The metrication of an imperial system

Jul 10, 2022
This blogger remembers the metrication of Australia. Source: Getty

The path to Australia’s metrication began in the early 60s and carried on through the 70s. It was a massive financial, organisational and cultural change for the generations of those times, but one that current generations may only be aware of through grandparents’ stories and the occasional Sunday night TV nostalgia spot.

As a late baby boomer, my pre-decimal money experiences were pretty limited. Being a 6-year-old, my transactions only involved pennies, halfpennies, and sixpences for my small purchases of a Sunny Boy or a cream bun. Occasionally 2 shillings would pass my way for a giant mixed bag of lollies for a road trip up to Grandma’s up in the Dandenongs. Threepences lingered on through to my son’s childhood in the eighties, because of their need for insertion in plum puddings at Christmas. A tradition that I’m sure led to many a trip to the dentist from biting down on one. Not having any experience with higher denominations at the time, pound notes were out of my league. The guinea still seems like a strange amount when it was valued at only a shilling more than a pound. Was there such a thing as a guinea note? To this day I still don’t know and Google hasn’t helped me.

While I didn’t have much of a financial interest when decimal currency kicked in on the 14th of February 1966, for some reason, the day and the lead-up to it were a really big deal for me. Perhaps it was the catchy tune sung by the late Ian Turpie and the animated television campaign before the date. I’m not sure, but to me, it was like the Olympics or a coronation was coming to town. I woke up on the day and (please don’t judge) proceeded to drag an old broken toaster by the cord up and down the street while singing the Dollar Bill decimal song (you know the one that goes to the tune of Click Goes the Shears), determined to make as many people as possible aware of the momentous occasion. You can still find the song on YouTube. A child doing this now would no doubt be quickly assessed and possibly medicated. An adult may even attract a Rapid Response Team. Anyway, it was important to me. My Mum somehow sensed my enthusiasm (it might have been the toaster dragging) and rocked up to my school during lunch break that day to show me a dollar note and a small collection of one, two, and five-cent coins she’d acquired from her grocery shopping that morning. Although the new money appeared overnight, there was an official two-year changeover period, so pricing signage was flexible and it was common to see meat for sale at the butchers in both shillings and cents per pound. The old money continued to circulate for some time. I can still remember finding the odd three pence turning up in my day’s takings from my milk run in the late 70s and adding them to my Christmas pudding collection.

The process for complete metrication of non-currency units in Australia was more drawn out, but still with highlight impacts along the way. Education had been gearing up for the change since the early 60s when many late boomers like me were faced with learning imperial measures and their conversions, along with their metric counterparts. Early boomers, many of who were well and truly out of school and were well versed in imperial measures had to tough out the conversion process in the real world as it evolved. When I was in Year 6, the pressure was really on to know how many inches were in a metre, how many pounds in a kilogram, and so on. I was pretty good on the imperial by then. I can still rattle off 22 yards in a chain and the like, and I know a chain is the length of a cricket pitch, though I’m not sure of the use of this fact when I rarely have a cricket pitch handy when I’m measuring anything. I did have difficulty fathoming if you will pardon the pun, some of the more obscure units and for all I knew, rods and roods were actually benchmarks for rating adult films.

All of these academic changes started to become reality with our weather, or at least how it was reported began to change in 1972. Unlike currency’s gradual changeover, weather reporting of temperatures was changed overnight, with only a month’s overlap between Fahrenheit and Celsius. A series of jingles to help the public adjust were broadcast. They talked about the “frosty fives”, “tingling tens”, “temperate twenties”, “thirsty thirties” and “fiery forties”. Similarly, isobars changed to kilopascals but the confusing squiggly lines remained on the TV weather maps.

The next round of metric change was in 1974. From July 1, many road speed signs around the country miraculously changed overnight. 60 became 100, 35 became 60, and 50 became 80. The new signs omitted the MPH speed units and just had the encircled number. Some car speedos from 1973 to 1974 had dual units on the dial to help with the changeover. Still, if you happened to be driving a 1970 Datsun 1200 with only an MPH scale for your driving test in the mid-seventies, it was a bit of a nightmare matching the new roadside signs with the imperial numbers on your dashboard. Other measures also changed this year. The square glass (only in Queensland I think) pint milk bottle changed to a 600mL round glass composite bottle. Petrol prices appeared to drop overnight from 59 cents a gallon to 14 cents a litre until you did the maths and realised it wasn’t such a bargain. Oil was still sold in pint and quart bottles in the servos for a long while after.

Officially, most measurements had changed by the mid-seventies. Still, even now, a few holdouts haven’t moved on. The building industry comes to mind where you can still purchase imperial bolts and drill bits, with quarter-inch bolts and drills setting the standard for the longevity of unit names nearly fifty years later. A 4 by 2 stud is probably alien to most kids, but it is still a term used commonly. When we talk about the ceiling height for a new home, 9 feet and not 2.7 metres is usually the measurement cited. The media regularly makes mention of the rise or fall in demand for the Australian dream of raising families on a quarter-acre block. I do remember perches hanging around for a while, with the average house block being 40 perches or a quarter of an acre.

Go to any real estate app and one of the search categories is acreage and not hectarage. Another cultural holdout is baby weights. Although officially recorded in kilograms and grams, newborns are regularly talked about in pounds and ounces. A quick check of Australian baby-related websites confirms the staying power of imperial units in newborn weight discussions. Some other products seemed to have dodged metrication. Electrical retailers still group their television sizes in inches, tyre sizes are a confusing combination of metric tread width and imperial wheel size, with most service station air hoses showing pounds per square inch, and computer printer resolution is measured in dots per square inch.

Despite the initial teething problems and cultural shock of metrication for us now older folk and some of the still ongoing confusion with mixed units, metrics stand tall as a much simpler unit of measurement from a calculating viewpoint. Whenever introducing measurement to my former primary school students, I always tried to make sure that they realised how much easier they had it compared to us. But judging by some of the glazed looks I received, I might as well have been telling them that we lived in pyramids, wrote in hieroglyphics, and used an abacus to work out our measurements.


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