Imperial measurements

The proposed UK revival of imperial measurements

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The proposed UK reintroduction of imperial measurements has been welcomed in some quarters. Designers, engineers and manufacturers must speak out before British industry gets burnt, writes Stephen Holmes

Things are hotting up here in the UK as we get our own fleeting glimpse of summer. Temperatures above 30C can inflict undue stress on our infrastructure, hampering not just roads and water supplies (even in a country where rain is the default setting), but also our ability to think straight.

For example, we’re already seeing newspaper headlines about ‘scorching heatwaves’, for which most front covers will employ a classic bit of trickery. In summer, they splash the temperatures in Fahrenheit, rather than Celsius, swapping an uncomfortably hot 32C day for a more serious-sounding 90F inferno.

As a nation, we suffer from a collective hangover relating to the imperial system, which governed much of life and industry in the last century

Our tabloids, of course, are well-known for adding a bit of spice. And, in the winter months, they’re always happy to fall back on Celsius, preparing readers for an ‘Arctic blast’ heading their way. After all, negative temperatures always sound more dramatic.

For many, this annual back-and-forth between Celsius and Fahrenheit is reflective of the weird duality of British measurement. As a nation, we suffer from a collective hangover relating to the imperial system, which governed much of life and industry in the last century.

Today, the use of these measurements continues to be accepted, often running side-by-side with metric measurements.


Should it be pints or litres? A 100-metre sprint or a 24-mile marathon? A 15-stone man eating a 35-gram bar of chocolate? There’s no doubt about it. The struggle is real — and confusing.

The art of distraction

The Metrication Board in the UK started swapping industry over to the metric system way back in the 1970s. By the 1980s, few bothered with imperial anymore. By the time the UK joined the EU, only the most jingoistic were truly up in arms about not being able to buy tomatoes by the pound.

However, the UK is no longer in the EU. And in an effort to distract people from… well, quite a lot of things actually, the current government says it is ‘giving the British people what they want’. And what they want, it insists, is a return to the imperial system of units.

For some people of a certain age, this is a joy to behold. But for many in our industry, it is a cause of great consternation.

For our last issue, I visited British car maker Alvis, a company that still has all its original engineering drawings, many dating back to the 1920s. Scribbled across some were metric measurements alongside imperial.

The story was that some machinery had been bought in second-hand from Germany in the 1960s, and all parts to be machined on it would have to be recalculated into metric by hand across hundreds of documents.

Some of you reading this may have a similar story, either from this period, or from working with US companies. (I doubt many of you are doing business in Liberia or Myanmar, the only other countries still officially using imperial.)

But after nearly 40 years of normalising metric, there’s a chance of this upheaval returning. At a bare minimum, a reintroduction of imperial measurements would see extra costs associated with new packaging for international markets, reassessment of quality assurance guidelines, issues around recruitment and training, and reams of documentation needing to be rewritten.

As a worst case scenario, you’d better start preparing to get your team fully up to speed on British Standard Whitworth.

Imperial measurements // Imminent upheaval

It all sounds ridiculous, yet these ideas are already being considered as part of the formal planning stages now underway in central government circles.

For my part, I reckon that if you want to consider how you shop for carrots as a form of national identity, it suggests that you’re probably struggling on that front to begin with. But what the hell, go for it.

However, if all this comes to pass and starts creeping into British industry standards, then it has the potential to create all manner of issues.

The big ones will take more than a visit to WolframAlpha to fix, and British manufacturing could be heading towards another cold winter, regardless of whether you write it in Celsius or Fahrenheit.

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