Sunday, November 29

Give an inch, they'll take a metre

The UK’s perpetual confusion between metric and imperial measures has cost Garry and I a fortune. In accordance with EU law, energy utilities are required to charge for services using cubic metres. As a result the local gas company regularly converts imperial meter readings to a metric equivalent and charges customers accordingly. This is a common practice in the UK where many older homes still operate meters that read gas volume in cubic feet rather than cubic metres.

This is exactly what our gas company has been doing, which would have been perfectly OK had our meter been taking an imperial measure. It was not. As a result, our already metric reading was consistently converted to metric, resulting in a calculation that more than doubled our actual use. For almost four years the gas company has overcharged us to the cumulative tune of more than £2,500. We were gob-smacked when the error was discovered. Without warning, our regular gas bill switched from a standard debit to a massive credit.

Regular readers may recall me blogging several years ago about the size of our gas bill. At the time we thought it was a result of price inflation that had hit the UK. Now we know we were being systematically ripped off. Garry ran the utility and secured a cash refund. We’re putting the unexpected windfall toward the cost of vacation already booked for 2010. Garry also tells me I can run the heating for longer each day as it’s clearly costing far less than we thought.

The UK’s stunted shift to metric measurement fascinates me. In 1969 the Government set up the Metrication Board with a remit to educate the public and promote the adoption of metric standards. 1975 was set as the target date for completing the bulk of this conversion. However, the pace of change proved far slower than expected. The change became politicized, caught up in the nation’s perpetual animosity towards the European Union, resulting in the disbanding of the Metrication Board in 1980.

Animosity was further fueled by a realization that the UK has already signed the European Directive 71/354 supporting the EU’s drive to universal metric use. The UK was legally commited to a metric future, but could set its own transition timetable. This resulted in the measures for pre-packaged goods changing in 1995, while in 2000 it became illegal to sell loose products in markets and stalls using imperial measures. The only exception was that of draught beer which could still be measured in pints.

Today, aside from beer, it seems that only distance and speed is continue to be measured in imperial units (miles and miles per hour). Almost every other aspect of daily life is metric. Temperature is measured in Celsius, weight in kilograms, liquids in litres and so on. Even the nation’s currency was converted to a metric or decimal form back in 1971. The reluctance to finally change distance and speed measures is at odds with everything else that’s happened.

I’m not sure what people fear. I recall how relatively painless the conversion experience seemed in New Zealand. In 1972 road signs were converted to metric in a matter of weeks. I recall households being issued with stickers they could place on imperial speedometers to indicate signed speed limits in km/h. We happily drove our family car for years with these stickers in place. At school, our maths class taught imperial measures one year then metric measures in subsequent years.

The irony of the UK’s resistance to a final phase of conversion isn’t lost on historians. The modern concept of a decimal measurement system actually originated in Britain. According to the UK Metric Association, the distinguished scientist and philosopher, Bishop John Wilkins, founder of the Royal Society, proposed a metric system in 1668. His "Standard" unit was almost exactly one metre and like the metre was to be divided using decimal units. He also proposed decimal units of volume and weight similar to the modern litre and kilogram.

However, it was France that first applied his ideas, going metric in 1799. The metric system was fatally tarred this point forward as a foreign, notably European, imposition. Today, only three countries have yet to adopt what’s now known as the International System of Units; Myanmar, Liberia and the United States. Perhaps Americans still believe that if they give an inch, others will take a mile? The British certainly do.

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