We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Pounds, shillings and pence

“There was never any widespread popular demand for change, and the argument that people would find a decimal system easier was true in practice only of those who rarely used it, i.e., foreigners. From an educational point of view, our duodecimal system was preferable because it taught children how to count in different bases. People brought up before decimalisation are almost invariably better at mental arithmetic than those born since. When we lost our shillings and pence, as when, more gradually, our weights and measures were subverted, we lost the full meaning of many of our nursery rhymes, jokes and proverbs. We also lost the actual coins, all of them superior in design to what replaced them and all, because they remained in circulation so long (it was common in the 1960s to receive a Victorian penny in change), of historical interest. Indeed, this is literally true, since the inflation of the Heath/Wilson years made the new coins almost valueless.”

Charles Moore, Spectator, page 11, 19 February edition (behind the subscriber firewall).

He is right on this. Yes, I can see some readers sniffing that a lot of old rot about rhymes and so on is hardly any reason for keeping a form of coinage, but I think he has a point about different bases in counting; even in my own field of finance and banking, I noticed that in some areas, such as the pricing of US bond securities, the practice was recently, or still is, to mark prices in sixteenths and 32nds, rather than in the decimal form used for Eurozone bonds, for example. And being able to do this is good for my maths – not a strong point.

But the broader issue surely, is that while the loss of old coinage may be upsetting to traditionalists, the real nub of the matter is that there is no point in embracing some “modern” standard of counting or whatever if the government, and central bank, debauches the currency. And unfortunately, even during the “good old days” when old coinage existed, the quackery of inflationism was eroding the value of those pounds (a unit of weight, remember) and everything else. I would settle for any coinage system so long as it retained its value.

What killed respect and affection for money was not the decimalisation mania of the late, unlamented Sir Edward Heath. It was inflation.

94 comments to Pounds, shillings and pence

  • Oh, what a load of big hairy bollocks 🙂

    Base 10 is a good system for the simple reason that our general numerical system is base 10.

    For a while in my nerdiest years, I could do mental arithmetic in hexadecimal. And like millions of other nerds, can see the sheer aesthetic beauty of arithmetic in binary. I bet Charles Moore can’t, and never could.

    He’s just a silly old backwardist. If we’d had the burka in 1960, he’d be moaning about the good old days of the feminine mystique and how he didn’t know what a woman’s face looked like until he was 19 and how vulgar it is nowadays with all those faces on display in the streets. He’s the most useless form of silly old Conservative.

    When I was a wee lad at primary school, I have a clear memory of having to memorise furlongs, chains, and how many bakers’ dozens equal a quart or what have you, not to mention some absurd old temperature scale that starts at 32 and gets steadily more ridiculous thereafter. What a fucking waste of time. We’re a base 10 society arithmetically, and thus base 10 currency and scientific units make perfect sense.

    As we saw when NASA crashed that probe into Mars because they’d programmed it in acre furlongs to the foot gallon, or whatever it is the Yanks are still fumbling along with.

  • MarkE

    I quite like the old measurements, if only because so few people understand them well enough to make an informed judgement; picking up on something I read elsewhere, I have discovered that my average motorcycle touring pace is about 100,000 furlongs/fortnight. Whether this means I am a hard riding macho man, or something of wimp is not obvious even though you have the details.

  • John

    As usual, I find Ian’s tone a bit much, but some of what he says is correct.


    I don’t think a degree F or C means anything in particular to anybody. Those of us who use one or the other regularly have a lot of experience with what a certain temperature means. 5F is darned cold, below zero is not to be thought of, 100 is a hot summer day, and set your thermostat to 65. Since you can’t do arithmetic with it (no, 60 isn’t twice as hot as 30 in either system) it’s really just a custom thing. Maybe the smaller F degrees are a little more precise, but it doesn’t matter.

    As for length measurements… Have you ever tried to do carpentry in both systems? I think you’d find it an eye opener.

    The best thing about the metric system is how volume and linear measurement works. cc=ml, now that’s cool.

    I switch back and forth between the two systems all the time for different tasks. Two different tools for two different jobs.

    A lot of people here in the US are kind of prejudiced against the metric system because of the way it was introduced and taught. Over time I think that will fade away.

    But wasn’t Jonathan’s point that we don’t need politicians forcing changes and inflating the currency?

  • As a child I thought the “old money” system was bonkers until I realised the ease with which you could usually buy, with a single coin, a quarter or a third of something priced per unit. Plus I still find fascinating the inherent precious value of a silver coin, but then maybe I’m turning into a goldbug…

  • Given that time also teaches* children how to calculate in different bases (12, 24, 52 and 60) that seems like a remarkeably thin defense of the previous system. Don’t take that as an argument for decimal time though!

    *Of course it does nothing of the sort, and neither did pre-decimal coinage; it merely necessitated that they learn, which is different.

  • TDK

    What on earth does Ian mean:

    absurd old temperature scale that starts at 32 and gets steadily more ridiculous thereafter.

    0F is the temperature of a certain mixture of water, ice and salt which was thought to be a reliable way to set the bottom end of the scale. 100F is supposedly the temperature of a healthy horse – again thought to be constant. In other words, both ends of the scale were chosen to form a repeatable means of creating the thermometer scale. That’s not say I prefer Fahrenheit.

    Choosing to place zero at the freezing point of water is equally arbitrary.

    If you want logical then Kelvin is the way to go. Absolute zero really means there is no colder.

  • nemesis

    I wonder, with the present high price of copper and other base metals, that my old coin collection has in fact kept pace with inflation.

  • If you want logical then Kelvin is the way to go. Absolute zero really means there is no colder.

    Kelvin is perhaps useful when talking about temperatures which are exceedingly hot or exceedingly cold, but for a measurement of day-to-day weather it’s not all that meaningful to your average man-on-the-clapham-omnibus.

    I mean if I went on the telly and said “Today it will be 263.15 degrees Kelvin”. How many people could tell me without looking it up weather that was hot or cold (relatively speaking)?

    Before you do the maths or Google it, it’s -10 degrees celsius or 14 degrees Fahrenheit. A bit chilly for sun bathing, put it that way (unless you are an Eskimo, Penguin or Polar Bear).

  • Sergeant-Major?
    I want to calibrate the regimental thermometers
    Go and find me a placid horse, a healthy one mind, but most importantly Sergeant-Major, a placid one.

  • TDK

    How many people could tell me without looking it up weather that was hot or cold (relatively speaking)?

    True enough but not because the scale makes no sense, only because people are not used to it. There is no qualitative difference between saying “this patient has a temperature – it is over 37C” or “… over 98F”. Both make sense if we are familiar with the scale and make no sense if we are not.

  • TDK

    It strikes me that this is an argument much like the difference in floors between the US and Europe. In the former you enter a building in level 1, in the latter you enter on the ground floor and go up one flight to the first.

    Confusing if you aren’t familiar with the system but once you are then it’s perfectly easy to find your way around.

  • Water (which constitutes, IIRC, 70% of the human body) freezing and boiling points are the ultimate deal-breakers for most intents and purposes (weather, most certainly) as far as temperature is concerned.

  • This bit from “How Green Was My Valley” is sad In those awful terrible capitalist days, a man who worked with his hands had a box of gold on the mantel.

    “All the women used to dress up specially in their second best with starched stiff aprons on a Saturday morning, for then the men were paid when they came off the midday shift.

    As soon as the whistle went they put chairs outside their front doors and sat there waiting till the men came up the Hill and home. Then as the men came up to their front doors they threw their wages, sovereign by sovereign, into the shining laps, f athers first and sons or lodgers in a line behind. My mother often had forty of them, with my father and five brothers working. And up and down the street you would hear them singing and laughing and in among it all the pelting jingle of gold. A good day was Saturday, then, indeed….

    (Speaking of 1890)

    ” Things were very rough in those days. There were no houses built for the men and married people were forced to live in barns and old sheds until enough houses were built. There was a lot of money made over houses, too. My father was paying rent on this one for more than twenty years before he bought it outright. I am glad that he did, because if he had not, my mother would have had nowhere to go these past few years.

    But in those days money was easily earnt and plenty of it. And not in pieces of paper either.

    Solid gold sovereigns like my grandfather wore on his watch-chain. Little round pieces, yellow as summer daffodils, and wrinkled round the edges like shillings, with ahead cut off in front, and a dragon and a man with a pole on the back.

    And they rang when he hit them on something solid.

    It must be a fine feeling to put your hand in your pocket and shake together ten or fifteen of them, not that it will ever happen to anybody again, in my time, anyway. But I wonder did the last man, the very last man who had a pocketful of them, stop to think that he was the last man to be able to jingle sovereigns.

    There is a record for you.

    It is nothing to fly at hundreds of miles an hour, for indeed I think there is something to laugh about when a fuss is made of such nonsense.

    But only let me see a man with a pocketful of sovereigns to spend.

    And yet everybody had them here once.”

  • Rob

    I think Ian B has gone a bit over the top…again.

    One of the beauties of the “old” measurements is that they were inherently human.

    An acre is a day at the plough, a fathom the length of a mans outstretched arms. A furlong is the length of one ploughed furrow. An acre was usually considered to be a furlong in length by a chain (22 yards in width). A cricket pitch is a chain in length. A pound is a double cupped handlfull of most things.

    The original pound was 1 pound in mass of silver coins (240). which chimes nicely with Mr Monzonite’s point about the value of silver and with JPs point about inflation.

    A litre is too much beer in one go, which is why we still drink a pint. Even with decimalisation we don’t have many litre bottles of wine because it is too much to share with a meal and therefore a waste.

    These measurement values are directly intertwined with our cultural past and present. They relate to our human habits and are easily visualised by children and adults alike.

    Its difficult to debauch a pound that everyone knows is the weight of 240 silver coins.

    Lots of people rage against the loss of our culture or the favoritism shown to foreign ones. When you sever the link between your language and your culture you do the job for them. Decimalisation took measurement out of the private sphere and put it firmly into that of the state.

    I’m amazed by Ian B’s reactionary and ill considered response.

    Clearly the decimal scale is useful for some calculations, so we choose to use it for those. Why is the job of the state to make it illegal how we measure things?

    It is not the existence of imperial measurements that is the problem it is the banning of them. Maybe Ian will be up for banning lots of other things using the states coercive power, as long as he agrees with what is banned that is???


  • Rob, I didn’t argue for banning anything. If you want to buy potatoes in measures of 1/1000th of the weight of a Mini Cooper, or measure speed in multiples of that of an average unladen chicken, go ahead, I won’t stop you. But bear in mind that the old Imperial system was a state measurement system too. How do you think it got standardised? We don’t call things Imperial at random, you know.

    A pound is a double cupped handlfull of most things.

    Well, that’s nice and accurate. Grain? Nuts and bolts? Boobs?

    I just find this whole “heritage” argument comical. The three field system was abolished a very long time ago (except, apparently, one village in Leicestershire). We haven’t used ploughs and oxen for a very long time also.

    That doesn’t mean that people should be arrested for using the old system. Of course they shouldn’t. But it doesn’t follow from that that there is something intrinsically good about it.

  • I always respect IanB for his clear, blade-like insights into the warped, irremediable stinking corruption (even by the most potent oxidizing-agents) of the minds of the Enemy-Class. You can almost smell the foul putrescence, which he ecavates andexorcises with his trusty Fleam, the stench of post-GramscoStaliNazi rationalisation of objective wickedness repacjeged as “good”, on the Wireless Tele Vision (naturally).

    Howerer, old Ian – and Jonathan too, a bit – are mistaken on this one. Charles Moore has got it right on the button. Sorry. The reason our coinage was stolen in 1971 – it had been planned for a long time by the Enemy-Class, mind – changed to decimal and then devalued mercilessly, was to destroy us as a nation. It was to cut us off at one of the few large and critical roots, from our culture, civilisation and history.

    It’s logically right that it does not matter what base you count your money in, so long as it’s worth something, and that worth is objectively known to a good degree of accuracy by everyone, for measurably long periods.

    But if you want to more quickly destroy a civilisation which you hate, despise and want to enslave, and so you can more easily erase it when it pleases you so to do, then you monkey about with their monies. The EuropeaNazis have known this for nearly 200 years, and Lenin even wrote about the process “scientifically” as you all know. Mass-deportations to Siberia are all very well, but they get noticed by people abroad, you might find yourself in trouble with more powerful and less illiberal nations a long way away over the fullness of time, and in the end even some people you are enslaving will have guns, knives and boots, and could take a few of your thugs down with them in the blood and dust, in front of the very trucks.

    The point, too, about mental arithmetic is well made. I agree. I astonish Lancashire teenagers by showing them how you could add and subtract amounts in l-s-d, and in yards, feet and inches: it is not difficult. You merely change the “base” at each column. I show them how to do it for hours, minutes, seconds, which they find at first astonishing and scary, and then wonder why they had not thought of it before, to do time calcs.

    Offa’s Silver Penny was about a 240th of a Pound Weight. They found it by seeing how much Silver would fit in the king’s hand: they called it a “Pound” or a “punt”. They then decided actuarially how many days a “man” would work, statistically, for pay, in a year, and thought it was about 240. The King then said: “let this be divided into 240 Denarii, like the Romans did. Twelve of these little ones can be a “Solidus” (or “schielding”…)

    And that’s it really.

  • But bear in mind that the old Imperial system was a state measurement system too.

    The big difference (at least for me) being that it was an existing system naturally adopted by the state, rather than having been imposed by it from the top down.

  • Rob

    In a free market of ideas we really don’t have to worry about this.

    It should simply be left to the people.

    Decimalisation was a bad thing, which I think was JPs point.

    Much better to have said,”look at this decimal thingy it works quite well” now you can choose how you would like to mesure things.

    P.S. I like the idea of a handful of boobs. It gives a new “twist” to shylock’s pound of flesh.

  • Rob, old William is turning in his grave, laughing:-)

  • John K

    We certainly lost the poetry of our money when the decimal system was imposed. We used to have tanners and bobs and tosheroons. My grandad always called half a crown “half a dollar”, because when he was a lad there were four US dollars the pound (and a pound was a gold sovereign). Now we have so many “pee”. We must be the only country who do not bother to use the proper name of our currency units, Americans and Europeans do not call their cents “cees”, but we treat decimal pence with a certain disdain.

    As a youngster in the early 70s the change to familiar structures was very apparent. New money, new measurements, new counties, you’d almost think someone was trying to obliterate all our roots in preparation for our bright new decimal, metric, European future. Surely not?

  • Anon

    Personally, I think the best part of old money was the abbreviation: LSD. It really freaks out the “think of the children” folks. Here in chicago, the main road through the city is called rather unimaginitively “Lake Shore Drive” which also used to be called LSD, but no more, the PC folks fixed that error in judgement. It is now universally referred to as “Lake Shore”.

  • South Africa and Australia decimalised using the base of ten shillings rather than the pound. Their penny was therefore only devalued from 1.2 pence to 1 cent.

    Callaghan, stressing the importance of the pound internationally, insisted on maintaining one pound sterling as a defence against causing an erosion of the currencies value. Britain went from 240 pence to the pound to 100 new pee. The result, an early warning of Labour’s complete economic ignorance, is now plain for all to see.

    This provided the added humiliation of us going decimal with the smallest init being one half a pee!

  • John K

    Another psychological mindfuck of decimalisation was that the new penny, worth 2.4 old pennies, was made the size of an old farthing. Were they getting ready for the great inflation?

    The recent Radio 4 programme on this stated that Chancellor Sunny Jim Callaghan popped round to Number Ten and asked Wislon if we should decimalise the currency. Wislon thought about it for ten seconds and replied “why not?”. Thus ended a thousand years of history. It wasn’t just NuLabor and Phoney Tony who treated Britain and our history like something they found on the soles of their shoes.

  • T M Colon

    Base twelve has advantages for simple divisions as it can be divided in half, thirds, quarters, and sixths to a whole number. 6, 4, 3, and 2 respectively. Base ten gives you 5, 3.3333…, 2.5, and 1.6666… A base twelve money system would have those advantages for what that’s worth. Base 60 has the same advantages as well as dividing into fifths. 30, 20, 15, 12, 10.

    I find it interesting the English words for numbers have a base twelve in them. What I mean is the words one through twelve are all unique and we don’t start the teen suffix until we get to thirteen. …ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…

  • Kevin B

    The main requirement of a currency, weights and measurements system is that it be reliable. Thus, the state gets involved, whether it be the local Baron or the king, in issuing coinage, setting the values of the weights and measures, and policing the usage. Of course ir also helps the state to collect taxes.

    A secondary requirement is ease of usage, and in this I reckon that for peasants and traders in a medieval market the English system might have been easier. By being easily able to divide things by two, three, four and six, the market users could more easily trade their wares in discrete amounts.

    Anyway, the decimal system is ‘scientifcaly’ designed and we know where letting scientists near human interactions leads, don’t we?

  • Decimal versus Imperial? If the only thing to debate were the intrinsic merits, I could be persuaded either way.

    But they knew instinctively that the imposition decimal system helped ensure that their vision of the of future would be more likely to become reality.

  • Laird

    This is a fascinating thread, and I especially appreciate TDK’s history of the Fahrenheit scale.

    Personally, I like our old “inches-feet-yards” system of linear measurement. They started trying to introduce the metric system decades ago, when I was in school, but we all resisted so it’s taken much longer to take root in the US than in Europe. But it’s definitely making inroads here: my 20-something son tends to use inches and centimeters as the whim strikes him. Give it another generation and we’ll be metric, too (as our currency has been since the beginning). I find that a bit sad, for the “humanistic” reasons mentioned by Rob. But what I find most annoying about it all is that the change is “top-down”, driven by our supposed intellectual superiors, rather than in response to any real need.

    At least there’s no move afoot (as far as I know) to change our 24-hour, 60-minute time measurements, or our 12-month, varying-number-of-days calendar system. (Don’t those just cry out for decimalization? Wouldn’t it be better to have a day of 25 hours, each with 100 minutes?) But I’ll bet that someone, somewhere, is trying to figure out a way to eliminate that pesky extra 1/4 day (plus or minus) in our solar year!

  • Interesting thread, especially the Old Folks’ reactions. To me, this illustrates (and this will seem a trifle rude) how people can read all sorts of motives into anything. I have no affection for the old money, or old measures at all. I have no feeling of wanting a measurement system to encapsulate some element of serfs pushing ploughs. To me, this is the same kind of backwardist romanticism that the Greens and ruralists tap into. I have looked hard on the net to find evidence of a conspiracy to destroy our society in decimalisation, and find none; all I can find is that there had been a general campaign since the ninteeth century to replace the old system with a base 10 one, and it came to fruition finally.

    Base 10 is a natural base for currencies and measurements because we have a base 10 number system. We don’t count in 60s like the Sumerians, we count in tens and powers thereof in a very simple way. With base 10 we can do simple mental arithmetic- quick, whats 71 times 12? Anyone? Come on, come on, I’m waiting…

    …simplicity is a feature not a bug. The idea that we should make things difficult for a mental workout is laughable. Why not change base every x numbers? Or, base 7.27? That’ll get people thinking!

    The SI unit system goes better than that; it ties the units together so you don’t need conversion factors. The foot and the pound have nothing in common, and foot pounds is utterly abritrary. Newtons, metres and kilos aren’t arbitrary. They embody physics in their construction. It’s a simply better system in terms of utility. I have no idea what the mass of water in a tank is with Imperial units; but given the volume in metric I can speedily work out the mass. It’s just easier.

    Really, this is the form of “conservatism” that makes me sad. It’s just hanging onto something crap because it’s old. Why did we have a system of 27 half crowns to the sovereign or whatever the fuck it was? We got it off the Franks apparently. Pure historical accident. It left a system that’s hard to work with when people need to do numerical calculations- which the Franks probably did very little of, being a bunch of barbarians as they were, most of whom couldn’t write, let alone do double entry accounting-

    …one guinea equals 1.05 pounds…

    …minus 4 shillings and six shiny copper pennies and a half crown…

    …carry the eleventy-two…

    …or on the other hand, it’s an evil communist plot. Base 10 comrade, that will destroy the imperlalists!

  • Laird

    I suspect that it says something about both of us when I refer to “TDK’s history of the Fahrenheit scale” and IanB calls it “the Old Folks’ reactions”. But we’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

    Put me in with the Old Folks (I’m sure Ian has done so already). “Simplicity” probably is a feature when you’re dealing with scientific measurement, engineering, etc., but I’m not convinced that’s true in everyday, common use. Human-oriented measurements have value, too.

    And I hate being forced to buy American wine in 750 ML bottles! Give me 24 ounces.

  • Ian F4

    Don’t take that as an argument for decimal time though!


  • PersonFromPorlock

    I’ve actually been thinking about this lately. It looks to me as though the argument for the Metric system is really an argument for any world standard measuring system, not for the Metric system in particular.

    Basing a system on a somewhat innaccurate estimate of one-quarter of the Earth’s circumference and dividing that by various orders of magnitude is really pretty arbitrary. Of course, that may not matter: it may be that any arbitrary system will work just as well as any other arbitrary system once people have gotten used to it. But I think it might be useful to see if there aren’t some ‘natural’ measures that might be easier for people to use, which could still be arranged ‘scientifically’. Certainly the old systems were human-scale, and the Metric system is ‘scientific’, but why not a new system that combines the best of both?

    And then we Americans can twit the rest of the world for resisting the new system, and the rest of the world can explain how the changeover would cost too much money….

  • Boobah

    The issue with the metric system is that, while it is far easier to calculate with, it tends to work less well in human interactions with the world.

    People naturally divide things into halves, thirds, and quarters, and metric doesn’t handle this well. Not least because it encourages, well, decimalization. Rarely do you see anybody talking about a third of a meter; they’d much rather talk about 333cm, or better yet, just stop at 300cm. The first is already inaccurate; the second is a nice, round number. And it’s nearly heresy to actually write out 1/3 m; isn’t that the point of having all the extra powers of ten laid out with labels for each (that most people can’t be bothered with.)?

    Another issue with metric is that it’s trying to be everything to everyone; the older measures don’t play well together, and so what? They’re not a system in any real sense of the world; gallons are for measuring liquids, not general volumes, and it’s kind of silly to complain that they aren’t a nice, round, number of cubic feet. The downside for metric? Even if your original unit is a useful size, odds are your derived units won’t be.

    As for Ian B’s comments about the origins of the pre-metric units… well… at least they’re defined at a human scale. Originally, meters were defined as a percentage of the earth’s circumference, IIRC, and a badly guesstimated one at that. Nowadays it’s defined as something ridiculous like the wave-length emitted by a specific isotope of a specific element at a specific temperature. Good thing that’s not arbitrary.

    Oh, and people have come up with metric clocks; 10 hours a day, 100 minutes an hour, and 100 seconds a minute; the seconds are about 15% longer than what we use now; 100,000 a day instead of 86,400. Except metric hours are generally seen as too long, and even the intellectuals who don’t need to actually measure the world around them still measure time

  • Kevin B

    The Chiefio explains why the Cubit, the Yard and the Rod are the true natural measurements in this post on metrology(Link), (rather than meteorology, or at least climate science, that he also posts on).

  • Alasdair

    Perhaps a more accurate way to look at reactions in this post’s comments is to realise that those of us who *enjoy* thinking have a tendency to have enjoyed the Imperial measures – and we also understand whence they came, and *why* they came into existence …

    Those who don’t enjoy thinking much prefer the decimal system …

    Historically, I believe you will find that a major motivation for the creation of the metric system was that it *wasn’t* the British Imperial system (which the Frogs disliked muchly because it belonged to the maudits-anglais) … and the metre was defined as an explicit fraction of the circumference of the Earth along the meridian through a building in (or near) Paris …

    For those who think that we do not reckon anything in base 60, apparently they don’t use seconds and minutes and hours in their everyday lives …

    Decimal is definitely easier for those who cannot count … and it is much easier for those who wish to regulate, who wish to calculate how much tax is owed …

    Imperial measure, by its nature and origin, was human-based, and has great human factors … for artisans, it encouraged creativity by its very lack of one-size-fits-all standardisation … for baking, a kilogram tends to be too much, and a gram is too small …

    Perhaps we should ask Ian B what the decimal equivalent of the Imperial curmudgeon is … since whatever that decimal term turns out to be, it will have Ian B’s picture in its Wikipedia entry …

    (innocent smile)

  • Laird

    Is Ian even old enough to be a curmudgeon? I think he’s just a grouch, or at best a malcontent. (Does either of those have a metric equivalent?)

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    I thought the originater of Fahrenheit used mercury, which has a melting point of 0F, and this is why fahrenheit seems so clumsy.
    As for when we adopted the old system, the book ‘Civilisation One’ has some fascinating claims about how old the whole system is! I don’t know if they are right, but they have some ideas that are worth considering, at least. Of course, old is not sacrosanct.
    And the rot set in, in Britain, with a Prime Minister at, wait for it… No. TEN Downing street! Would our history be different if it had been No. TWELVE?

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Is Ian even old enough to be a curmudgeon? I think he’s just a grouch, or at best a malcontent. (Does either of those have a metric equivalent?)

    Posted by Laird at February 18, 2011 12:12 AM

    Something in French, I imagine.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Perhaps we could invent a new scale- the Chauvin!

  • Roue le Jour

    I’m surprised nobody’s pointed out how the copper/silver/gold system maps on to the class system.

    There used to be an expression, “a tuppenny happenny man that thinks he’s half a crown” which means nothing now. A loss, in my view.

  • John

    In thinking this over, I just noticed something about the way I use the Fahrenheit temp scale.

    The main thing I use temperature for on a daily basis is weather. The weather here just happens to vary pretty much from 0 to 100 F. Yes, now and then you’ll see 102 in August, or -5 in January, but mostly the year round outdoor temperature varies across that 100 degrees, and even averages somewhere around 50.

    I don’t mean this to be an argument for anyone else to use it, just that this may be the “reason” for my unconsidered preference.

  • RAB

    Well I’ve been out to the theatre in Bath again tonight, watching human scale people doing human scale dramatics with no special effects and surround sound either. What a Luddite I must be!

    So put me very definately with the oldies, Poobah, Alistair, Laird et al.

    I know what a mile looks like, not a kilometre except it’s shorter.

    I know what 65F feels like, and dress accordingly. 18c is a fuckin hat size!

    I know what 18 stones looks like, not however many kilos or pounds.

    I know what 6′ 2″ looks like, not 1.82 Meters.

    So yes, put me in the old fuddy duddy world of knowing something by how it feels and looks, not by the way it has been “Progressed” for the simplicity of simpletons.

    Now I agree that any measure a human wishes to adopt will work as long as it is universally applied and understood, but this is not what happened with British Metrication and decimalisation.

    I’m firmly with David Davies here, in that it was a softening up exercise for our enslavement by the EU (then the ever so innocuous Common Market). It also led to raging price inflation, as everything got rounded up, not down. This covered up Labour’s complete economic inadequacies, they have never been able to calculate the change in their pockets since.

  • Eric

    I mean if I went on the telly and said “Today it will be 263.15 degrees Kelvin”. How many people could tell me without looking it up weather that was hot or cold (relatively speaking)?

    Bah. For me that makes it no better or worse than Celsius.

  • Eric

    As we saw when NASA crashed that probe into Mars because they’d programmed it in acre furlongs to the foot gallon, or whatever it is the Yanks are still fumbling along with.

    They crashed the probe because of accumulated conversion errors between a piece of software using metric units and a piece using imperial units. The solution, of course, is to use one set of units. Feet and miles are just fine.

  • Bod

    Well, aside from the positive opprobrium I’m going to get from the crumblies, I’m going to follow IanB on this one, except along a softer line.

    To me, the traditionalist approach of a vast panopoly of base 12,16,60,360 and however many clothyards there are in a league is utter hogwash except to the extent that you’re familiar with them. There’s no intrinsic benefit in realizing that a handful of silver pieces is worth a man’s labor for a year – and no matter what amount of wailing will ever re-establish that as the case.

    Is there some societal benefit in remembering that once, we did things differently? Sure. The knowledgable know where the word salary comes from, and that’s enough. Let farthings and roods and pecks go the same way.

    When a fundamental social tool like the ability to measure matter becomes a political football, that’s when I think it’s time to crush the politicans and economists, not the tape-rule manufacturers.

    One of the biggest problems I’ve had in living in the US is (a) learning what 80F feels like [never having done anything other than Centrigrade] and (b) re-learning that I have to buy things like sheetrock in nasty archaic dimensions. I have to admit, I find the continuing use of pounds in weight rather nice, but when I have to figure out something other than how much flour I just bought, I rely on metric anyway. I don’t care that in my bare feet I have the excellent good fortune to be exactly two yards (yes, precisely ONE FATHOM) tall.

    Systems of measurement are tools, gentlemen. The ability to communicate with a Congolese cocoa grower and understand just how much you’re paying per *standardized* unit of cocoa and make a reasoned decision based on a perfect common understanding is fundamental to effective trade.

    Look. I used to play Dungeons and Dragons. A LOT of it. I ran a campaign where the nastiest monster the players EVER met was a landmass, populated by seven empires, all of whom had different monetary systems, different units of length, weight, and in one case a different calendar and day time system. Any time I wanted to punish the players, I’d find a way to make them move their operations to another nation.

    Cross the border? They had to convert what currency they had. And pay duties on valuables. One place, like Rome was alleged to have, had a standard gauge for cart axles. And of course, it was in some arcane measurement system that none of the others used. Even if the players knew they’d be fined if they didn’t comply with the law, there was nobody around who could figure out f they’d be in compliance with the law until they arrived and were confronted at the border by a bunch of guards armed with measuring sticks.

    EVERY time, the players lost out. Even when they tried to game the system, they lost out. That’s not because I’m a genius, let alone an evil genius; they simply suffered under the yoke of a set of complex arcane and/or confusing standards. Nothing fit right. They wasted huge amounts of time and effort in calculating the simplest things.

    Anyway, the point of the digression is to say that it’s nice to have cute ‘meaningful’ anachronistic measurements as pecks, bushels, roods, rods, fathoms, knots, cubits, drachms, ounces (avoirdupois, troy, apothecaries’,Maria Theresa, Dutch AND Chinese, of course) but it’s a bloody stupid way to share information, especially when it comes to non-consumerist information sharing like figuring out how to make a suspension bridge join up in the middle (or yeah, land an instrumentation package on Mars).

    I’m no fan of Esperanto, primarily because at the moment, it’s pointless. When people who really need to talk to other people want to talk, they find a way, and its usually in English. When engineers want to talk to each other, even American ones, they tend to do it in metric, even though the French made it up and the actual length of a meter is an arbitrary number of vibrations of some isotope of Iridium.

    Imperial weights and measures are pants. Sorry. The whole CGS thing only has any benefit because a bunch of old white guys (like me) know them and we can’t carry a ready-reckoner about with us (or a slide rule – but don’t get me started on that).

    A year of one (arbitrary) man’s labor has been worth more than a handful of silver for a very long time (except for those times when the value of silver fluctuated due to supply and demand) – way back before the 1970’s or even the 1570’s, so let’s not shoot the system of measurement, let’s attack the underlying causes of the inflation.

  • Bod

    Oops, so yeah, it’s nice, and proper to remember those old systems with nostalgia for being quaint reminders of how things used to be. Maybe include them in the question sets for Trivial Pursuit. They’re like looking at a Turner or Constable – beautiful, artful, bucolic scenes with no real connection to the world of today.

    Why don’t Italians speak Latin for day to day use (or Etruscan, for that matter)? It’s because modern Italian has evolved as a more appropriate medium of communication than Latin.

    Metric vs Imperial – same deal. All the stuff where non-base 10 measurement yields no real advantage, isn’t changing. I don’t know of any serious adoption of rads or grads over degrees of an arc for angular measurement. And as metioned upthread, the only people likely to be messing with the clock and calendar are nutjobs who want to enslave us.

    Sorry to go on (and on) so.

  • Richard Thomas

    RAB, I nearly posted that my Dad used to say that decimalization really kicked off inflation for exactly the same reason.

    As someone with a scientific background, I have to say that SI units are a real blessing. As someone who works with software, I have to say I consider the retirement of LSD a real bullet dodged (Though little will ever compare with the horrors of date processing).

    Interesting thing about a guinea: divisible by 2,3,4,6,7 and 9 (amongst others). I can’t think why it exists otherwise.

    As to units for this human’s consumption? Temperature? Couldn’t care. Weight’s and volumes? Indifferent. Lengths? Imperial can often be a trifle more convenient but usually immaterial in the big picture. There are pros and cons to both sides and overall, they’ll about balance out. With that said, forever and anon, mine will always be a pint*

    *The English 20oz version, not the wimpy US 16oz

  • The Pedant-General

    @Richard Thomas

    “Interesting thing about a guinea: divisible by 2,3,4,6,7 and 9 (amongst others). I can’t think why it exists otherwise.”

    There’s another anti-inflationary device lost. Almost all professional fees were paid in guineas, being a pound plus a shilling.

    What happened was that the chap (lawyer, doctor, vet, whatever) charged what he was going to charge in pounds, and gave the extra shilling as his fee to his clerk etc.

    that keeps his admin costs to strictly 5% of his fees. Neat…

  • RAB

    Sorry Bod, like I said any system of weights and measures will work as long as they are consistent and well understood, but you have now wandered into language, which is a whole different ball game.

    Why don’t Italians speak Latin for day to day use (or Etruscan, for that matter)? It’s because modern Italian has evolved as a more appropriate medium of communication than Latin.

    Bollocks I’m afraid. Modern Italian is entirely the Tuscan dialect imposed on the rest of Italy. If you go down to the South of Italy, they speak the language in such a way and with different words as to be almost completely incomprehensible to Northerners.

    And as for Latin, well Italian contains many Latin words. The wife and I were running on fumes in the Mountains of Sardinia one time, before either of us had learnt any Italian, and I managed to get directions to the nearest Gas station using my schoolboy Latin.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    With that said, forever and anon, mine will always be a pint*

    *The English 20oz version, not the wimpy US 16oz

    Posted by Richard Thomas at February 18, 2011 05:39 AM

    It’s worse than you know: the standard American draft beer is 12 oz., the smallest amount of beer that can be made to look like an honest (US) pint with a trick glass.

  • like I said any system of weights and measures will work as long as they are consistent and well understood

    Sure any system will work. But will all systems work equally well? It’s a matter of ergonomics. Think of computer languages. Suppose you want to assign a value of 3 to a variable, X. You could design your language so it is expressed thusly-

    VAR X=3

    or thusly,


    Each of them will work. But which one would you rather be coding in?

    As I said earlier, the metric system has two advantages. Firstly, it is base 10. Secondly, the units are tied together by some physical relationship (e.g. 1kg= 1dm3 of water). The second of those things is more debatable (what about other fluids?) though the use of bar for atmospheric pressure is obviously advantageous. But on the first, the ergnomics is clear. Think of distance units-

    1 mile 742 yards 2 feet 5 inches.

    That’s three different bases to express one distance. You can’t write it as a single number. You need four columns, like the three for L, S, D. In our base 10 standard number system, what proportion of a mile is 742 yards, 2 feet, 5 inches? That is, 742/1760ths+2/3 of 1/1760th plus 5/12 of 1/3 of 1/1760th.

    It’s 0.42204861 miles.

    Or, it’s 2.2885654 kilometres (I had to ask Google calculator for both of those). You can get meters, millimetres, or any other unit such as Gigametres from km just by sliding the decimal point. You can’t do that in Imperial. It’s just an unergonomic system.

    It may not matter much to some old dear who wants her ham in quarters of a pound like the good old days, but for people who seriously use measurements the advantages are so obvious that it amazes me that anyone still defends all this bushels to the acre foot[1] claptrap.

    Not every sort of progress is a marxist/EU/whoever conspiracy.

    [1] I’m told that hydrological engineers in America genuinely use this. It’s a volume measure of 1 acre of water to a depth of 1 foot. Seriously.

  • Bod


    We’re not completely at odds on this, but I’d like to see footage of the batallions of Tuscan Language Infantry invading Sicily and imposing the tyranny of Tuscan on the poor benighted souls down there in Syracuse. No, I’d argue that Tuscan ‘won’ in a Darwinian sense, in that it was ‘fitter’ than the competition.

    I expressed myself poorly elsewhere too. I chose Latin precisely because most western languages now have incorporated parts of Latin in them where it made sense. The problem of course that such evolution of language is progressive, and for measurement, something like that would cause (and clearly is causing) chaos. We all (except you, over there, you Welsh speakers [and maybe not even them]) owe Latin a nod of recognition for its sheer obstinacy in hanging on in there as fossilized vocabulary in so many Western languages.

    But the value of using the metric system wherever practicable is hard to argue against. Most of us have ten fingers and ten toes (ALRIGHT, Tomkins – eight fingers and two thumbs!),so the whole multiples of ten, combined with unified measurements (1cc=1ml f’rinstance) will inevitably help people learning physical sciences to work more efficiently and with less errors.

    Systems of measurements are tools (which is what I guess you’re aiming at) and not arcane, fabulous bejewelled artifacts.

    Any standardized method of measurement is a good thing, and amazingly, we already have one. Only problem is that the French came up with it instead of someone with a more civilized mother tongue.

  • Paul Marks

    I love the old forms and names – they give a bit of meaning to life. A sense of connection to the past, and a sense of connection to future generations (the compact between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born).

    However, if you are going to debauch (massive inflation of) the currency, you might as well get rid of the old names and forms as well.

    F.A. Hayek used to tell the story of how (as late as 1963) he was given a silver shilling in change on a London bus – a shilling minted over a century before.

    But the time of honour was comming to an end – whether the names and forms were changed or not.

    Perhaps the logical thing would be to get rid of the names “Britain” and “England” and just call the place “Euro sector…..” or (soon) “United Nations zone…….”

    I am sure Edward Heath would be pleased – in whatever bit of Hell he is currently burning in.

  • RAB

    No Bod we are not very far apart on this at all. I don’t care what system of measure is used as long as it is consistent and not imposed by an outside force. I am not that much of a fuddy duddy. I don’t really miss LSD, it’s just that we the people who used it and understood it, were not consulted in its abolition. It was done as a political act, to soften us up for entry into Europe, not as a practical nessessity.

    I do object to Centigrade however, because I just don’t get it, I still have to convert it to F to figure out how hot it actually is. Centigrade numbers are meaningless to me. Similarly pounds to Kilos. I can convert those easily in my head as I can miles and kilometres, but they were invented after the French Revolution just to fuck with the British Empire, and for no other useful purpose. A two finger salute as it were. There was nothing wrong with Imperial measures, except the French didn’t like them on principle.

    But when you move to Language you are in a different area entirely. There is no calculatable basis for any of them. The don’t follow rigid rules like weights and measures, they are totally fluid. Oh some languages “try” to stick to purist rules, French again springs to mind, but they rarely succeed. Le Hamburger is now embedded into the speech of Frenchmen, however much purists wish it wasn’t.

    English must be the prime example of a language open to extreme flexibility. Read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue for a light and witty take on the whole subject. English borrows words from wherever it pleases, Bungalow, Khaki etc and profits from it. Native speakers make up hundreds all on their lonesome, look at William Shakespeare for instance.

    As to Italy, well sorry but Tuscan Italian was imposed on the rest of the country (and you have to remember it has only been a unified country since 1870 ish) because the powerbase before that were the city states of Florence, Venice and Genoa. All northern cities. The south, including Rome, didn’t get a look in.

    As for Welsh, well there are very few Latin words in it. For the simple reason that some form of Brythonic Welsh already existed throughout Great Britain before the Romans came and took over. Ffenestr from the Latin Fenestra for window, is about the only one I can think of offhand.

    And Welsh, being the oldest written “modern” language in Europe, is so difficult I was told, because all the rough edges wern’t knocked off before it was codified. Try getting your mind round the mutations, C for G and vice versa, all depending on the context of a sentence. Did my head in as a kid.

    So yes, weights and measures must be logical and mathematically sound, but Language actually benefits from being a fluid and changing medium. That’s why English is such a great language, it isn’t prissy about the rules or the words it adopts, it changes flows and grows. More power to it!

  • Bod

    That was something I found to be fun about Welsh as a language, it seems to have died and been embalmed since (maybe) the Middle Ages.

    Anything later than that, they just stole from the English (Welsh gypsies maybe?) and bastardized with some ‘w’s and ‘ll’s. Pardon the spelling, but:

    Computwr? Bwecust (Breakfast)? Gun? Helicoptwr?

    But as an elastic language, I agree, English is paramount – as we see regularly over at a certain numerate feline site we know, Nick can be found mangling the language into new and scintillating forms each and every day.

  • RAB

    You know Bod I almost mentioned Nick when referencing Willy the Shake, but thought it a bit over the top!

    You are right about Welsh, aged three going down Caerphilly high St with my Welsh speaking Gramp and he meeting his Welsh speaking cronies and having a chat, I could understand 60% of what they were saying from all the pinched English words.

    And speaking of Numerate felines, as Bod knows, we have a Locke In going on at the moment (see what I did there?) he concentrates the mind wonderfully! Also Ian B is clogging into the Monarchy…

    Join us Y’all!

  • I fear that once again my smited comment will arrive at the party when everyone else has already gone home :'(

    *shakes fist at sky*

  • Bod


    I for one will remain glued to my Blackberry on the evening commute, awaiting your sparkling critiques with bated breath.

    May the smitebot regurgitate your timeless prose soon!

  • Douglas2

    I’ve been unable to find academic literature on it, but my own experiments with the psychophysics of temperature perception indicate that in the winter indoor “comfort range” of temperatures, the “just noticeable difference” in ambient temperature corresponds with a difference of one degree Fahrenheit.

    I looked into it because I had a hire car that only allowed whole-unit changes to the target cabin temperature, and on that day found one unit just a little too cold and the next just a little too high. I had never experienced that in other cars with 0.5C increments.

    So if a contemporary “human factors” scientist was developing a temperature scale for use in climate control systems, I’ve no doubt the units would be about Fahrenheit in size.

  • Bod


    How about just “Airstrip One”?

  • pete

    I remember the price of 3 chocolate bars ( 1 for my 9 yr old self, my bother and my sister) going up from 2 shillings to 10.5p – 5% inflation overnight. Good job the shopkeeper let me off the half new penny when my mum had only given me the two shillings as usual.

    On the plus side, a packet of Polos, my favourite sweet in 1971 and also now, went down from 4d to 1.5p (3.6d) on decimalisation day, a 10% price reduction.

    So decimalisation was a mixed blessing on the sweets front, unlike the introduction of VAT a year or two later. The price of sweets went down as they were zero rated like all food and the old tax on them which VAT replaced was no longer applied. Marathon bars went down in price from 3p to 2.5p.

  • RAB

    Well your comment finally came out of smite bot limbo then Ian, and left me stone cold. It’s a whole bunch of maths that I, and most people confronted with decimalisation in 71 didn’t understand, and frankly didn’t want to. We were happy with what we had, Human measures.

    Now if you want to put a rocket into the sky and get its trajectory right, well us little people presume you know what you are doing, and will callibrate it correctly, whatever system of maths you are using.

    But if you are going to impose it on the folk who want a pound of carrots, not a kilo then you are doing us no service by imposing a new and foreign, and yes, arbitary system on us at all.

    Money, for that is what we originally began talking about, is about trust and faith, not the value of its content , because the value of its content is at times more or less than its exchange value for goods and services. It is a token, it doesn’t need calibration in the strict sense that the thickness of a piece of steel needs to be calibrated, it just needs to buy the stuff we need everyday without quibble.

    If we get to a quibble situation, then it is worthless.

  • Laird

    Hear, hear, RAB.

  • Rich Rostrom

    There was a certain loss of color in decimalization, but a vast gain in convenience.

    Note that a few years ago, the US securities markets switched from power-of-2 fractions to decimal prices.

    Same reason.

    Another thing that has happened is decimalization of customary units. The weight of a packet of fresh meat is given in decimal pounds; motor fuel is sold by decimal gallons.

    I think this has retarded metrication in the US.

  • lukas


    A litre is too much beer in one go

    They forgot to tell the Bavarians.

  • “Nowadays it’s defined as something ridiculous like the wave-length emitted by a specific isotope of a specific element at a specific temperature. Good thing that’s not arbitrary.”

    No it isn’t arbitrary. it is very fucking far from arbitrary. The metre is based upon the speed of light and the second. Why do it like that? Because time can be measured more accurately than distance. The speed of light is fixed. It is defined and the metre taken from that. This is handy because it is a universal constant. It is also elegant.

    Now, if you want a pig-fuck of a measuring system then knock yerself out with Fahrenheit. Gabriel Fahrenheit presumably fecked around with a salty bucket and sticking a constant volume gas thermometer up a horse’s arse. Fahrenheit is dismal. It’s a while since I did statistical mechanics but this is what you need for a temperature scale. Two fixed points and a linear manner to get from one to the other. The Celsius system makes sense. Kelvin obviously makes more sense but having the freezing point (is it the freezing point or the thermodynamic triple point?) at 32F is deranged.

    Let’s call a spade a spade here. I’m a physics graduate and I’m glad by the time I took up my Casio we used SI. Tell you what boiled (at roughly 373K) my piss – reading papers written in cgs (a form of metric) or using old money electrical units which are not the same for electrostatics as for electrodynamics which is a righteous pain in the arse.

    As to currency…

    Yeah duodecimal has it’s advantages. I think in fractions. I don’t think “1.5” I think “3/2” because it is a more elegant (that means easier to cancel) way of thinking. I mentioned my Casio. I used it very little at university. actual numbers – bugger ’em anyway that’s engineering talk! Decimals are inelegant. And everyone deep down knows that which is why they created the merkin of percentages.

    As to measuring the indiscrete physical universe this nostalgia for bushells and gills, chains and poles. Well fuck it. Not only that but it’s already been arse-banged by SI. Yes. It has. I started this vile comment about the definition of a metre. You wanna know how an inch is defined? It’s nowt to do with the distance between knuckles of some despot’s ring-finger from way back when or some other such theatrical gayness verging onto musical comedy. One inch is exactly defined as 2.54 cms. The Imperial/US system hasn’t been independent of SI/MKS/cgm/whatever for decades. Get over it.

    All this carping reminds me of an episode of “Terry & June” which sees Terry fulminating over the metric system. He winds up a right pretty rant with the line (delivered to nobody), “And when I die I want to be buried six English feet down and not two Froggie metres”. I thought that was ridiculous in the early ’80s so God alone knows what to make of it in this here Century of the Fruitbat.

    But really, really get over Fahrenheit for that really is wank of the first (not freezing at zero) water.

  • What RAB said.

    I may be the only one here (?) who was born and grew up (including engineering studies) under the metric system, and was only introduced to the imperial one at the ripe old age of 30. I can tell you that personally I see clear advantages to both systems, for different purposes. A little mental flexibility is all it takes to see that – but governments don’t do flexibility, neither do some people outside of it who nevertheless just know what’s best for all of us.

  • I think you’re all mad. 😉

    I also think the whole “mental flexibility” thing is curious. If I’m doing something with units or math or measurements, I want the simplest possible system, because it just trivial mechanics, and I want to concentrate my brainpower on the hard part of the problem. As with my computer programming analogy, I want the most streamlined language I can have, and to concentrate my brainpower on the hard part- what is the correct algorithm to use?

    Likewise with units, or money, if I am thinking of an engineering problem, or a financial problem, I want arithmetic I can easily do in my head, so I can devote the brainpower to the actual engineering, or the actual economics. Multiple units in multiple bases is just a waste of effort.

    But complexification of the easy part appeals to many people. I remember some years ago arguing about the ergonomics of Cascading Style Sheets with some people. I think there is a good argument that CSS is a very poorly designed scripting language, for various reasons. But whether it is or not is beside the point; when I brought up this ergonomic issue I was disappointed to find that my opponents actually liked that aspect. Why? It makes it harder for ordinary folks to write web pages, so they have to ask an “expert” (such as themselves). The bafflingly bad idea of inheritance through the DOM helps lift webpage design out of the reach of lesser mortals. It makes it more exclusive. So people whose income, or their shallow egos, are dependent on understanding this complexified simplicity benefit both financially and psychologically.

    I think that latter part applies here. Charles Moore comes across as rather a dim bulb, the kind of old fashioned buffer who can quote Cicero[1] but can’t change a fuse in a plug. So for him, being able to handle this complexified simplicity- a ridiculous money system of L,S and D, or acre feet to the bushel, or whatever, makes him feel more clever. He never has to really use these units for anything more than trivial calculations, so the burden on others who do doesn’t bother him. He can just feel a sense of smug achievement at knowing how many half a sixpences there are to the sovereign, or how many rods equal a country mile.

    For a society with a decimal arithmetic system, a decimal financial system and weights and measures system is obviously more ergonomic. RAB may not care about that, but it is more efficient for anyone actually doing the hard part of problems with money or units, who actually has to calculate with them. Libertarians are generally people who recognise the advantages of efficiency. Except when it’s somebody else who has to deal with it, apparently.

    Think of a trivial example. You want to type in a currency amount for an online transaction. In the new money, you type a single number, say 66.07. In the Old Money, it’s £66, 1S, 2D. Three input boxes, and the software has to convert them to a decimal for calculation, or use three variables, and, oh, 1/240th is a recurring decimal, so you get rounding errors, and…

    We live these days in a world of numbers. For those who don’t use them seriously, there is no need to worry about efficiency. For those who do use them, there are clear advantages to decimal systems compared to the old ones.

    [1] Itself a form of this kind of exclusivism. Oh, you don’t know your latin quotes, little person? I do!

  • Good point about conversion there, Ian. Still, I must be mad for not seeing what are you so worked up about. ‘To each their own’ is the libertarian thing, no?

  • Eric

    There was a certain loss of color in decimalization, but a vast gain in convenience.

    Note that a few years ago, the US securities markets switched from power-of-2 fractions to decimal prices.

    Same reason.

    Not true. They switched to decimals because the denomination is smaller in absolute terms. They believed this would reduce the bid-ask spreads, making the market more efficient.

  • pete

    Those who claim that decimal measures make the arithmetic easier for people are wrong. Those of us who have even the slightest head for figures have no problem with decimal and imperial units. Those who don’t struggle with both systems.

    That’s why decimalisation in 1971 was no trouble at all for me as a nine yr old but was a struggle for my 29yr old mum. She found money calculations challenging in pre-decimal days and still does now.

    As someone who has taught arithmetic to all ages from 7 to OAP I know that some people just don’t get it very well, and decimal currency doesn’t make it any easier for them.

  • John K

    Ian B:

    The whole point of the metrication debate surely is that it has been forced on people by Whitehall pointy heads without debate? I have no problem with rocket scientists using nanojoules per kilonewton or whatever the fuck they want, just so long as a shopkeeper doesn’t become a criminal for selling me a pound of apples. And if you can’t see the beauty of an acre foot I feel sorry for you! That’s just my two penn’orth.

  • Tedd


    With base 10 we can do simple mental arithmetic- quick, whats 71 times 12? Anyone? Come on, come on, I’m waiting…

    There’s no question that when you’re operating with simple order-of-magnitude calculations decimal is easier. That’s basically a tautology. But some people way overestimate the percentage of calculations that are like that. For various reasons, I do a lot of calculations in my head every day, and very few of them involve multiplying or dividing by powers of ten. Outside of finance, that sort of thing just doesn’t come up much in the real world.

    The ability to manipulate fractions is, if anything, more useful than the ability to shift decimal places, and it both requires and fosters a more intuitive understanding of the mathematical concepts involved. Decimal notation is like fast food: easy and convenient, and I wouldn’t want to do without it, but ultimately not fully satisfying.


  • Paul Marks

    Why is automatically considered that making all day to day calculations easy (base ten – finger and toes stuff) is a good thing?

    We now have a generation that can not calculate – because the only time they do mathematics is in math class (if they even do any mathematics there).

    Before this generation (or couple of generations now) children did calculations whenever they wanted to buy sweets (or anything else).

    So, by the time they became adults, mathematics did not scare them.

    Now mathematics is scary for most people – because they did not engage in it as a normal part of childhood (when the mind is still flexible).

    By making everything easy for children (for example making all buying and selling simple base ten – fingers and toes) we may not be doing them a favour – not in the long term.

  • Lilleois

    As an aside.
    When I wanted to buy a shed in France I looked in the local chuckaway. There was a picture of an unmistakable shed & under it the legend ‘6pds sur 8pds’.
    Pds says I? Can’t be centimetres because that’d fit in a pocket. Can’t be metres because that’s a garage. Decimetres’d be a rabbit hutch.
    Pds? P.D.S? Then it hit me. Pieds. Pds=pieds. The French measure their bloody sheds in feet.

    I am told:
    The Revolution brought in the metric system but Napoleon was never keen on it. He forced a law through the Deputies (1802?) acknowledging that the system was paramount but that no-one could be prosecuted for using the old measures.

    You can also buy cheese in livres.

  • Lilleois

    To add:
    I can do carpentry in Imperial or Metric. It’s a requirement because often what I’m making has to work with stuff made years ago. It’s interesting how many things are still Imperial. Doors for instance. Kitchen units are 915mm high=3ft. Many common metric intervals are just Imperial converted. 18mm ply. Timber yards sell wood in 300mm increments.
    Which one do I prefer? Neither. Metric’s easier for calculations. Imperial for taking measurements.
    Plasterboard used to be available metric length @ 1.8m by Imperial width @ 3ft. Maybe it still is.
    See if you can work out why.

  • Laird

    No, Lilleois, I can’t work out why. Please elucidate. 1.8 meters is just a little more than an inch less than 6 feet. Why would you want a sheet of plasterboard that short? Do you have a lot of ancient rooms where the ceilings are that low?

    In the US, the standard dimension for plasterboard (“sheetrock”) is 8′ x 4′. (You can also get 10′ lengths.) That works out well for applying to studs which are either 16″ or 24″ on center.

  • I honestly find the defense of the old money and measurement units in this thread utterly baffling. The justifications like, “it makes people do arithmetic” are bizarre.

    Look at it this way; suppose you were charged with creating a units system where none had existed before. And so we can be good and libertarian about this, presume it is a private commission set up by merchants, who are frustrated by everyone measuring their goods in different ways and the confusion and complexity is a significant drag on efficient trade. So, all the merchants have met in a hall and appointed you as the person who must design a common units system, and they all voluntarily agree that they will abide by your decision. No State. No coercion. They just want you, a wise mathematician type person, to devise the standard.

    Would you seriously choose anything other than a base 10 system? Would you seriously choose any system that changes base with every subdivision? Would you seriously even consider a length measure that is base 3, base 12, then fractions- and then a weights system that is base 16? When the arithmetical system everybody uses is base 10? How pleased would the merchants be when confronted by such a confusing, unergonomic mess?

  • Laird

    Well, Ian, since the old Imperial system (and other predecessor systems) did in fact evolve in just the way you describe (merchants, artisans, etc., all voluntarily finding something which met their needs) the obviously answer to your question is “Yes, we would choose something other than a base 10 system. You know that’s true because it’s what we did.”

    And anyway, you continue to miss the point (so spectacularly that I have to believe it’s intentional). The primary complaint here isn’t that the metric system is inferior to the old Imperial measurements (most seem to agree that it is actually superior, at least for some purposes). The primary complaint is that it was unilaterally imposed on us. It’s the coercion which rankles, not the system itself. (Well, that and the fact that it’s French!)

  • Well Laird, a couple of points. The first is that, going back to money, that was a State institution (it was apparently copied, 240d to the pound and all, from the Franks). It’s also interesting to note that the USA, making a fresh start, chose a decimal currency system.

    The second point is that there was no “meeting of merchants” as in my thought experiment. The various measures grew up among folk in primitive times, before there was any demand for an organised system and then people were stuck with them and got used to them, especially after the State had formalised the said weigths and measures. It all happened in times when nobody did anything but the most simple arithmetic. DIfferent world.

    The “actual point” in the original post covers two things, neither of which are anything to do with “coercion” however much you may want to shift ground onto that. The first is the ludicrous assertion that we need these barmy old systems to train our brains in arithmetic, and to retain some cultural meaning to nursery rhymes etc, the second is about debauchery of the currency. Neither of those suggests that “coercion” is the “primary complaint”.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    David Davis writes:

    “Howerer, old Ian – and Jonathan too, a bit – are mistaken on this one. Charles Moore has got it right on the button. Sorry. The reason our coinage was stolen in 1971 – it had been planned for a long time by the Enemy-Class, mind – changed to decimal and then devalued mercilessly, was to destroy us as a nation. It was to cut us off at one of the few large and critical roots, from our culture, civilisation and history.”

    I was not disagreeing with the idea of coinage, or measures, as being part of a national sort of “language”, David, so that extent we are not in dispute here.

    However, leaving IanB’s venting aside, he has a point in that measurements resembling human forms is not particularly useful in some cases. Feet, inches and yards – maybe. But pints, quarts, gallons? There is no obvious resemblance here.

    My broader point stands: decimalisation may have been a wrench for cultural reasons, and politicians like the vile Sir Edward Heath clearly wanted to impose their bright, shiny, plans, but the real problem was that within months of such a move, the value of the money was destroyed by inflationist economics.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Oh, and I note IanB is not too impressed by the intellect of Charles Moore, the 20-something editor of the Spectator, later editor of the Telegraph, biographer of Margaret Thatcher, and other trivial accomplishments. Well, in my experience of having read the man over many years, he’s one of the most intelligent around.

  • RAB

    Here Here Laird! 😉

  • In a debate between IanB and David Davis, I’m tempted to feel like Henry Kissinger on on the Iran-Iraq war.

    One curious area where decimalisation remains robustly ineffective: weight loss clubs.

    It turns out that measuring gains and losses in pounds is much more acceptable to dieters than kilos. Half stones and full stones make very convenient targets. I think it would take secret police infiltrating Slimming World clubs and the like to stamp out imperial weight measures. I gather that while European immigrants like to check their weight in kilos, they like to keep track of changes in pounds.

    Inflation was destroying the value of pre-decimalization coins before 1971, but as one of the last generation to start learning to do sums in £’d, I know it was useful for mental agility. If there is evidence that not very bright people were routinely being cheated of their change I would have some sympathy. Computers are another matter. Surely it would be not problem at all to program calculators to manage a currency with four farthings to a penny, twelve pennies to a shilling, twenty shillings to a pound, and twenty one to the guinea.

  • Roue le Jour

    Antoine, I moved into Data Processing, as it was then called, shortly after decimalisation. I suggested to some of the old hands that computing in LSD must have been difficult. Not at all, was their reply, sums were held internally in pennies, and a library routine converted to LSD for printouts.

    So you are quite right, it’s not a problem for computers, any more than GPS coordinates are.

  • llamas

    @ Ian B, who wrote:

    ‘As we saw when NASA crashed that probe into Mars because they’d programmed it in acre furlongs to the foot gallon, or whatever it is the Yanks are still fumbling along with.’

    Your ignorance is showing.

    The Mars lander failed, not because of the units of measure used to calculate its flight, but because some pecksniff prodnose at one agency decided, unilaterally, to change the units of measure that his agency would use without adequately coordinating with all of the other agencies involved.

    NASA built an enviable record of success in space flight, both manned and otherwise, using ‘customary’ units of measure. The basis of any system of measure is immaterial, and they are all completely arbitrary anyway, SI units included – what matters is repeatability and referrability. As long as everyone agrees what a unit is, and agrees to use it, its actual basis matters little.

    Your blithe dismissal of “chains and furlongs” shows your ignorance again. Gunter’s chain is actually a mathematical tour-de-force. conceived and designed by a mathematical genius for the specific purpose of surveying and measuring land, and it allows for both length and area to be measured and calculated using a single measuring implement which is infinitely scaleable in both length and area. Edmund Gunter knew all about decimal math, which is why the use of Gunter’s chain allows for both decimal and binary math in both length and area. It’s just that he was smart enough not to let himself be bulldozed into a decimal conformity – the conformity, which, as we know, is the hobgoblin of small minds.

    I guess you weren’t paying full attention in that class.

    I always love it when someone argues vehemently for the use of his or her preferred system of measure over some other, especially when they argue that their preferred choice is somehow ‘better’. It’s nonsense – they are all arbitrary anyway, and most systems of measure are as much an expression of cultural preferences as they are systems of science. Look up the original definition of the metre, for example. Any system of measure can use decimal math, and most do. What counts is repeatability and referrability – arguing about which system is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ is like arguing about which colour is better or worse – it’s merely an expression of personal preference.

    Let people measure in whatever units suit their endeavours.



  • Tedd


    The first is the ludicrous assertion that we need these barmy old systems to train our brains in arithmetic…

    I agree, although I think ludicrous is a bit strong. But, at the same time, I recognize that calculating by fractions is a powerful and valuable mathematical skill that is not nearly as widespread as it should be, even if that doesn’t constitute an argument for keeping measurement systems that are based on fractions.

    Granted, it’s pretty easy to reach for an electronic calculator these days. But skill with fractions gives an intuitive feel for numbers and mathematical relationships that can’t be gained any other way, and we shouldn’t toss it aside as lightly as we have. We can recognize that fact without fearing that we’re going to take some kind of backward step, especially when you consider the near-complete hegemony that decimal notation and decimal calculation has today, even where the metric system is not used.


  • Paul Marks


    There are some people (I confess I am one of them) who do not believe it is any part of the state’s job to create a system of measurement – of money, of weights and measures, of time, of whatever.

    Certainly the state should take note of what has evolved over time – but create a new system from scratch (as some sort of rationalistic project).


  • John K


    I tend to agree with you. Growing up in the early 70s, I rather resented having things like new money, new weights and measures and new counties foisted on us. Normally upheavals like this only happen to people who have been defeated, and are having an alien system imposed on them. But given that in 1973 the traitor Heath signed us into the EEC, maybe this was no exception no that rule.

  • Paul Marks

    It cuts people off from their culture – for example their literature (the things that writers took for granted that people would know are now unknown – the links in the chain of being are broken). It breaks the compact between the dead, the living, and those yet to be born.

    However, if Britain (and England) is dead perhaps keeping the old names is a bit of a con – “do not be upset people, nothing had been destroyed – you still can still buy in gallons and pints and pay in Pounds, shillings and pence”

    Perhaps it would be more honest if the following was the way…..

    “Slaves of Eurosector 13, World Zone 5 – report for your tasks, rational measures will be used at all times. Those who fail to do so will be exterminated, exterminated, EXTERMINATED!”

    At least we would know where we stand.

  • llamas

    In the words of a popular commercial in the US – Porque no les dos?

    Why not both?

    It’s not the change, for example, from £sd to decimal currency that bothers me – it never did. It’s the rigid suppression of the folk memory that goes with it – in true Orwellian fashion, the past must be expunged, as though a ghastly error. Paul Marks touches on this.

    All sorts of references in a common canon fall apart when you change fundamental. day-to-day systems like this. Literature is alienated from the reader because it so-often refers to things that make no sense. We sometimes overlook how deeply these systems are ingrained into our daily experience – which is only what you would expect.

    One can’t help but wonder whether the rigid suppression and rigourous denigration of all past systems is not a deliberate attempt to erase folk memory, and to separate the people from their past. If you can make people forget where they came from, it’s easier to get them to go where you want them to.

    Even though these systems are gone, and are not coming back, that’s no reason why they should not remain in the folk memory. It would enrich the experience of history and literature. Who saw ‘The King’s Speech”? I’ll bet any Briton under 30 is completely mystified by the business with the shilling, also referred to as a ‘bob’. Why has this common folk knowledge, which was the basis of 700 years of British life, been allowed to completely evaporate within a generation?

    I have a pair of cufflinks made from silver sixpences, which I wear regularly. It’s good to remember how things have been in the past. It doesn’t mean that one yearns for those times to return.



  • Laird

    It’s rather a pity that IanB isn’t here to continue the discussion. I’m not English, and don’t completely share that “folk memory”,* but what Paul and llamas say makes eminent sense to me. Maybe we can’t specifically point at it, but I think something has to be lost in the currency switch.

    * For instance, I’ve just here learned that a guinea is a pound plus a shilling. Never knew that. (But what’s a “quid”?)

  • John K


    Obviously, the powers that be could never never happy to let imperial and metric coexist, what’s the point of having power if you can’t bend the little people to your will?

    I was rather disappointed watching University Challenge the other evening. One of the teams, from Cambridge, was asked how many pennies made up a shilling and a florin. They hazarded a guess at 27. Shows how quickly things are forgotten.

  • Dale Amon

    I see more than one debate going on here. One, with which I wholly agree, is the debate over the State arbitrarily deciding the issues of coinage and weights and measures.

    Another is the debate over change. We *should* do something a certain way because that is the way it was done in the past.

    A third is the debate over ‘which is better’.

    On the first, I am absolutely against State interference. On the second I’d not even bother to argue because this view point can only win if the State is on your side to make sure things never change.

    On the last, the market will decide. Personally, I would believe that without any government influence, if currencies were completely free to compete, the decimal one will win out simply for simplicity and lower transaction costs. As to measurements, we’d get a bit of a mixture. You might buy your beer as a pint, but the beer would have been reckoned in bulk purchases of liters. The only one who cares about these ‘human measures’ is the end user of a given product, not the chain of supply that got it there.

    For my part, I can well understand how long it takes to change. I had my first real world lesson in the sheer bloody awfulness of the old measures when I was bodily tossed into physics and chemistry courses using these arcane and error prone slugs, poundals, BTU, horsepower, and all the rest. I sometimes wonder if the reason for teaching the two sets of measures in parallel was to give you insight into why you would wish to run screaming from the very thought of doing serious work based on the size of a dead King’s shoe.

    I had the misfortune to grow up in the US when Miles and Fahrenheit were so much in use that one learned to perceive in them. I consider this a mental handicap which was imposed upon me in childhood.

    When I do calculations of anything meaningful, I first translate to metric KGS; I do the work; then, if absolutely someone insists, I will translate it back as the last step. No bloody way I’m going to work in poundals and such.

  • John K


    I do it the other way: if I am buying 113g of something, I know it’s a quarter of a pound. Of course these days it’s often only 100g, which means you are getting 3 1/2 ounces, but paying for 4 (well the price never goes down, does it?).

    Anyway, the imposition of metric measurements on the private transactions of buyers and sellers is pure state authoritarianism, I’m sure we can agree on that.