Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet

Overview

The American standard system of measurement is a unique and odd thing to behold with its esoteric, inconsistent standards: twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, sixteen ounces in a pound, one hundred pennies to the dollar. For something as elemental as counting and estimating the world around us, it seems like a confusing tool to use. So how did we end up with it?

Most of the rest of the world is on the metric system, and for a time in the 1970s America appeared ready ...

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Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet

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This item will be available on August 5, 2014.
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Overview

The American standard system of measurement is a unique and odd thing to behold with its esoteric, inconsistent standards: twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, sixteen ounces in a pound, one hundred pennies to the dollar. For something as elemental as counting and estimating the world around us, it seems like a confusing tool to use. So how did we end up with it?

Most of the rest of the world is on the metric system, and for a time in the 1970s America appeared ready to make the switch. Yet it never happened, and the reasons for that get to the root of who we think we are, just as the measurements are woven into the ways we think. John Marciano chronicles the origins of measurement systems, the kaleidoscopic array of standards throughout Europe and the thirteen American colonies, the combination of intellect and circumstance that resulted in the metric system’s creation in France in the wake of the French Revolution, and America’s stubborn adherence to the hybrid United States Customary System ever since. As much as it is a tale of quarters and tenths, it is a human drama, replete with great inventors, visionary presidents, obsessive activists, and science-loving technocrats.

Anyone who reads this inquisitive, engaging story will never read Robert Frost’s line “miles to go before I sleep” or eat a foot-long sub again without wondering, Whatever happened to the metric system?

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

America's passing flirtation with the metric system in the seventies and eighties never quite took, unless of course you count, as Dave Barry once did, the increasing popularity of the nine-millimeter bullet. For much of the rest of the world (and numerous U.S. scientists), it makes little sense that we continue to embrace our illogical standards of measurement. By delving into history, John Marciano's What Happened to the Metric System? demystifies our stubborn adherence to what others regard as primitive inches, feet, yards, and ounces. Stretching far back, his account is as entertaining as it is informative, presenting the continuing debate as the product of both strong personalities and surprising events. (P.S. Speaking of surprising events, a Hawaiian legislator recently introduced a bill that would make the metric system the official measurement standard of the Aloha State.)

Publishers Weekly
06/02/2014
Author and illustrator Marciano (The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield) reconsiders 200 years of history against the backdrop of a struggle to create a uniform system of measurement for the world. He addresses the origins of multiple forms of money, wet and dry measures, and figures for weight and distance, offering lively anecdotes about such problems as paying taxes in bushels of grain when the tax collector controls the size of a bushel. In that instance, what seemed an arcane issue resulted in the French Revolution, and that break from the ancien régime provided the opportunity to reconstitute all units of measurement, down to the hours in the day—though opposition arose as to the size of a meter, gram, and liter. From the founding of the U.S., there was a movement to go metric, but it was doomed by political and commercial resistance; the U.S. remains, alongside Liberia and Myanmar, one of only three nations in the world to use a different system. Readers will see a different side of metric enthusiasts—including Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson—as Marciano uncovers the relationship between metric system advocates and social reform movements. Marciano writes with humor and a keen eye, and his fascinating tales reveal how extensively measurement has affected history. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
for Anonyponymous

“A delightful dip.” —The New Yorker, on Anonyponymous

“Marciano manages to be breezy and whimsical without losing any historical accuracy.” —Bookslut, on Anonyponymous

Anonyponymous is like a one-handed cartwheel: powerful, elegant, and so impressive.” —Meredith Norton, author of Lopsided, on Anonyponymous

Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-05
Marciano, best known as an illustrator and author of popular children's books (Madeline at the White House, 2011, etc.), delves into the political ramifications of the American and French revolutions on the adoption of the metric system.The author begins with Thomas Jefferson, who had just witnessed the approval of his proposal to replace British currency with an American national currency based upon a decimal version of the Spanish dollar. “Jefferson wanted to take the radical step of dividing the coin by tenths, hundredths, and thousandths—decimal fractions,” writes Marciano. “It was a thing no other nation in the world had ever entirely achieved, not with coins or any other measure.” Tasked by Congress to tackle the broader subject of establishing a uniform system of weights and measures, Jefferson presented one but urged that it not be accepted until it was clear what would be decided in France, where leaders were discussing similar issues. Marciano explains how many different political and cultural issues converged in the question of measurement. In America, the need for a uniform national coinage was obvious, but weights and measures were fairly uniform throughout the former colonies. Not so in France, which employed as many as “250,000 different measures.” The revolutionary demand for uniform taxation and the abolition of the special privileges of the three estates (aristocracy, clergy and king) necessitated a comprehensive overhaul of measurements. The French Revolution gave birth to the metric system as we know it today, but Jefferson's hope that America and France would lead the world in jointly adopting a new universal standard of measurement has yet to be realized. However, this is not a problem. “[W]e now live in an age where the villain has become uniformity,” writes Marciano; with the advent of the digital age, measurements are now easily convertible.A lively perspective on globalism as it relates to currency and systems of measurement.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608194759
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 8/5/2014
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 549,790
  • Product dimensions: 5.73 (w) x 8.47 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

John Bemelmans Marciano

John Bemelmans Marciano is the author and illustrator of many books, including the distinctive reference titles Anonyponymous and Toponymity, as well as the children’s books Madeline at the White House (a New York Times bestseller), Madeline and the Cats of Rome, and Harold’s Tail. A word and math aficionado, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife, daughter, and two cats.

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