My very early education in Northern Ireland taught me the use and application of the Imperial system of measurement and I recall at the time, the huge sense of accomplishment upon grasping the concept of inches accumulating into feet in multiples of twelve and feet into yards in multiples of three. Then everything increased by the power of ten in 1965 when the Confederation of British Industry embraced decimalisation and metrication (or “metri-feckcation” as it was known in ‘Norn Iron’).
I took to the decimal system like the proverbial Mallard to H2O (no more fractions for me!), but like others of my generation who I’ve discussed this with; I still envisage measurements greater than two metres in feet or yards! Younger generations obviously don’t suffer this transitional syndrome.
I’m not complaining, because, from my involvement with antiques, the ability to jump between the two distinct systems has been quite fortuitous. I am a metrified car designer, builder and racer, but I am an ‘Imperial’ restorer and reproducer of antique furniture.
My favoured period of antiques largely precedes the establishment of the Metric System in eighteenth-century revolutionary France (the concept itself predates this by well over a hundred years) and I find it simpler and more pleasurable to continue restoring, remaking and reproducing furniture using the same system of measurement in which it was conceived or made (not that the new metric standards of 1791 would have had any influence on furniture design or manufacture, or the manufacture and take-up of woodworking tools, for some considerable time).
My 5/16 in. chisel perfectly matched the width of the mortises in my George II mahogany stool when it required restoration. The less fanatical might argue that equivalent metric chisels are near enough – they’re not – but all right then, where can one obtain metric moulding planes compatible with eighteenth-century profiles? And of course, everybody knows that dining chair seats are exactly 17-1/2 in. high and dining table tops 29-1/2 in.
I have to go for my nap now…
The adoption of the Metric System has been universal with the notable exceptions of the two great global forces, the United States of America and… Liberia. These countries remain the sole exponents of ‘feet and inches’. It’s peculiar the USA didn’t implement metrication when distancing themselves from Mother England after the Revolutionary War; instead, they plugged on with the old feet and inches.
I say “old”, because the system in use in the USA didn’t keep abreast of nineteenth-century developments. In the Weights and Measures Act of 1824, Britain introduced the Imperial System, effectively updating, improving and standardising many archaic, regional and trade-specific units of measurement, but the United States of America doggedly hung on to their outdated system, eventually renaming it the US Customary System.
There is an upshot to all this non-compliance; the USA is a handy source of chisels, rulers and other lay-out tools fabricated and calibrated in inches – and true eighteenth-century inches at that!
Finally, just a quick word in the collective ear of North American tool store managers; please amend your catalogue descriptions of items delineated in inches from “English” to something more accurate like “Customary”. Thank you!