Skip to main content
Trade Books For Courses Tradebooks for Courses

Whatever Happened to the Metric System?

How America Kept Its Feet

John Bemelmans Marciano

Bloomsbury USA

Whatever Happened to the Metric System? Download image

ISBN10: 1608194752
ISBN13: 9781608194759


320 Pages



Request Desk Copy
Request Exam Copy


Sign up to receive information about new books, author events, and special offers.

Sign up now

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?


Praise for Whatever Happened to the Metric System?

"Whatever Happened to the Metric System? is about much more than just the metric system. It's an indispensable guide for understanding our world's centuries-long process of inching toward standardization."—The Wall Street Journal

"National and international politics, treaties, wars—all play a role in seeing the full picture of the development of a system of measurements used by the vast majority of the world's countries. Marciano knits these seemingly disparate threads into a rich narrative."—New Yor Journal of Books

"A lively perspective on globalism as it relates to currency and systems of measurement."—Kirkus Reviews

"Readers will se a different side of metric enthusiasts—including Napolean 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 mesaurement has affected history."—Publishers Weekly

"Marciano's often irreverent descriptions of many of the players in the effort to establish systems for distance, length, volume, weight, and temperature is both interesting and troubling."—Library Journal

"An intriguing look at why the system failed to take hold here . . . 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."—Julie Hale, BookPage

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

John Bemelmans Marciano

John 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.

John Bemelmans Marciano

Official Links