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National Measurement Institute

History of Measurement in Australia

Vintage brass massesAustralia’s early measurement system was transferred from England 200 years ago, in the early years of the colony. In 1824 New South Wales commenced the development of a local measurement system and obtained standards of mass, length and volume from England. Other states developed their own measurement systems as well, and it was soon recognised that a national measurement system was needed. The Commonwealth Constitution of 1901, Section 51(XV) gave the power to make laws in respect of weights and measures to the Commonwealth.


The Commonwealth appointed the first Commonwealth Analyst and established the Commonwealth Laboratories under the Department of Trade and Customs. Their function was to provide the laboratory services necessary to support excise collection and impose tariffs on imported goods. The laboratories' tasks quickly broadened to include meat inspection, food analysis and other work.


The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was established. Among its powers and functions were the 'testing and standardisation of scientific apparatus and instruments' and other activities related to standards and measurement.


Cabinet approved the establishment of the National Standards Laboratory (NSL), to be built on a site in the grounds of the University of Sydney.


NSL staff began work in the partially completed building in the university grounds.


Australia became a signatory to the Metre Convention.


The Food Control Laboratories, set up during World War II, became part of the Commonwealth Laboratories, which thereby took on responsibility for microbiological work.


The Weights and Measures (National Standards) Act 1948 came into effect. It provided for the creation of the National Standards Commission.


The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) replaced CSIR.


The National Standards Commission was appointed to administer weights and measures legislation.


The scope of the Commonwealth Laboratories work broadened, taking on significant workloads from the departments of Primary Industries and Health.


The Weights and Measures (National Standards) Act 1948 was replaced by the National Measurement Act 1960, which defined Australia's units and standards of measurement and the roles of the National Standards Commission and CSIRO in Australia's system of weights and measures.


The National Standards Commission became a member of the International Organisation of Legal Metrology.


The National Standards Commission was given responsibility to pattern approve measuring instruments used for trade.


The Commonwealth Laboratories became the Australian Government Analytical Laboratories (AGAL) and were attached to the Department of Science.


NSL was renamed the National Measurement Laboratory (NML) following a reorganisation within CSIRO.


NML moved to a new site at Lindfield.


AGAL was transferred to the Department of Administrative Services.


AGAL became part of the Department of Industry, Science and Tourism.


The National Analytical Reference Laboratory was established within AGAL in response to the increasing need for chemical metrology standards and international activity in this field.


The National Standards Commission was given responsibility for pattern approval and compliance testing of electricity, gas and water meters.


The Chief Scientist, Dr Robin Batterham, recommended in his report The Chance to Change that a National Measurement Institute be established comprising AGAL, NML and the National Standards Commission.


The Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, the Hon Ian Macfarlane MP, announced that the National Measurement Institute would be established.


Formation of the National Measurement Institute which brought together the National Measurement Laboratory from CSIRO, the National Standards Commission and the Australian Government Analytical Laboratories.


Council of Australian Governments agreed that the Commonwealth should assume responsibility for trade measurement.


The National Measurement Amendment Act was passed to provide the legislative basis for the Commonwealth, acting through NMI, to establish and operate a single national trade measurement system.


The National Trade Measurement Regulations were signed off by the Governor General.


NMI became responsible for trade measurement when the Commonwealth took over responsibility for weights and measurements from the states and territories. As a result NMI became responsible for the full spectrum of measurement, from the peak primary standards of measurement to measurements made at the domestic trade level.

History of Metric Conversion

In 1947 Australia signed the Metre Convention making metric units legal for use in Australia, and in 1970 passed the Metric Conversion Act with the aim of making the metric system the sole system of legal measurements in Australia. The responsibility for advising the Government on the scientific, technical and legislative requirements of Australia’s national measurement system and for coordinating the system rests with NMI.

Click here for access to our conversion tables, and here for more information on Australian legal units of measurement.


The first step towards metrication in Australia was taken during the term of the first Parliament after Federation. It was moved that Australia consider the adoption of the metric units of weights and measures.


Australia signed the Metre Convention which made metric units legal for use in Australia.


The Metric Conversion Act was passed and received Royal Assent. The Metric Conversion Board was established and Australia commenced the change to metric units.


The Australian wool industry converted to the SI system.


The packaging of grains, dairy products and eggs went metric and the SI system was introduced to primary school education.


The SI system was introduced to secondary school education. There was also conversion of the packaging of some small goods, e.g. tobacco, sugar and peanuts. Also the tanning industry underwent conversion.


By the end of 1974 most industries in Australia had converted to metric, e.g. building, timber, paper, printing, agricultural and veterinary chemicals, meteorological services, photography, postal and communication charges, road transport, travel, textiles, gas, electricity, land and surveying, sport and recreation, water and sewerage, mining, metallurgy, rubber, chemicals, petroleum derivatives, fabricated metal products, automotive engineering, all beverages apart from spirits, ship building and aeronautical engineering.


By the end of 1976, all packaged goods were required to be labelled in metric sizes, and the following were also converted to metric: the air transport industry, food energy, petrol pumps, machine tools, electronic and electrical engineering appliance manufacturing.


The Metric Conversion Board was dissolved.


Responsibility for the completion of metrication was transferred to the National Standards Commission (which became part of NMI in 2004).


Real estate dealings went metric.


Withdrawal of remaining imperial units from general legal use.