Whatever Happened to the Metric System? by John Bemelmans Marciano

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Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet by John Bemelmans Marciano (Bloomsbury, August 5, 2014) is a glimpse into the complicated history behind the rise of the metric system, especially the impact of the metric system on America. Why is America the only country in the world who has not converted to a base-ten system of measurement? Why are Americans resistant to the fact?

Marciano’s text only tries to answer those questions in the final chapter. The rest of the book provides an historical overview of the metric situation, from it’s birth in revolutionary France to the current status quo as the dominant measurement system of the world.

Although I knew the metric system had been created, I was not aware of why it had been, and how it has been defined through history. I was fascinated by the complications before hand, because each country and community had it’s own definitions for measurement, and they did not always correlate with neighboring communities.

It’s true that the customary system in America is odd with it’s pints, quarts, inches, feet, and so forth. It gave me a headache trying to remember all of the conversions as a young student! In the past they had meaning to local communities, and because America keeps using them, they still do. I was fascinated to learn how early shop keepers used those measures because it was easy to half and half again; or quarter and quarter again. It had never occurred to me that that was more easy than dividing by ten…but let’s face it: which way would you rather divide your chunk of meat?

I was also quite interested in all the discussions about metric measures beyond the ones I think of: there was a movement for decimalizing time and the calendar as well! I had also never thought of time zones as a standard measure either, but that too had to take revolutionary thought. Marciano’s final conclusion is that America never changed because there never was a reason to: we never had a compelling situation that forced revolution, combined demographics, and otherwise invited change.

Although I doubt America will be deciding to change to the metric system at any point in the near future, I stand with those who would not mind if we did. My brother is a big fan of the metric system, and since he married a woman from a different country, they only use that, even here in the USA. I lived in Australia for more than a year and got used to using the metric system very easily. Back in America, I find I default to the norm. It’s much easier to use the other, however, and I wouldn’t mind leaving miles behind.

Note: I received a digital review copy of this text.

Reviewed on August 4, 2014

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Canada resisted the metric system, too, when it was introduced a few decades ago. Now we’re pretty comfortable with Celsius & kilometers, although I’m sure there are lots of oldsters like me who still straddle the fence with inches/feet:centimeters/meters. And I don’t think milliliters ever really “took” in recipes.

    [sigh] Any change is hard at first. There are at least two generations of Canadians who were taught metric in school (& therefore think that way), not to mention all the ‘new Canadians’ from all over the world. It’s probably all for the best.

  • I wouldn’t mind a switch to metric! I would be a bit sad about losing the imperial system, because I think it has elements of the quite picturesque about it, but I can understand how the metric system is simpler. I would hate to have to replace all my measuring spoons though….maybe we could switch to metric for some things but not cooking things.

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