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Thursday, 22 July 1920


Sir ROBERT BEST (Kooyong) . - If the metric system had a percentage of the virtues assigned to it by my good friend the proposer of this motion, I am certain that the benighted British Empire and the United States of America would not be found at the present time not only rejecting it, but strongly protesting that to adopt it would be seriously detrimental to their best interests. Many who have given great consideration to this subject regard the metric system as a glorified fad. ' No doubt, that view may be the result of strong prejudice, but it has never yet been established, from a real, sound, practical stand-point, that the metric system would be more suitable to the necessities of the British -speaking people than the system of weights and measures which has been in vogue for such a lengthy period. As a matter of fact, it has been adopted by various nations, as has been mentioned by the proposer of the motion, but it has been only partially adopted in most of the countries to which he has referred, and even in France it is worked side by side with the British system. In France, they have their measurement of the inch just in the same way as they have the measurement of the metre; but in America and Great Britain, where there has been a considerable agitation in favour of it, it has never been put into actual operation to any substantial or serious extent in the way of trade, notwithstanding the fact that it has been duly legalized, and can be operated voluntarily. The metric system suffered a blow when it was definitely established that the .metre, the unit of the system, did not represent a definite portion of the earth's surface. It was supposed to represent, if I remember, rightly, one-ten-millionth part of the quadrant of the earth. It has been conclusively demonstrated and established that this new unit, which really forms the basis of the metric system, is not a natural one, or a definite portion of the earth's surface, as claimed, but is a mere arbitrary assessment, in precisely the same way as are the inch and the yard and our various other measurements.

The most amusing portion of the arguments of my honorable friends who have preceded me has been the emphasis they have laid upon the simplicity of the metric system. Let me give the House some illustrations of its simplicity. I quote from The Metric Fallacy, by two very able experts, Messrs. Halsey and

Dale. They annihilate all the claims which have been from time to time made for this system, and on page 115, say -

The pro-metric argument is that the decimal basis and the inter-relation of the units of length, of capacity, and of weight greatly simplify and abbreviate calculations. That is all, for when it comes to actually measuring things, no one claims that it cannot foe done just as readily by the English system; and, in fact, if there is any argument from this stand-point it is that the English system is better than the French system.

Then they go on to illustrate -

When it comes to the claim that this metric system reduces the labour involved in the calculations of everyday life enough to be a matter of public moment whatever, it simply is not so.

No dimension on a machine drawing above 9 millimetres (about f inch) is ever expressed by a single digit, and none above 9 centimetres (about 3* inches) by two digits. In English units 9 feet may be expressed with one figure, and 99 feet with two. Talk about simplicity. A metric drawing is a .wilderness of figures.

Even the assumed simplicity of decimal fractions is to a large degree fictitious. Compare the following table of equivalents: -

I shall not read the table, but will give a few examples. In our benighted system we speak of one-third. According to the metric system, we should have to express that simple assessment by the decimal 3333:


Mr Bamford - A repeating decimal.


Sir ROBERT BEST - That is so. If we wanted to talk about one-sixty-fourth, we should have to refer to .015625. The authors go on to say -

Head some of these expressions aloud: - "Oneeighth equals one hundred and twenty-five thousandths; one-sixtieth equals one hundred and sixty-seven ten-thousandths; one thirtysecond equals three thousand one hundred and twenty-five hundred-thousandths."

I may be dull of comprehension, but it seems to me that there is not very much simplicity in those figures, as compared with our own simple means of expressing the same quantities.


Mr Fowler - The lack of simplicity is entirely in the language. The simplicity is there when you come to do the actual work.


Sir ROBERT BEST - It does not exactly appeal to one. We have to- deal with this matter from a solid and .practical business stand-point. We must not consider either system from the point of view of fads or theories. It has been dealt with very effectively in much literature that has been recently circulated. It is a singular fact that some little time ago there was initiated in San Francisco a hurricane campaign in favour of the metric system, and propaganda literature was spread throughout the length and breadth of America. It aroused the people of America to a very great extent, and the manufacturers became dismayed at the possibilities of it being seriously considered. The Iron Age, a well-known and ably conducted magazine, took the trouble, in order to bring' the matter down to actual practical considerations, to show the chaos that would be involved in daily life. These are a few illustrations, just to show what the metric system would mean in ordinary every-day affairs -

In domestic life, grocers' scales all require new poise weights,- all notched balance-beams scrapped, and new ones provided, with new sliding weights. Feck and bushel measures discarded. Litre larger than a quart, new containers required. Hectolitre, equal to 2.8 bushels, not a practical unit. (Prices on all commodities to be re-adjusted to new units.

That is how it would affect the simple daily life of the woman who goes to the grocer to .purchase articles.


Mr Fowler - That happens to the manufacturer every few years if he is up to date, when he scraps his old machinery for new.


Sir ROBERT BEST - That is another matter, which I will come to later. It is also stated -

In culinary matters, all recipes to be readjusted to kilogrammes and litres, cook books to be rewritten; general confusion in kitchen operations. New milk bottles.

In other household affairs, gas meters to be replaced by new system of units of volume, or readings of meters taken in one system and converted into the other, to avoid scrapping meters in use.


Mr Jowett - Some of our present gas meters are bad enough.


Sir ROBERT BEST - I admit that we are badly off as it is; but if we had to adopt some more complicated system that we understood less, I am afraid we should be very much worse off. Under the new system, we do not know what might happen to overwhelm us. We are also told -

Water meters in same category as gas meters. Tape measures and yard-sticks to be discarded.

In shopping, counter measuring machines to be reconstructed, yards to metres.

Dry goods to be folded at cotton and woollen mills in metre folds instead of .yard folds, requiring change of machinery. Photographic plates in common sizes to be known by awkward combination of figures. An 8' by 10 plate becomes 203 by 254 millimetres.

Quires and reams to be displaced by decimal multiples, requiring changes at manufacturing plants. All containers and cartons to be modified in sizes and shapes to be adapted to new unit sizes. Shirts, collars, and cuffs to bc known by strange names of sizes. A la-in collar becomes a 406-millimetre collar. A 187-inilliinetre hat is worn instead of 7ยง-in.

I shall not weary . the House by dealing with more of these matters.


Mr Gabb - I call attention to the state of the' House. [Quorum formed.]


Sir ROBERT BEST - When inter.rupted, I' was referring to a very excellent article which, shows what would be the effect of the introduction of the metric system on the daily life of the people. The writer goes on, to consider what would be its effect oh building construction and public, land surveys. I desire, however, to specially bring before the House the fact that this question has been the subject of a very careful and close investigation by a British Committee of experts appointed to inquire and make recommendations to the British Parliament. The Committee in its report dealt with all the claims that had been made for the system and the effect of its operation on British trade. I can refer to only a few of the conclusions at which it arrived.


Mr Jowett - When did the Committee report ?


Sir ROBERT BEST - It presented its final report to the British Parliament in 1918. The nineteen members of that Committee were unanimous in reporting against the system, believing that its operations would detrimentally affect British trade. The Committee reported -

Having given very full consideration to the subject we are unable to recommend the compulsory adoption of the metric system in this country. In our opinion, it is absolutely certain that the anticipated uniformity could not he obtained for a very long period, if ever. There is, further, the serious objection that if we induce the above-mentioned countries to change over to the metric system we should be surrendering to Germany the advantage which our manufacturers now enjoy over hers, both in their markets and our own. We aTe informed that even in France, which has made the metric system nominally compulsory for more than halt-a-century, the "pouce" (or inch) is used in textile manufacture, and numerous local measures still survive.

In referring to these considerations, we have to point out that there is no unanimity even as to the theoretical merits of the metric system as compared with our Own. The practical argument that its adoption is desirable, in order to secure uniformity in the markets of the world, has been shown to be unfounded. Wc are not satisfied by any evidence which has been brought before us that trade has actually been lo3t to this country owing to the fact that the use of the metric system is not compulsory.

But to attempt to make the .use of the system universal and obligatory in this country would cause loss and confusion at a particularly inopportune moment for the' sake of distant and doubtful advantages. We are convinced that, so far from assisting in the reestablishment of British trade after the war, such a measure would seriously hamper it.

The Committee in its report went on to deal with the- effect of the adoption of the system on education, and stated that all that had been claimed as to the advantages of the system in that regard was altogether unfounded. It reported -

It, is often popularly supposed that the introduction of the metric system would render possible the immediate sweeping- away of many complicated and varying weights and measures. As we have already indicated, this belief is, in our opinion, wholly fallacious.

We are not convinced that the metric system is, upon the whole, even theoretically superior to the British system, and we are satisfied that the practical objections to the proposed change are such as decisively to outweigh any advantages which are .claimed for it.

These are but a few of the determinations arrived at by this British Committee.


Mr Jowett - Surely the honorable member will reply to the argument advanced by the honorable member for Nepean (Mr. Bowden) when he said that the Minister for Education in Western Australia had. declared that the adoption of the system would mean a saving of two years in the education of children.


Sir ROBERT BEST - On that point the British Committee reported -

As . regards the educational advantages claimed for the change, we have been referred to a statement quoted by the Select Committee of 1895, that no less than one year's school time would be saved if the metric system were taught in the place of that now in use. The information which we have received does not support that statement, and even if it were well founded, it must be remembered that, for at least a generation, children would have to learn both the new and the old measures, and bow to convert from one to the other.

In the early portion of my remarks I mentioned that propaganda work was going on throughout the United

States, and that, as a result, manufacturers generally became greatly alarmed. There is scarcely a Chamber of Commerce or a combination of manufacturers in America which did not take up a strong and decisive attitude on the subject. The threat was made by Representative Vestal that he would introduce in Congress a measure having for its object the compulsory adoption of the metric system. A howl of indignation followed the announcement. Merchants and manufacturers showed that such a change would mean a loss of billions of dollars to them.; that it would mean " scrapping " the whole of their machinery and the disruption and disorganization of their trade. Various institutions took up the proposal, and the outcry against it was so strong that the Bill, although introduced, was abandoned. The proposal was pushed as far as possible by those who favoured the metric system, but the Bill was not proceeded with. The disastrous effect that the change would have on American trade was proved most conclusively. The American Institute of Weights and Measures advanced five arguments against the compulsory Bill before Congress -

1.   Industry is now loaded to the limit with burdens, and should not have others added;

2.   What call there is for metric legislation is of artificial creation, and there is no real demand for it.

3.   Much time and money already have been spent both inAmerica and England in hearings on this subject, and the records of these are now available for reference without incurring additional expense for further hearings.

4.   The law now provides full opportunity for the use of the metric system to whatever extent the interests of manufacturers and commerce require, so that further legislation is unnecessary.

5.   There should be no measures introduced for metric legislation in this country without first coming into full accord with other countries using our present basic standards.

The Institute brought before Congress the result of the investigations made by the British Committee, and the general feeling wasthat, unless there was some common agreement between the Mother Country and the United States for the adoption of the system, it should not be attempted by either nation, because of the vast trade existing between them, and the radical alterations which the adoption of the metric system would involve. I have selected only a few of the resolutions passed by various Associations of Manu facturers in the United States of America against the introduction of the system. Here is a typical one, which was carried by the National Association of Manufacturers at a Convention held in New York in 1918-

Whereas the agitation for the adoption of the metric system has been again revived and is beingvigorously conducted, and

Whereas the British Committee on Commercial and Industrial policy after the war has made an exhaustive analysis of this question and concludes in language as follows :

We are not convinced that the metric system is, upon the whole, even theoretically superior to the British system, and we are satisfied that the practical objections to the proposed change are such as to decisively outweigh any advantages which are claimed for it"; therefore, be it

Resolved, That we regard the agitation for the establishment of the metric system as particularly untimely because of war taxation on manufacture, and because under present conditions the overwhelming activity of manufacturers in war work makes proper consideration of such a subject impossible. It is further

Resolved, That we endorse the work of the American Institute of Weights and Measures in opposing the adoption of the metric system.

The Americans have a particularly happy way of looking after their own interests.


Mr Richard Foster - They know what they are doing.


Sir ROBERT BEST - They know exactly what they are doing. When it was felt that this radical change was about to be made the manufacturers were aroused, and it was due to the strength of their protest, notwithstanding the concentrated effort of the other side, and the opportunity offering to bring the matter before Congress, that the advocates of the metric system were overwhelmed, and the proposal to make the change was never proceeded with. The point I wish to make is that it would be well for us to know when we are well off. Our present system of weights and measures has served our purpose remarkably well. The merchants and manufacturers of America, and of the Mother Country, are possessed of sufficient ability and business acumen to be able to realize what will best serve their interests, and I venture to say that when they are convinced that the present system can be improved upon then will be the time to make a change.







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