The Story of Measurement

The Story of Measurement by Andrew Robinson

By The Metric Maven

The book The Story of Measurement by Andrew Robinson is a magnificent work of graphic arts. Page after page of eye catching color graphics assault the senses. The illustrations are just candy for the eyes. It is a truly magnificent “coffee table book.”  In the introduction the author impresses upon the reader how prevalent measurement is in our everyday lives:

A few minutes’ reflection reminds us that measurement pervades our everyday lives. In no particular order, we constantly encounter: clocks, calendars, rulers, cloth sizes, floor areas, cooking recipes, sell-by-dates, alcohol content, match scores, musical notation, map scales, internet protocols, word counts, memory chips, bank accounts, financial indexes, radio frequencies, calculators, speedometers, spring balances, electricity meters, cameras, thermometers, rainfall gauges, barometers, medical examinations, drug prescriptions, body mass indexes, educational tests, opinion polls, focus groups, questionnaires, consumer surveys, tax returns, censuses and many other forms of measurement — all of which serve to reduce the world to numbers and statistics.” (Page 7)

One can imagine my anticipation when I read that paragraph. One could only believe a good read was to follow. What would he have to say about the metric system?  We don’t have to wait long, on page 13 he states: “But the acute economic difficulties experienced with the new [metric] system persuaded Napoleon to rescind the original legislation in 1812.” Author Andrew Robinson indicates that only scientists were upset at this reversal. This statement seemed at odds with what I understood to have occurred historically in France. I made a mental note to look into it.

Robinson then indicates that Thomas Young (1773-1829) did not support “the legislative enactment of uniform weights and measures in Britain.” Young had written an article for the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1823 and the author quotes from it. Young sees France’s experiment with creating a single measure as a failure and argued that:

…the British government should ‘endeavor to facilitate both the attainment of correct and uniform standards of legal existing measures of all kinds, and the ready understanding of all the provincial and local terms applied to measures, either regular or irregular, by the multiplication of glossaries and tables for the correct definition and of such terms.’

The more measurement units, the merrier!? Then it hit me. Thomas Young. I’d tried to read the book The Last Man Who Knew Everything two times and found it completely unable to engage my enthusiasm. It is about the life of Thomas Young. I went to my bookshelf and located it. The book was written by, you guessed it, Andrew Robinson. This was not a good portent, but I tried to be optimistic. Then I read this:

In the telling words of the economic historian Witold Kula in Measures and Men: `The reform that standardized weights and measures, which had been so ardently desired for centuries and so widely demanded by the common people on the eve of the Revolution, extolled by so many of the truest revolutionaries and conceived by the finest scientific minds of the day, had, ultimately, to be imposed upon the people.’

Economic historian? Does it disturb the economic historian that currencies are imposed on the public? Should we therefore we should go back to barter? Robinson introduces an economic historian as an indirect backdoor way of introducing an old canard, market Darwinism, as an argument against the metric system without actually straightforwardly stating it. Later, on page 81, Robinson goes further:

Even scientists sometimes take refuge in non-standard units, more ‘human’ than, say, gigametres (109 m) and nanometres (10-9 m). Astronomers like the ‘astronomical unit’ (AU), equaling the mean distance between Sun and Earth; from the Sun to Jupiter is 5.20 AU, a figure easier  to remember than the metric distance, 778 gigametres. Chemists are fond of the angstrom (Å), 0.1 nanometer, for measuring molecular distances; the radius of the chlorine molecule is about 1 (Å).

Oh the humanity!—of unfettered unit proliferation!? I recommend that Robinson read my essay Long Distance Voyager. There he will see evidence of the great utility the metric system has for describing astronomical distances. The angstrom is an exclusionary unit, which acts as a barrier to an integrated understanding of sizes at the nanometer level.

Along the way Robinson offers up this about the metric system:

Among the US public, Gallup polls showed that between 1971 and 1991, awareness of the metric system increased from 38 to 80 percent, but the proportion of those favoring its adoption fell from 50 to 26 percent. (page 31)

One should note that he uses the word awareness, which does not imply they understand the metric system. I’m more aware of Cricket after working with English and Indian engineers, but I can clearly claim I do not understand it and probably would be less inclined to favor playing it.

Robinson also has an incredible fetish for fractions and milliSaganistic prose (i.e. millions and millionths). On page 84 he discusses the 19th century mystery of how and why pollen grains vibrated in water, which is called Brownian motion:

From theory, Einstein calculated that particles in water at 17 degrees C with a diameter of a thousandth of a millimetre — that is, 10,000 times bigger than atoms — should move a mean horizontal distance of 6 thousandths of a millimetre in one minute.

I’ll take a stab at editing this set of prose using metric prefixes:

From theory, Einstein calculated that one micrometer sized particles of pollen, in water at 17 degrees C, would move a mean horizontal distance of six micrometers in one minute, in response to being jostled by picometer sized atoms of water, which are 10 000 times smaller than the pollen particles.

Robinson made me pine for the excellent monograph Science & Music by Sir James Jeans when I read:

….and the amplitude [of a sound wave] dictates the sound pressure. At the threshold of hearing, the displacement is a mere millionth of a millionth of a metre (about one fifth of the radius of a hydrogen atom!).


“….and the [perceived] amplitude dictates the sound pressure. At the threshold of hearing, the displacement is a mere picometre (about one fifth of the radius of a hydrogen atom!).”

Robinson continues:

and the pressure difference between the peak and the trough of the wave is a two hundredth of a thousandth of a pascal (compare normal atmospheric pressure, which is about 100,000 Pa).


and the pressure difference between the peak and the trough of the wave is 5 micropascals (compare normal atmospheric pressure, which is about 100  kilopascals or 20 000 000 000 times larger).

One would hope that’s enough zeros for histrionics’ sake!

An example of Robinson’s fetish for fractions is shown in his caption of a photograph which shows Physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) viewing a tiny electric motor. The motor was engineered in response to a famous technical challenge he made:

Perhaps 750 microwatts of power from a motor which is 4.25 micrometers in diameter? After all how many people own a horse these days?

In Robinson’s section on screws he only mentions Joseph Whitworth, and passes over metric screws completely. When discussing calorie counting he mentions kilojoules only once, essentially as a token conversion factor.

It is a strange book on the story of measurement which has so little of the metric system or its usage in it, but that is what The Story of Measurement is. Now and then, despite his sprinkling of unnecessary centimeters—ok—I’m of the opinion that all centimeters are unnecessary, he uses mm in a way with large decimals that comports with my understanding of accepted metric usage:

The zeros are separated with spaces by three. He uses millimeters. It gives an idea the value is getting smaller—a lot smaller. This is a nice table in a book which is dominated by large fractions and mixed usage. This table is fine, and might be the best presentation, but an alternative way he could have constructed the table might have been using picometers with the whole number rule:

1791  Quarter meridian of of Earth  +/-  60 000 000 pm
1889  Prototype bar                          +/-    2 000 000 pm
1960  Krypton Wavelength                +/-           7000 pm
1983  Speed of Light                         +/-             700 pm
Today Improved Laser                       +/-               20 pm

Unfortunately good examples of metric usage, like his table, are few and far between in this book. There even seems to be a ubiquitous underlying hostility to metric usage just barely below the surface of this narrative. Is there much else I can say that I like about The Story of Measurement? Uh…did I mention the graphics are visually attractive?

10 thoughts on “The Story of Measurement

  1. I guess I can cross that book off my reading list.

    His table on the “metre” is pretty bad. Yours is better, but I don’t much care for 60 000 000 pm. It is best to avoid long strings of either leading or trailing zeroes, and I don’t have the same fear or dislike of decimals that you do (after all, the SI is a decimal system).

    I would probably use nanometers (data range 60 000 nm down to 0.02 nm) as the best single prefix choice or change units somewhere in the table. The namometer choice uses only 10 zeroes (that are not in the significant figures of the numbers, but including leading zeroes on decimals) vs your 19 and his 26. I don’t know if that is a good measure of table complexity, but it’s a measure. Also, people with any science or measurement background have more references points for nanometers than picometers (shrinking detail in integrated circuits, wavelengths of visible light, molecular distances).

  2. As usual, Maven, your posts are extremely fertile soil for further discussion. You’ve hit on an issue that surely holds today about “pet units.” I even recall a pet pronunciation: among some physicians, and seemingly among no other group, there is a preference to SOUND French when uttering the word “centimeter.” It comes out of them as “SONT-i-meter.” And these individuals are those for whom English is their first language. And, although the pharmaceutical industry seems to lead the entire world in CORRECT metric usage (you will see 1 g tablets, not 1000 mg tablets; and always a space between the value and the symbol, e.g. 2 g, NEVER 2g), healthcare practitioners of all sorts will use “GM.” (sic) for the gram or even “mgs” or “mgms” (sicker) for the milligram.

    In his wise, succinct foreword to the 1971 U.S. metric study report, former Commerce Secretary Maurice H. Stans insisted that all the people of the U.S. should learn to “think in metric terms.” To me, this means that our people, preferably beginning early in life, should enjoy the advantage of a thorough orientation to the realm of the International System of Units, including the Rule of 1000 (after 999 g comes, gram-wise, 1 kg). While they should be aware of the entire SI unit prefix system, they should be assured of the simplicity it will offer in everyday business. The end result should be euthanasia for the pet units, and the ability for people everywhere to communicate in one simple measurement system that is consistent on every continent. The poetry of the legacy units need not be lost in the process, but that poetry should be LEFT with those units, and purged from SI. My best example of that: no more metric tons or tonnes. Use megagrams!!

  3. “Now and then, despite his sprinkling of unnecessary centimeters—ok—I’m of the opinion that all centimeters are unnecessary”

    Remind me of how the liter is defined again?

    Perhaps you should focus on eliminating the Penny (centidollar.)

    • “Remind me of how the liter is defined again?”

      The liter is a special name for the cubic decimeter,
      i.e., 1 L = 1 dm³.

      The liter is a non-SI unit accepted for use with the SI, in Table 6 of the SI Brochure.

        • Nope. Resolution 6 of the 12th CGPM defined it as a special name for the cubic decimeter, abrogating the 1901 definition of it as a special name for 1 kg of water of maximum density.

  4. BTW, currency should ideally follow the same rules as other units: for example, millidollars (m$), kilodollars (k$), megadollars (M$), and so on; and the unit should be after the value, not before: e.g., “400 G$” (gigadollars, or billion dollars), and not “$ 400 000 000 000”.

    Of course, fractions of dollars (cents) could also be abolished, and thus prices rounded.

    Exactly the same for the €, the £, etc. etc.

    All this, if money were only a means of exchange, available to everyone, and not the deviated aim of a more or less corrupted society (i.e., without any real shared objectives for the future), as it sadly seems to be nowadays (but also in the past, for that matter)…

  5. The Netherlands was the first country to metricate, and it is my understanding that Belgium was second. Germany adopted metric system as it unified and started the international process that eventually led to SI as the Germans worked out the metric system’s kinks. Metric use had been expanding in France with increased educational access and the increase in small businesses, but metrication may have been seriously undertaken because of competition with the Germans.


    This is another book, the Measure of all Things by Ken Adler that is also anti-metric. Note, that such books only come from the US. There seems to be some national jealousy that the whole world chose the metric system over USC. The American ego can’t handle this type of rejection and thus it isn’t a surprise that some American author’s have chosen to write fictional books mocking the metric system or trying to find errors as if that will have some effect on convincing the world to abandon SI and universally adopt USC.

    • 1) I read The Measure of All Things several years ago. I did not find the book to be anti-metric as you claim. Perhaps you could quote a couple of passages as an example.

      There were difficulties in surveying the meridian from Barcelona to Dunkerque to make the measurement of the world’s circumference, the original estimate was in error (by 320 metres, as I recall,) and Napoleon repealed the use of the metric system at one time. As Mr Alder is a professor of history it would be unforgivable of him to omit these facts from a historical work.

      2) Andrew Robinson is, as far as I can tell from his web site, British. He went to Eton College, to Oxford University, and is a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. It is surprising that someone with a degree in Chemistry from Oxford University can misuse the metric system as badly as the reviewer claims, but I haven’t read the book so I cannot verify this. Note that Mr Robinson is a full-time author and can inject his opinions into his works with much more freedom than an academic like Alder who has a reputation to protect.

      It is true that the metric system was imposed by law in France. The French government had the final power for regulating weights and measures, just as the American government has. The difference between France and the USA in this matter is that the French used that power.

      The adoption of the metric system by the US will not be a magic cure for the country’s industrial ills, it will not happen overnight and it will take great effort to make the change work. I was of adult age when we made the same change in Australia and I saw how it happened.

      When there is any great change there are always people who cannot see the benefits and do not want to change. This is the same whether it is social changes like freeing slaves or giving women the vote; public health changes like immunisation or universal healthcare; or technical changes like digital television.

      It would be dishonest for metric supporters to say that the introduction of the metric system will be completely painless, cost-free and easy. The period of change will be difficult, but after that, one hopes, everyone will enjoy the benefits.

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