An Australian’s Take on Metric System Adoption

Dear Readers: Two things. 1) I’m updating the look of this blog. I’m not quite done yet so please be patient. 2) For the next two weeks I’m running a guest blog written by a contact I have in Australia. (He’s graciously written for this blog before). Since Australia is the most metric of any of the former British colonies, I thought it would be interesting to hear his perspective. I’ll be back in two weeks. Enjoy!

Australia – A new start, a new measure

In 1972 my family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. The seasons had moved six months away from where they used to be. You spent dollars instead of pounds and caught trams instead of buses. Everybody spoke with a funny accent and they thought I had a funny accent.

That year the Australian government began the changes that would lead the country into metric territory.Stamps

In 1966, Australia had changed their currency from pounds shillings and pence to the Australian dollar of 100 cents, worth ten shillings of the old money. (Robert Menzies, a very Anglophilic prime minister had wanted to call the new currency the ‘Royal’ but there was an amazing amount of protest after he announced that, and so we got the dollar instead.)

The ease with which business found they could calculate wages, taxes, commissions and discounts (in an era before spreadsheets, desktop computers and calculators) was a major factor for metric conversion.

A lot of people were against it, of course. It was asserted that it was going to cost a fortune, baffle everyone for no good reason and thousands would die in car crashes caused by confusion over metric speed limits.

I thought it was a good idea because I had been puzzled as a six-year old, learning that there were16 ounces to a pound, 14 pounds to a stone, 12 inches to a foot.

Mom believed that the government shouldn’t change things like measurements because older people didn’t understand what was going on, which was true, but not a wholly valid reason, I thought. During the time that Mom had run a village post office in England, the British changed their currency. It was too difficult for one lady in her eighties. She would give Mom her purse and tell her to take whatever she needed to pay for her purchases.redheads LP record

In Australia Mom ran a shop that sold wool and knitting needles and she was forever explaining to customers that the  the 50 g size replaced the 1-ounce, the 100 g size replace the 2-ounce, and the 4-ounce had been discontinued. Yes, they do cost a bit more, that’s because they are a bit bigger. No, she didn’t know why they changed things. Yes, that’s what you can expect from a Labor Party government.

One of the first things to go metric that affected the general public was weather reporting. I can remember a TV news advert telling us that weather forecasts were going metric: rainfall in millimeters, temperatures in Celsius. Some people grumbled that 38º Celsius didn’t sound as hot as 100º Fahrenheit. True, but it still felt as hot.

In 1972 sports began to change to metric, and sport is something most Aussies are passionate about. That year the Melbourne Cup was run over 3200 meters instead of two miles, as the racing industry had adopted 200 meter increments to replace furlongs. A lot of racing fans were miffed because a centuries’ worth of records for some classic races could not be compared with modern results.

The football field stayed the same size but commentators had to describe throws and distances in meters instead of yards.

Some of the media found metric units a bit of a challenge, like the golf commentator who told us “He missed that putt by a millimeter of an inch.”

The press was generally supportive of the metric conversion. In the Reader’s Digest for example, they included metric dimensions in parentheses in their stories, and later gave the metric units prominence and put the Imperial units in parentheses:

“…while Joe’s lifeline hung out of reach, only 2 metres (6 feet) away…”

and after a couple of years they stopped including the conversion. A lot of magazines published articles about metric conversions and how it was going to affect the reader, especially magazines covering specialist subjects like hobbies or motoring.

The occasional humorous metric mix-up got printed. I read of a builder struggling with some drawings he had been sent. He phoned up the architect and was told the plans were metric: 1 centimeter to the foot.

redheads average-fridgeNone of the newspapers started a campaign against the metric conversion the way some of the British papers have. Some journalists wrote the occasional column criticizing the conversion and there were quite a few letters to the editor from people who disapproved. I particularly remember one columnist quoting the chorus of an old World War II song, telling us that feet and inches would always be the measure of “The long and the short and the tall…”

I was in the air force while the metric conversion was happening and I didn’t notice a lot of it. My service ID card showed my height in centimetres but most of the equipment I worked on was Imperial. Aircraft fuel gauges read in pounds and wingspans were still in feet. I lived in the barracks and ate in the Airmen’s Mess so I don’t remember when metric sizes made their way onto the supermarket shelves.

The big change everyone noticed was in motoring. In July 1974, almost overnight, all the road signs and signposts sprouted a little yellow tag with the letters “km” to tell you that the distance was metric, and all the speed limit signs changed from the US style to the European model.

This announcement was on TV in the weeks leading up to the changeover. (Note that the announcer is trying to sound very posh, and that television was black-and-white back then.)

One of my co-workers was let off a speeding fine because he claimed to be confused by metric speeds and the judge agreed with him. Happily, the hundreds of additional road deaths critics had told us to expect never happened.

A related metric change was gas pumps. The price of gas had increased to more than 99 cents per gallon and the old electro-mechanical pumps couldn’t display the high prices. I suppose some optimist never expected gas to get past $1 per gallon when they designed the pump.

They got around this problem by putting a sticker on the pump saying that the amount dispensed by the pump was actually twice the amount displayed and that is what you would be charged for. The weights and measures inspection people weren’t happy with this state of affairs and metric conversion allowed gas pumps to become honest again.

To ensure that shopkeepers didn’t take advantage of the change to metric to boost their profits two precautions were taken:

First, prices were carefully monitored and the public was asked to report what they thought might be profiteering.

Secondly, shops like butchers and greengrocers who sold produce by the pound all converted to metric one district at a time. This meant that if your favorite butcher started selling meat by the kilogram you couldn’t go to the next one down the street and ask for a pound of steak because he would also be metric. The organizations representing small businesses had asked for the conversion to be done this way so that none of them would be disadvantaged by one shop in a street or shopping center refusing to change and thus attracting customers who didn’t want to use metric units.redheads metric-cup

Pint and half-pint cartons for milk and soft drinks were replaced by 600 mL and 300 mL sizes. The British (or Imperial) pint, which Australia used is 568 mL, so its metric replacement was slightly larger, to stop people’s suspicions that they were being sold short measure. Those sizes are still in use, nearly forty years later (The US pint is smaller than the Imperial: 473mL.)

In December 1972 there was a Federal election and the Labor Party was elected to power for the first time in twenty-three years, just after the process of metrication had started. By the time the 1975 election was held a lot of people had come to believe that the metric conversion was all the fault of the Labor Party. I can remember a letter in the newspaper saying that Labor had given Australia nothing but inflation and “the metric muddle.”

In one area it was a muddle: public information. A lot of people learned about the metric system from training related to their work and children at school were taught the metric system as part of the curriculum. There was some information distributed to particular sections of the population such as motorists or housewives and things like postage stamps and labels on matchboxes had metric information but there was little education for the general population. That meant they had no overview of the whole metric system and no explanation of why it was being done. I think that was the major shortcoming of the Australian metric conversion: a lot of people didn’t understand the need for metric conversion and it felt like an imposition.

There was an Australian Anti-Metric Association. They were very vocal in their opposition to metrication, but they never got a lot support and just faded away after a while. The Metric Conversion Board believed that the outrageous claims of their opponents often defeated their own case. The Board used to invite representatives from the Association along with the press whenever they held information sessions, to ensure they would never run out of ammunition.

The opposition faded eventually. Prices didn’t inflate out of proportion, people got used to the new measures and eventually people started filling up their car by the litre and asking for half a kilo of steak instead of a pound.

Forty years after Australia started its metric conversion if you ask people about the changeover they can hardly remember what the fuss was about.

Peter Goodyear

9 thoughts on “An Australian’s Take on Metric System Adoption

    • I think the intention was to have a replacement for the pint that was a nice round number and which didn’t leave the consumer thinking he/she had been given short measure.

      That “unnecessary decimal dust” is 0.05% of the amount. In common use 568 mL is close enough. One of the common tactics of the anti-metric crowd is to show conversions with unnecessarily long tails of decimals and then claim this makes the metric system unworkable, eg: “We can’t call it a quarter-pounder any more, it’s got to be 113.398 0925 grams.”

  1. I’d just like to comment on those stamps. First of all, they’re great! Even after so many years they are funny and fresh and so very original.

    However, when you get used to thinking metric you don’t translate back into the older units. My weight is about 70kg and my height is about 1.8 metres. I don’t have to work out how much that is in stones and pounds and feet and inches. Similarly, distances are now thought of in kilometres. I don’t bother to translate them back into miles. Ditto with temperatures, which are in Celsius. The idea of working out the temperature in Fahrenheit is pointless.

    • I agree that like learning a language, to learn the metric system you should immerse yourself in it and not translate back and forth. However, I think it’s useful to have a few familiar things as points of comparison, and height and weight are one of the things everyone knows.

      Incidentally, that guy on the stamps has a Body Mass Index of 30.86, which is just inside the ‘obese’ range. Not a good example to give to the public!

      Thanks for visiting the site!

  2. Australia was right to go Metric and we all find it really easy to use. I remember going through the change over, it really didn’t worry anyone that much. All of the products in Australia are sold in rounded numbers, one litre of milk, 250 grams of butter, a kilo of bananas. The British have gone with the old packaging quantities and just converted it to metric which is ok, eventually they will phase out some products sizes and round things up.

    I visited the US nearly two years ago and it was really weird seeing the old imperial measurement system being used, it was like being in a time warp.

    Americans are going to get left behind the rest of the world and they only have themselves to blame for it if they do not change over.

  3. The big question – why bother? Even in France, where the metric system was invented and forced onto the populace by imperial decree, they haven’t gone fully metric after two centuries. Many traditional measures remain in use. So we should all go metric because Napoleon decreed it two centuries ago?

    I grew up with the metric system and can do most conversions between standard and metric in my head, including temperatures. I served in the military where all the maps were marked off in kilometers, targets at rifle ranges were in increments of 50 meters, artillery fire was adjusted in meters, and the ranges displayed on tank range finders were in meters. Yet I much prefer the old American system, and in an age where everyone has a calculator on their cell phone, exactly why should we convert? It’s really funny that trade worked just fine back before computers when the conversions had to be done longhand and a plethora of systems were used, but now that we have computers and calculators that will convert between measurement systems in a few picoseconds the whole world should standardize on a system originally based on a totally arbitrary unit of measure defined as one ten millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator. That makes no sense.

    Meanwhile, most of international trade is carried in steel containers that are 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet tall in massive ships that are explicitly designed around those containers. All of the world’s oil is bought and sold by the 42-gallon (US) barrel (35 Imperial gallons). Aircraft altimeters all over the world are in feet. And the field of play for the world’s most popular sport – soccer – remains entirely defined in feet and yards (that “9.15 meter” center circle is 10 yards, the goal is 8′ tall and 8 yards wide, and the penalty area is an 18 yard box).

    The two main engines of the world economy are China and the United States. Wikipedia tells us that, even after over 60 years of totalitarian rule, Chinese metrification is “almost entirely complete” and yet anyone who has been to China knows that simply isn’t true, and it just isn’t happening in the United States despite Wikipedia converting all of its measurements to metric. It’s really doubtful that more than a handful of countries have actually completely converted to metric.

    Again, why should they? Right now, as you read this, you have at your fingertips the ability to convert between furlongs per fortnight and centimeters per second or between ancient Roman cubits and light years in mere seconds. As you do so, consider those mere seconds. We’re told that we should use metric because it is a decimalized system (even though that important metric number 0.1 cannot be stored in a digital computer without rounding errors), yet the entire world measures time using the ancient Babylonian system (inherited from the Sumerians) of 60 seconds to the minute, 60 minutes to the hour, and 24 hours to the day, and all of us regulate every aspect of our lives using that system without the slightest bit of trouble. The very fact that a car’s speedometer is marked in very decimalized kilometers per very undecimalized HOUR, and that even the most metric country still has a decidedly undecimalized 7-day week tells you that metric is nonsense.

    And for reference, Fahrenheit intentionally developed his temperature scale so that, for virtually everyone in the world, negative temperature values would remain quite rare. If you go out and ask the next dozen adults you see on the street to do simple math involving both negative and positive numbers, at least 2 or 3 will get it wrong, and I seriously doubt that more than 5% of people have ever seen water boil at 100°C or freeze at 0°C. If you look at the science, those are actually very rare conditions in the REAL world – as rare as a person who can envision one ten millionth of the (inaccurately-measured) distance from the north pole to the equator.

    When I count on my fingers, I count up to 31 using one hand and 1023 using both. The entire modern world revolves around the binary system, NOT the decimal system, and the distance that really matters is 11.8 inches (30 cm) precisely because we still depend on the 4,000 year old Babylonian system.

    (The Babylonians are the ones who gave us our angular measurement of 360 degrees in a circle).

  4. Metres they are—not the USA spelling meters.( measuring devices)
    That’s why people from the USA cannot pronounce kilo-metres correctly. And thats why
    they would never be able to handle conversion.

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