A heist movie is incomplete without the ability to capture the joint. The protagonists arrive on the scene, dressed suitably incognito, and do their best to blend in while keeping one eye on their target: a historic painting with emotional significance for the hero, perhaps, or a jewel of unrivaled clarity and brilliance, too tempting not to steal. These were the kinds of treasures that I was imagining as I sat in a pub, on a dull October afternoon. I was looking for a more mundane target: a wrought-iron signpost.
The signpost, standing on the other side of the street and quite unaware it was under careful surveillance, couldn’t lay claim to much historic significance or monetary value. In fact, it wasn’t of much interest to anyone unless they happened to be passing through the town of Thaxted in southeast England and wanted to know how many meters it was to the historic windmill. The signpost was discovered by Active Resistance to Metrication or ARM, a vigilante group. Their motivation? To stop the adoption of metric units in the UK and preserve the country’s traditional imperial measures. Their method? Their method?
This story has been adapted from Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants. Buy it here.
Since ARM was formed in 2001, its members claim to have removed or altered more than 3,000 signposts across the country, striking in country villages, seaside towns, and even the nation’s capital. I’d traveled to Thaxted to meet with, what I was beginning to suspect, was the totality of ARM’s active membership. His name was Tony Bennett, and he was sipping a pint of cider while explaining to me the link between his evangelical Christianity, his Euroscepticism, and his idiosyncratic campaign against metric measures. When Tony first met me off the train from London, he was sitting on a low wall and eating an early lunch out of a faded plastic ice cream container. He struck me as a kindly figure; his old-fashioned glasses, V-neck jumper, and stiff gait reminding me of my own grandfather. But the more we talked, the more I realized Tony was a fanatic. However, he was quiet and quiet with a notebook and clipboard.
He said that it all came back to Nimrod. Nimrod, great-grandson of Noah and the “mighty hunter before the Lord,” who had attempted to unite the world’s population by building the Tower of Babel so that humanity might climb up to Heaven itself. “And God intervened, stopping him from building the tower,” said Tony. God then spread humanity throughout the globe, dividing us into nations with different languages and traditions. As Tony understood the message of the Tower of Babel, it was that “People should live in distinct nations because it provides a unifying force in their lives. It gives them a sense of purpose.”
It was this purpose that prompted Tony to join the UK Independence Party in 1997 — a first step toward his interest in preserving the country’s traditional weights and measures. “I saw them campaigning in Harlow and thought to myself, ‘Weirdos,’ but I picked up one of their leaflets anyway,” he says. He would become a solicitor for that party and the political secretary to Jeffrey Titford, its leader, from 2000 to 2002.
“When I came to look closely at it,” he told me later, “the more it appeared to me that the European project was a deliberate attempt to reverse what happened at Babel. To say that the idea of the nation-state is redundant and that what we need to build is a strong international organization, perhaps even a one-world government.”
Fighting against this tendency meant not only getting out of the EU, he says, but combating other aspects of pan-European integration, from the adoption of a single currency, the euro, to the use of metric weights and measures across the continent. It meant, more concretely, changing the units on this Thaxted signpost. It was fighting for England, inch after inch.
“The most famous bunch of bananas in English legal history”
ARM’s existence may initially seem oddly English. Do people really care about measurement? But when you look into the details of metrology — the science of measurement — the surprising answer is “just about everybody.” We just don’t talk about it enough. My research into the history and development of measurement revealed that this discipline is more than a distraction for pedants. It is a foundation technology of human civilization. Without the ability to measure, society would not be able to function. We couldn’t trade, build, or conduct scientific research.
Adopting new units of measurement can bind people together — or drive them apart
To facilitate their work, countries and empires create their own systems for measuring. Units of weight and length often become unintentional standard bearers of national sovereignty. There have been many instances over the millennia of new political entities adopting similar measures to bind their citizens together, or of conquerors imposing the same units on the conquered. Take away a country’s familiar measures, and, in some sense, you take away that people’s ability to navigate reality. It’s for this reason, I discovered, that groups like ARM exist and why so many in the US and UK still get upset about the prospect of using metric — the world’s only global system of measurement.
ARM’s fight against metrication in the UK started in 1965 when the government outlined a 10-year plan to convert the country to metric. The plan was drawn up at the behest of industry groups, who felt that the UK’s attachment to imperial units was holding it back in international markets. Importantly, the decision to metricate was made years before the UK joined European groups that would make up the nucleus for the European Union. This shows that metrication in Britain has been an internal decision and not an external one. In the years that followed, many aspects of UK life were converted to metric. Paper sizes in 1967, prescriptions for pharmacy in 1969, weather reports from government in 1970, and others. In 1971, the UK took the significant step of decimalizing its currency, dropping the old system of pounds, shillings, and pence (inherited from the work of the eighth-century metrological reformer Charlemagne). This changeover — as culturally significant as the loss of pounds and ounces — happened without too much trouble, and in the decades that followed, all the UK’s major industries, from car making to pharmaceuticals, went metric. By the 1990s, only a handful of prominent public-facing measures, like road signs and grocery weights, remained in imperial or dual units.
The slow march of the metric system might have continued unabated if it hadn’t been for a bunch of bananas. In the year 2000, a market-stall owner in Sunderland named Steve Thoburn sold the fruit in question to an undercover trading standards officer, pricing them using pounds and ounces (25p for a pound) and so contravening an EU directive that all loose goods should be sold using metric. Thoburn’s scales were confiscated, and along with four others accused of similar crimes, he was convicted in 2001 of breaking the law. The case raised the question of weights and measures to national prominence, and the traders were dubbed the “Metric Martyrs” by the press. The headlines were irresistible — “Market man faces scales of justice” — and when the traders appealed their conviction at the UK’s High Court, the UK’s nascent Eurosceptic movement saw an opportunity. UKIP helped cover Thoburn’s legal fees, mobilizing its supporters to stage protests outside the hearing. They waved banners with slogans like “Our Weigh Is Better” and “Rule Britannia — In Inches Not Metres.” At one rally outside the courthouse, they even set up an impromptu fruit and veg stand. Bunches of bananas were sold to press and protestors, all weighed in good old-fashioned imperial, of course.
Tony explains in Thaxted how metrication became the perfect wedge topic, one UKIP knew would draw people to their cause. The case was simple and relatable, and it captured fearful overreach by the EU. “It became part of popular folklore,” he says. “You’d have right-wing commentators saying, ‘How can it be that Steve Thoburn can’t sell a pound of bananas?’ People rang up and joined the party after reading about it, saying, ‘Finally, somebody’s standing up to these Eurocrats.’” (Even though, of course, it was the UK government’s implementation of EU law that led to the prosecution, not the EU itself). Although the case may seem frivolous, it helped establish a precedent by establishing the supremacy EU law over UK law in certain areas. The judge overseeing the appeal described the fruit at the heart of the case as “the most famous bunch of bananas in English legal history.”
Among those who joined the media scrum was future UKIP leader and Brexit champion Nigel Farage, who had been elected as one of the party’s first three MEPs in 1999. When the traders lost their appeal in 2002, Farage fulminated on the radio and in the papers, presenting the case as the end of the UK’s political autonomy. “What more proof is needed that the UK is now ruled by the EU and that Parliament has been rendered useless?” he asked.
“A bitter, bitter battle that has lasted for decades and which in my view is completely pointless.”
While such complaints may have been a fringe issue for years, the discontent they engendered was far more widespread than many realized. One BBC reporter identified the dispute about weights and measurements as the reason that the UK voted to leave EU in 2016. a watershed moment for Brexit: an event that “helped turn public opinion against EU membership, giving critics something tangible to point to that affected people’s everyday lives and for which Brussels appeared responsible.” The grievance remained, even though the European Union relented on the issue. In fact, the EU told Britain that it could continue to use imperial measures wherever they wanted in 2007. As Günter Verheugen, EU industry commissioner, said at the time: “I want to bring to an end a bitter, bitter battle that has lasted for decades and which in my view is completely pointless.”
The UK is almost entirely metric today, but retains imperial units on some food packaging. There are still miles, yards, and feet on road signs; most people still measure their height in feet and inches, and newborn babies’ weights are announced in pounds and ounces (even if they’re recorded in metric). According to polls, no one wants pints or imperial road signs to go. Earlier this year, Boris Johnson, then-embattled prime Minister, launched a consultation about the possibility of a higher return for imperial units in Britain. Although widely mocked, the plans received plenty of newspaper inches with both patriotic support and passionate rebuttal. Johnson found it a distraction and a reminder of the importance of measurement.
ARM strikes again
Tony tells the story of his anti-metric struggle for pints in Thaxted. Then, the villager began to arrive, each one taking a single place at a distant dining table, in accordance with the most recent covid restrictions. Their noise punctured the intimate atmosphere that had settled between Tony and me as they shouted at one another with relish across the room and called for drinks from the bar staff. Whenever one left their seat and veered toward someone else’s table, they were met with a hail of cheerful outrage. “Two meters apart, I said two meters apart, Steve, don’t you dare come any closer to me!” This was official government guidance: meters, not feet. As I pointed this out to Tony, curious if he’d noticed or even cared, he merely grimaced at me over the remains of his pint. “We should drink up,” he says. “We need to get this done before the light goes completely.”
We spent the morning preparing for raid by identifying signposts that needed to be changed. We paced various paths around the village to check the distances in imperial (one pace is one yard, Tony reminds me) and assembled the labels that will be used to cover up the metric units. Now, we’re ready, on as near as possible to a war footing as one can be on the metrological battlefield. From the boot of his car, Tony hands me my armor of officialdom: a high-vis vest with a clipboard and binder. Ludicrously, I find that I’m breathing quite hard. All we’re doing is putting stickers on signposts, but it still feels like — it still is — an illicit activity. What if we are stopped? What if the police arrive at your place? Tony was arrested for his work and even spent a night in prison in 2001 after Kent police officers objected to the theft of dozens road signs. He was convicted of theft and criminal damages and sentenced to 50 hours community service. A panel of judges dismissed the theft charge but retained the criminal damage one. They found that there was no evidence Tony intended to destroy the signs.
“Do you ever feel nervous doing this sort of thing?” I ask as he shoulders a stepladder and grabs a tube of industrial glue, checking the nozzle is clear with the air of a soldier inspecting his gun. “Oh yes,” he says. “Every time. But that’s part of it.”
As we approach our target, Tony places his rickety, paint-spattered stepladder in front of the green and gold signpost. Tony is confident even though it wobbles on the paving stone. In just a few seconds, he’s laid out the new imperial signs, squirted glue onto their backs, and ascended to press them firmly onto the signpost’s fingers. I snap a few pictures, then check the imaginary paperwork on my clipboard, nervously glancing over my shoulder to spot some of the earlier locals now staring at us out of the pub window. High-vis vests are decent disguises, but they don’t make you unrecognizable. What were they thinking?
As I worry, Tony works, swiftly gluing and placing more imperial units onto the signpost. In a trice, he’s done one, two, eight, and 10. It shows in his practice. He quickly puts the last sticker up and grabs his bag. “Come on,” he tells me, “there’s another down the road we can do.” As he marches away, I look back at his handiwork: “Windmill, 240 yards,” “Almshouses, 540 yards.” It’s tidy, as far as unauthorized amendment to street signage goes but also very obviously a bit of plastic stuck on a signpost. The next cluster of signs are dispatched with similar speed, and I continue in my now-established role of being worried and useless. The raid was over within five minutes. We trot back to the car, shove our gear into the boot and whip off our high-vis vests like bank robbers pulling off balaclavas. Tony is radiant and triumphant. I’m elated, too, despite myself. ARM has struck again.
Why the USA never went to metric
Because measurements are so ubiquitous, it is easy to see why metrological changes often occur in times of social upheaval like revolution or conquest. It is during these moments that old sureties are tossed into a cloud like dice to fall, who knows how that reordering any as fundamental as measurement can occur.
The French Revolution saw the creation and rejection of the metric system. Napoleon brought it back with the July Revolution. The Napoleonic conquests also saw the birth of the meter, and the kilogram. Metric measures “marched in the wake of French bayonets,” as the historian Witold Kula put it, and were imposed on countries along with the various legal and commercial reforms of the Napoleonic Code. Over the centuries, they’ve been adopted during the formation of new nations (particularly in South America) and to inaugurate new political regimes (the Soviet Union goes metric after the Russian Revolution; India after achieving independence from the British).
In the US, metric overtures were present from the country’s founding. Thomas Jefferson, a scientist and philosopher, fought for reform in weights & measures. He closely followed the French’s work. savants who created the metric system, while George Washington himself noted in his inaugural address to Congress in 1789 that “Uniformity in the currency, weights and measures of the United States is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to.”
Early attempts by US politicians and others to adopt metric weights were often hampered by nearly comically unfortunate circumstances. Jefferson asked for a copy from France of the standard meter, and in 1793, the ship carrying the artifacts was boarded and taken by pirates. The standard was then auctioned off with the rest of its contents. Jefferson was skeptical about the metric system because of the original definition of the “meter”, which was one ten-millionth the distance from the North Pole and the Equator. The uneven geometry of the Earth, though, means this measure differs depending on where it is taken, and only the line through Paris produced the “true” meter. This localization, wrote Jefferson, “excludes, ipso facto, every nation on earth from a communion of measurement with [the French],” and as a result, he declared the metric system “unworkable.” In the end, these and other difficulties meant the government chose to do nothing. When John Quincy Adams had the problem dumped on his desk as secretary of state in 1817, he concluded that reforming weights and measures was “one of the most arduous exercises of legislative authority,” not because of the difficulties of enacting the law but of “carrying it into execution.” To change all the units of a country at a single stroke was to “affect the well-being of every man, woman, and child, in the community. It enters every house, it cripples every hand.”
In the US, the last serious push for metrication came in the 1970s but met the same resistance it had in the 19th century, with opponents emphasizing the threat of foreign ideas, the harm to the common worker, and the superiority of America’s “natural” units. Work on metrication began in 1975, when President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act, establishing a “national policy of coordinating and planning for the increased use of the metric system.” A huge propaganda campaign followed, with Saturday morning cartoons, infomercials, and posters proclaiming that the metric system was really happening. Certain industries, like automaking, took the plunge and switched systems, but a lack of mandatory enforcement meant the campaign fizzled out.
A PSA aired by the US Office of Education in 1978, promoting metric systems.
The following year, opinion polls showed that the majority of Americans were opposed to the adoption of the metric units, and the project was happily scrapped by President Ronald Reagan, another scalp in his administration’s program of budget cuts.
Despite the official rebuttal, the US is definitely more Metric than it first appears. The federal government has used metric units since 1893 to define feet, pounds, or ounces. This is a clear indication that metric standards are the result of a rigorous scientific process. Many commercial products in the US list measurements in both metric and customary units, the better to appeal to international markets; numerous industries are metric, like auto making and pharmaceuticals; and the US military is mostly metric, to better work alongside international forces.
“Metric is definitely communist.”
Nevertheless, it’s clear that cultural objections are as potent as ever. In a segment on Fox News in 2019, the notoriously xenophobic right-wing host Tucker Carlson and his guest, New Criterion editor James Panero, romped through some of the greatest hits of the antimetric brigade. Carlson derided metric as a “weird, utopian, inelegant, creepy system that we alone have resisted,” while Panero praised customary measures for their derivation from “ancient knowledge, ancient wisdom.” A scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen posed the sort of purposefully thoughtless query typical of contemporary political trolling. “Is the metric system completely made up?” it asked.
Well, yes is the only answer, but what isn’t?
I swear to you, my country
Back in Thaxted, as Tony and I maneuver out of the car park, I have one last go at trying to crack the puzzle of his anti-metric crusade. What is the point of this? It is really? Is it love for England and tradition? Is it a religiously motivated crusade or is it just boredom? Or is he simply bored? He declined to answer the question but admitted that he no longer considers changing signs in small, rural towns his main priority. “As my Christian faith has grown, I’ve become more interested in living that,” he says. “So this is a residual activity for me. We’ve got a few people who are bold enough to do it themselves, but not many.” Really, it seems like the fight for traditional weights and measures is over, at least for Tony and ARM. I’ve found myself beguiled by the arguments of these traditionalists, by the satisfying historical and cultural density of older measures, and the admirable desire to retain their legacy in an increasingly abstracted world.
These units once represented important realities of daily life, but they are becoming increasingly irrelevant. For example, although it’s true that base12 and base16 divisions of imperial units make dividing goods by halves, thirds, and quarters easier, of what relevance is that in a world of prepackaged groceries? And while we praise older units for being built on a more “human” scale, is there anything more human than reaching beyond our grasp? To do so is a defining characteristic of the modern world, which encompasses spans beyond the individual’s comprehension. As antimetric advocates love to point out, what ultimately determines the “right” measurement is familiarity and tradition. But tradition is not immune to change, and if imperial measures are abandoned because they’re no longer useful, then that is natural, too.
As we wind our way through the country back roads to the nearest station, chatting about what have become familiar topics — past ARM exploits, the necessity of protest, and the roots of English culture — Tony notes that Thaxted was once the home of English composer Gustav Holst, who worked on his famous “Planets” Here is the suite. Holst would later adapt the main theme from the suite’s “Jupiter” movement as the hymn tune “Thaxted,” fitting it to the patriotic poem “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” which has become a staple of the UK’s most prominent nationalistic events: the funerals of prime ministers, Church of England services, and the BBC Proms. “Ideally,” says Tony, “I would have changed the sign with that playing in the background.” As we bob over the hills, the sun setting behind the hedgerows, he begins to hum the tune quietly to himself:
I swear to thee, my nation, all earthly matters above.
The service of my love, whole and perfect, is complete and perfect.
Excerpted from Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement From Cubits to Quantum Constants by James Vincent. Copyright © 2023James Vincent. First American Edition 2023. First Published in the UK by Faber & Faber Ltd. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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