Centipedes and Millipedes

The other day I was beavering away in my old fashioned workshop when my dearly belovéd buzzed me on the walkie-talkie to ask, “how long is 183 centimetres?” (she was choosing shower curtains from her catalogue).  Checking it on my dual-system tape rule I discovered it to be exactly 6 feet and I was immediately struck, not only by the amazing coincidence, but by the sheer common sense of the designer’s choice of metric measurements.  After all, why struggle with those ancient, out-dated feet (six of them, by God!) when you can make life so much easier with a mere 183 centimetres?

    Remember those bad old days when you used to have to remember ‘eight by four’ every time you went to the timber yard for a sheet of ply?  What a nightmare that was, when now 2440 millimetres by 1220 millimetres trips so lightly off the tongue.  And could you ever remember that a standard door is 30 inches wide?  Now that it is 762 millimetres we all know where we stand.

    Was it just yesterday that drill bits came with those awful fractions attached? 1/16, 1/8, 3/16, 1/4? What a lot of nonsense?  Now it’s all so logical with 2.5mm, 3.2mm, 4.8mm, the sort of numbers that really stick in the mind.  Then there are the hacksaw blades - 300mm long and 24 tpi (teeth per inch) so no confusion there!  Screw gauges - now there’s a typical example.  The old 8 gauge becomes 4.0 in metric, the 10 gauge is 5.0 which obviously makes the 12 gauge ..... yes, 5.5.  What could be clearer than that?

    The old Imperialists used to play a very nasty little trick on enlightened and dedicated Metricators by asking, “how tall are you?”  Caught most of them out, but then the government asked all its MP’s and ministers to submit their imperial heights and supplied them with the metric equivalents so they could not be embarrassed on the Today programme - not that they didn’t already know them of course.  Then John Humphries asked for an inside-leg measurement and a government minister lost his voice completely.

   A Gallup poll found that 87% of people normally think in pounds, 87% in pints, 69% in yards and 95% in miles.   A Tesco’s consumer survey  in 2000, found that 90% think in pounds and ounces, while only 8% would be happy with metric-only labelling (due on 1st January 2010 - EC Directive 99/103 Article 3(2)).  That’s all very well but you can’t run a country properly if you go asking ordinary folk what they want.  They’re obviously too stupid to know; that’s why we have awfully clever government people to decide these things for us.

    So, come on all you Little Englanders, get off your high horse and join us in the 21st century.  Forget all those silly inches & feet, lbs & ozs.  There’s a new metric song sheet now which includes some of your old favourites: ‘25.4mm worm, 25.4mm worm, measuring the marigolds’ and  ‘1.57 metres, eyes of blue, Oh what big blue eyes will do’.  And as for walking “1,610,000 kilometres for one of your smiles”    -    I think I’ll take the bus. 

A follow-up article by Eddie Clunan responding to this one can be found here: New Way to Count

From the Autumn 2004 issue of Nobbut Torver