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HOW METRIC IS EUROPE?

The metric system is firmly established and widely used in Europe, but not in the form imagined by its supporters in Britain. Many metric units have long since been obsolete. Other metric units have been cut up to reproduce measures based on customary sizes and some trades never converted to metric in the first place. Customary units exist in general conversation and for convenient approximations. Many products made in Europe are based on pound/foot specifications. Europe uses the metric system but is not obsessed by it; only in Britain has metrication become a measure of whether one is "European."

Although most of Europe has been metric officially for over a century, British visitors to the Continent are often surprised to discover an ongoing use of non-metric measures, much as in the same way Americans visiting Britain are surprised to learn that the UK uses miles for road signs instead of kilometres. So, while the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has convinced itself that adopting various metric units is necessary to bring Britain into line with Europe, its programme of compulsory metrication is effectively pushing Britain out of line with Europe.

The metric system was invented in the aftermath of the French Revolution and was intended to be as unlike previous weights and measures as possible. When the French government imposed metrication in 1837, the outlawing of customary units such as the livre (pound) was widely resented. Instead of abandoning the livre, French people adjusted it from its pre-revolution weight of (what was to become) 490 grams (17.3 ounces) to its modern weight of 500 grams (17.6 ounces). This adjustment made the livre compatible with the metric system by providing an easy conversion between kilograms and livres: two livres to the kilo. Modern French shoppers do not say "1.5 kilos" or "1,500 grams" but ask for "three livres." The standard traditional French loaf of bread, whilst weighing one kilogram, is referred to as "pain de deux livres." For smaller quantities of food such as butter, French traders and shoppers divide the livre into a demi-livre and a quart de livre, traditional divisions based on a half and a quarter that cut across the livre's internal metric division of 500 grams. Thus, a French quarter pound (0.125 kilo) is 4.4 ounces and close to the UK/US quarter pound.

The survival of avoirdupois is seen in numerous other European countries: the Danes buy using the pund, the Swiss the livre and pfund, the Germans the pfund and so on. As in France, it is acceptable in Holland and Switzerland to refer to quarter and half pounds. The reason for the pound's ongoing use in Europe is not merely tradition but that the pound is a more appropiate weight for food markets than the kilogram. A pound is only half the weight of a kilo and so allows a wider choice of weights to be dealt with as whole numbers and simple fractions. For items such as fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and butter, the pound is the right measure.

Pounds are not restricted to use in food markets. In France, the livre is used by wholesalers. In Germany, people may give their own weight in pfunds, or use pfunds to describe the weight of a new- born baby. The use of pounds on the Continent reveals the lack of knowledge by Britain's metric lobby on how metrication is actually applied in Europe. Historically, pound weights varied across Europe: the German pfund was the equivalent to 16.5oz/468 grams, the Dutch pond 17.4oz/494 grams, the Danish pund 16.6oz/471 grams and so on. France had several versions of the livre in different cities and regions. The effect of metrication has not been to abolish the pound but to standardise it across frontiers.

The use of pounds across Europe has ensured the survival of the hundredweight. In Germany and Switzerland, the zentner, in like manner to the British cwt, is one-twentieth of a tonne and is used by industry, commerce and agriculture for weighing machinery, wood, farm produce and coal. The zentner is equal to 100 pfunds or fifty kilos, weighs within 2% of the British hundredweight and has been adopted instead of the two nearest metric alternatives, the myriagram (a hundredth of a tonne) and the quintal (a tenth of a tonne). In Germany, the metric tonne has thus been cut up to recreate customary measures and illustrates a departure from the metric principle of units building up in multiples of 10, 100, 1000: thus, 500 grams = 1 pfund; 2 pfunds = 1 kilogram; 50 kilograms = 1 zentner; 20 zentners = 1 tonne. No German unit of weight is ten times the previous unit. Those metric units needed to complete the decimal structure -- the dekagram, hectogram, myriagram and quintal -- are not used in Germany.

The practice of reducing metric weights to customary sizes extends to volumes of liquid. In Italy, for instance, it is common to refer to "quarter-litres." In the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, a quarter-litre makes a pintje (small pint), again defying the metric rule that units are divided throughout only by ten. Having converted to the metric system, Europe is returning to the very use of fractions which the metric system is supposed to eliminate, and giving these fractions new identities based on traditional human-scale systems.

The inch is another customary unit that is retained in Europe. In Belgium, DIY shops describe tools in inches; thus, the teeth on a saw is described as the "number of points to the inch." In Swedish tool shops, equipment is specified in tums, and in Norway, tommes, alongside metric. Swedes also describe the sizes of electronic wafer boards in tums. Inches are often used on the continent for plumbing. Whereas British plumbers converted to metric some years ago, necessitating the use of adaptors where metric pipes do not fit existing installations, in Belgium all plumbing equipment, whether fittings or pipes, continues to be supplied in customary measures. Inches are used in Italy to describe plumbing pipe threads, in Iceland for radiator circuits, and in Germany the inch (zoll) is used to describe diameters of pipes, taps and washers (for instance, 1/4" or 3/4"). Germans also use inches for producing firearms, as illustrated by .202 and .303 rifles. Most, if not all, European publishers use the inch for measuring type size and ink density because global computer and printer technology is now inch-based.

Customary units sometimes exist in name but not in practice, as in the Netherlands where the "ounce" referred to by shoppers is in fact a hectogram (100 grams). Conversely, customary units exist in practice but not in name, as with the 300-millimetre "unit" used on the Continent for design work (the foot in disguise).

Shipping and aviation are two areas where customary units are used frequently. In aviation, feet are used by European aircraft for measuring altitude. In shipping, the nautical mile and the knot (mille marin and noeud in French) are used for distance and speed. France and Spain also use nautical leagues. Sweden uses feet (fots) for the construction and description of boats. For land distance, road signs in Sweden are specified in kilometres but, when speaking, Swedes prefer mils, a traditional measure some ten times the length of a kilometre. A Swede glancing at a metric road sign stating "150 kilometres" will say "15 mils."

Non-metric units for measuring land are common. Sweden uses the tunnland which is the equivalent of 1.2 British acres and Austria has the joch (1.4 acres). Denmark and Belgium use their own variations on the acre and France uses the perche. For fields and farmland, Italy uses the acro (equal to 4046 square metres), and Germany the morgen (0.6 acre). These units are used alongside the metric hectare.

Human-based measures exist in Europe for approximations. In some parts of Spain, people use the palmo as a rough measure of distances that can be covered by the span of a hand, such as the gap between two cars when parking, or the length of a small table. In Italy, the spanna is used in the same way. Italians also use the dito (finger-width; plural: dita) to give an impression of the length of nails and screws, or the depth of a hole in a wall when drilling. In France, horses are measured in standardised hands or paumes.

In Britain's quest to imitate Europe, metric measures have been adopted for uses which do not apply in Europe. Spirits, for example, are now served in Britain using optics of 25 and 35 millilitres, yet no Continental country uses optics. Spirit measures in Europe are necessarily approximate because they are poured freehand from the bottle. In Italy, a customer requesting a spirit might ask for two dita. Nor do most European countries use metric units for the serving of draft beer. Beer, unless bottled, is sold simply by the glass, and the size of the glass can vary from outlet to outlet. Drink servings on the Continent are seldom standardised as in Britain and Ireland. It is therefore a paradox of European "standardisation" that Europe's only standardised spirit measure, the gill, has been banned outright, and one of the very few routinely used standard measures of draft alcohol, the pint, has been restricted in its use.

Having enforced metric measures where they do not apply in Europe, the British government has failed to implement metrication in several areas where it does apply. The government has exempted two areas where the same set of metric units applies consistently throughtout the Continent: kilometres and metres for road-signs and centimetres for clothing sizes. In some cases, the British government has adopted different metric units to those in use on the Continent. In the year 2000, Britain will use the gram for food markets whereas other countries such as Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands use the hectogram (100 grams). The millimetre has been accepted for a vast range of uses in Britain that would be unheard of in other countries due to its tiny size. Centimetres are much more common in Germany.

While the DTI has decreed compulsory metrication in Britain on the grounds that metric units are adopted all over the world for comparison and compatibility, a vast range of manufactured goods in Europe are based on non-metric specifications for the same reason. Computer discs are produced in Europe based on the 3½-inch standard and are sold as such, and the number of tracks on a computer disc are expressed as 48 or 96 tracks per inch (tpi). Video tape is universally half an inch wide; tape used within a sound cassette is an eighth of an inch wide. Car tyre diameters are specified in inches throughout Europe as are most sizes of bicycle tyre and wheel diameters. Shops in Europe frequently express the width of television screens and electric fans in inches (pollici in Italy, pulgadas in Spain, pouces in France). European manufacturers willingly produce goods designed to imperial specifications specifically for export to non-metric markets. Examples of this are Belgian carpets and rugs, and French glasses in pint and half-pint sizes.

Although Britain's supporters of metrication regard Europe as a decimal role-model, there exists a wide range of other systems on the Continent which are based on customary divisions of twelve and sixteen. Clocks and calendars, with twelve hours on a clockface and twelve months in a year, have yet to adopt a recommendation of 1875 that they be decimalised. There are still (except to some extent in France) 360 degrees in an angle and each degree is divided into 60 minutes and 60 seconds. The dozen (dutzend in German, douzaine in French) is widely used by European industry as a quantity for packaging. Pure gold is specified as 24-carat. Compasses all round the world are marked off with sixteen points and music remains binary: one semi-breve consists of two minims, four crotchets, eight quavers and sixteen semi-quavers (not to mention twelve notes in an octave). Similarly, European paper sizes adopt non-decimal divisions whereby one sheet of A1 equals two sheets of A2, four of A3, eight of A4 and sixteen of A5. It is contradictory that metricators regard sixteen ounces in a pound as random and archaic while accepting the self-evidence of sixteen sheets of A5 in a sheet of A1. Even the Euro '96 football finals started with sixteen teams, divided into four groups of four to enable the progression of semi-finals and quarter finals.

Thanks to: J Ödemark, Natacha Tual, Justin Brooke, Monica Marin, Joan Pontius, Maria Tsatsazoni, Jonathan Rogers.

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In February 1996 John Constable bought in a normal DIY shop in Germany, and kindly sent to us, four small packs of various plumbing parts, which he has mounted neatly on a display board. They are a chrome-plated cover and three different types of washer. Though labelled in German, all show sizes mainly or exclusively in inches. The descriptions on the packs are as follows:
1.Rosette 3/4"
2.IT-Dichtungen 1 1/4" für flachdichtende Rohrverschraubungen 1 1/4"
3.3/8" + 1/2" + 3/4" [3 sizes of ring washer]
4.3/8" [thick tap washers, rounded on one side]

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So today's Meccano remains fully compatible with all previous models, and now there are literally millions of Meccano sets in use world-wide, produced at any time during the last 94 years, all to imperial standards and all fully compatible.

In the short term, thank Heaven it is made solely in France, where these standards are not illegal...But how long before the import into Britain of Meccano to imperial standards is forbidden?

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Here is a partial list of non-metric measures still used in France, sent to us by Alan Harrison, to whom many thanks.

Knot (noeud) for speed of boats, planes and wind
Nautical mile (mille marin)
Nautical league (lieue marine), i.e. 3 nautical miles
Hand (paume) for the height of a horse
Carat (carat)
The standard railway gauge is still referred to in feet and inches by railway engineers, although non-specialists have converted it to centimetres.
Degree of angle. Grades exist (1 right angle = 100 grades) but they are used much less frequently than degrees.
Time. There was an attempt to convert both the calendar and the clock to a decimal system but it was never popularly accepted and soon fell into disuse.
League (lieue). The newspaper "La Charente Libre" on Friday 22.2.96 described a village as being less than two leagues from the nearest town: "Le village d'Antezant-la-Chapelle est ... moins de deux lieues de St. Jean d'Angély."
Handmade leather gloves. The leather is measured for cutting out, using a foot ruler marked in inches, at a factory near Limoges (quoted on TV channel 3 on Saturday, 24 February).

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One of our members obtained the following answer from the Managing Director of a tool-manufacturing company:

"There may be a difference between those countries which still officially use imperial units and those which merely accept/tolerate imperial units. I am not well informed about this distinction but can only give you a list of those countries to which we send products which are manufactured to and described by us as being in imperial measurements. ... The list is: U.S.A. & Canada, Caribbean, Uruguay and Paraguay, Brazil; South Africa, Angola, Kenya, Sudan, Egypt; Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Hong Kong; Australia, New Zealand, Fiji."

He adds that Finland, Norway and Sweden also order some specific products in imperial units.

Various products

We are trying to compile a complete list of the many products which are widely described using non-metric units. The following examples are believed to apply throughout the European Union (and often beyond). Further information is invited.

Ammunition (inches)
Aviation altimeters (scaled in feet)
Computer discs (diameter in inches)
Computer printers (printing position in inches, and resolution in dots per inch)
Data storage tapes and cinematic films (length in feet)
Denim jeans (waist size in inches) Electric fans (diameter in inches)
Guns, pistols and rifles (barrel sections in fractions of an inch)
Hamburgers (pounds and ounces)
Jet engine thrust (pounds)
Motor-car and cycle tyres (diameter in inches)
Perfume and cosmetics (fluid ounces)
Plumbing pipes and joints (sections and gauges in feet and inches)
Television screens and computer screens (inches)
Timber (feet and inches? -- this is disputed)
Video tape widths (1/2", 3/4", 1") and audio tape widths (1/4", 1/2")

 

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