How Britain Lost Its Weigh

Adobe Stock licensed Close-up view of a two glass of beer in hand. Beer glasses clinking at outdoor bar or pub by pavel siamionov

In the course of researching this article, I learned something that left me speechless. For anyone who knows me, that’s far from an easy thing to do. In the recent report from Iain Duncan Smith and his “Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform” (TIGRR), we are able to see about a hundred things we can now do as a country having left the EU. 

Interestingly, rather than focus on any actual benefits that the report might contain, most of the media chose to report the fact that we can now sell items in imperial units without having to show a metric equivalent. This will, of course, please Jacob Rees-Mogg who famously instructed his staff to use imperial measurements.

For the rest of us, how helpful this would be is surely something hard to measure in imperial, metric or any form of unit. Why the matter is considered important enough even to be mentioned as one of the top things we can now do seems mysterious.

Would we really miss the very convoluted imperial system any more than we miss the pre-decimalisation of our money? Who would prefer to say that VAT is four bob in the pound, and what sort of calculator would be needed to do these calculations? Might it be to do with the word “imperial”?

A system hard to fathom

Even though the UK has made some strides towards metrication, imperial measurements are still part of everyday life for the nation. Of course, there’s really nothing wrong with still using imperial measurements as part of everyday speech.

Things will always be difficult to fathom out, for example. Where problems arise is when we need to understand exactly how long something is, and how much it weighs. Surely it would be best to use a simple system that everyone in the UK and the rest of the world understands?

The Pint

Yes, in the UK the venerable pint still exists as an “imperial pint” based on a measurement of one eighth of an imperial gallon. It’s also seen by some as a symbol of all things British. The official measure was never rounded down to half a litre as might have been expected. Nor did our pound officially morph into 500 grammes as happened in France.

Although do be careful in the Netherlands where an “ons” is now 100g rather than about 30g. Speaking about the Netherlands, if you think our system is confusing, imagine what it was like before the Dutch had metrication. A pound was different in each city!

Although the pint remains an official unit in the UK when it comes to beer, somehow the same wasn’t true for wine and spirits.  Even the US uses litres (well liters) for bottle sizes, although there is a discrepancy in US and European liqueur and spirit bottle sizes, but not wine.

Back in the UK, our love for gallons of petrol has diminished over the years. Would we really want to be reminded that it now costs well over a fiver a gallon when we fill up the tank? I for one can’t wait for the day when we change to kilometres as I always think you get to your destination that bit faster.

In 2021, the only country in the world which still fully embraces the imperial system is the USA, and even then some metric measurements are used, as in the example of wines and spirits. Along with the UK, just two other countries, Liberia and Myanmar, are still slowly adopting the metric system.

More from Central Bylines

The Imperial System as we know it today isn’t actually that old. Only formally standardised in large part by the 1824 Weights and Measures Act, it has yet to celebrate its 200th birthday. However, back then, the newly formed Republic of the United States of America didn’t receive the memo, which meant that some of their measurements (such as gallons and hundredweights) are different to those this side of the pond, further confusing the issue.

But let’s get back to the humble pint and why my discovery rendered me speechless.

The origins of the metric system might surprise you

Until researching this article, like so many, I simply thought that the metric system was invented in France and adopted by Napoleon. To my great surprise, this is not true. The history of the metric system actually started in seventeenth century England.

In 1668, Bishop John Wilkins, an English scientist, philosopher and one of the founders of the Royal Society, proposed a system of measurement which contained the essential features of what came to be known as the metric system. Only later was the system adopted by the French who, to be fair, made some refinements.  

As a result, for most of the world, there’s now a standard base measurement. For length, there’s the metre. Not an inch, foot, yard, perch, pole, fathom, league or furlong. For volume, there’s a litre. Not a cup, gill, pint or gallon (with UK and US versions). And for weight, there’s a gramme. Not an ounce, pound or hundredweight (also different in the UK and the US). 

So while the rest of the world uses the same screw size or standard fitting, for some reason in the UK, we think that it’s a great idea to confuse everyone with a myriad of measurements with no base unit.

Imperial. But which Empire?

We now know the metric system is in fact British, but what about the Imperial System? Well, dear reader, once more I have some news which may come as a bit of a shock. Far from referring to the British Empire, the Imperial System actually dates back to the Roman Empire. And as for a pint, that’s actually derived from an old French word meaning half a quart(er of a gallon).

So, as we reflect on Mr Duncan Smith’s report, and drink our pint to celebrate or commiserate on the fifth anniversary of the referendum, let’s also take a moment to reflect on the true history of imperial measurements and our beloved pint. Cheers!

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