/measurements/c_naval2.html

Nothing is ever simple though so this bit is to keep it interesting:
"France incorporated the simpler and more exacting metric system shortly after Charles Maurice de Tallyrand, Bishop of Autun, placed before the French National Assembly a plan based on a unit of length equaling that displacement which a pendulum makes in one full swing per second. Louis XVI, in 1790, authorized a scientific investigation aimed at reforming weights and measurements at the end of the French Revolution. Spain followed France, after Napoleon had temporarily suspended the metric system for twenty-eight years, and fully adopted the metric system around 1867, then well past the California Mission Period."

Hope it helps as I now have additional interesting and potentially useless information rattling around in my skull Wink

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Thanks, Ed ...
by Bill Osler / June 20, 2004 10:36 AM PDT

I did find a link at http://www.campusprogram.com/reference/en/wikipedia/d/de/decimalization.html which said that France adopted a decimal monetary system at the time of the Revolution, but apparently metrication took longer.

It's amazing how much a common measurement system facilitates commerce. I guess our current world economy would be harder to manage if we still used different weights and measures in each country. Just converting currency is hard enough.

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Re: not too sure Bill
by jonah jones / June 20, 2004 10:37 PM PDT

but a few months back there was a huge uproar (resulting in a court case) in England when a seller in a market refused to mark his produce in lbs AND Kg....

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You'll love this, Bill
by Dan McC / June 21, 2004 2:19 AM PDT

In June 1792 - in the dying days of the French monarchy, as the world began to revolve around a new promise of Revolutionary equality - two astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary quest. The erudite and cosmopolitan Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre made his way north from Paris, while the cautious and scrupulous Pierre-Fran

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(NT) (NT) Thanks. Might be interesting to check the book out.
by Bill Osler / June 21, 2004 3:10 AM PDT
In reply to: You'll love this, Bill
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