Ah, the metric system—the logical way of meting out the world that confounds most Americans. Readers who have failed to crack its code will find comfort in John Bemelmans Marciano’s Whatever Happened to the Metric System? How America Kept Its Feet, an intriguing look at why the system failed to take hold here.

The metric system is a surprisingly inflammatory topic—an issue with political, social and financial implications that has generated plenty of heat across the centuries. Marciano traces the system back to Revolutionary-era France, when a restructuring of measurements resulted in metrics as we know them today.

Cutting through the confusion and antipathy that have long surrounded the issue in America, Marciano provides a clear-eyed account of how Americans hung onto their inches, ounces and pounds. In 1875, Congress signed the Treaty of the Meter, which led to the establishment of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, the agency that oversees the metric system, but Americans still had the option of using customary English units of measurement. A century later, when President Gerald Ford sanctioned the Metric Conversion Act, transition to meters and kilos seemed like a sure thing. But America stepped back from the brink again when the act met its end during the budget cuts of the early 1980s.

Today, the United States is one of only three nations in the world that have not adopted the metric system. Yet Marciano makes important points about America’s adherence to tradition. “To be for a metric America is to be for a global monoculture,” he says. Through the use of its customary system, America is “preserving ways of thinking that were once common to all humanity.”

Marciano’s narrative provides an overview of measurement in all its manifold forms, including currency, clock and calendar. Each chapter is broken up into easy-to-absorb sections that bring fluidity and logic to a complex tale. Weighty stuff, but the gifted Marciano makes light work of it.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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