Beyond Measure The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants

Beyond Measure by James Vincent gives his view of the metric system early in the book as:

…the single most significant event in the history of measurement: the creation of the metric system.

After 145 pages, we reach the chapter which discusses the creation of the metric system, titled The Metric Revolution. We note immediately that he assigns the entire creation of the metric system to French savants. There is zero mention of John Wilkins as the originator of the system. One would think that as it is “the most significant event in the history of measurement” that he might delve as deeply into its history as he does all the pre-metric measures he examines over the first 4 chapters. There is zero mention of the Royal Society’s involvement in the creation of the system that would become the metric system. It was Wilkins and his collaborators who proposed the use of a seconds pendulum as a basis for a standard of length. The pendulum separated measurement from body parts, and for the first time used a scientific phenomena as a basis for length.

A different Englishman makes it into Vincent’s text:

Journeying through France in 1789, the English agriculturist and travel writer Arthur Young commented on the ‘tormenting variations’ of the countries units of measurement. ‘[T]he infinite perplexity of measures exceeds all comprehension,’ he wrote. ‘They differ not only in every province, but in every district and almost every town… The denominations of the French measures, as readers will see, are almost infinite.’

The author goes on to mention the measures of Europe were also large in number and with similar problems—-but apparently England is not mentioned as its measures were fine?

Vincent gives his impression of the metric artifacts he viewed in Paris. One has the feeling he is more interested in them as ecclesiastical artifacts rather than as historical ones. He offers three important characteristics of the metric system:

Firstly, they decided that the units should be interconnected. The capacity measure should be constructed from a cube made of a unit length, which when filled with water, would provide the basic unit of weight.

Well, as I’ve pointed out in my own monograph on the history of the metric system, John Wilkins and others proposed this, published it, and it was an idea that had clearly circulated on the continent before the French “first proposed it.”

“Secondly, the system should be decimal, with all units divisible by 10.” This was the second idea that indeed was introduced by the French for the new system.

“The third and major change was linguistic. The savants would devise an entirely new taxonomy for the system, with new names for units paired with Greek and Latin prefixes to denote multiples and fractions. These
included familiar terms like kilo for 1,000 units and cent [sic] for 0.01 parts, but also less common terms like demi for a half unit and now forgotten prefixes like myria, for multiples of 10,000.”

So, the author is very right that the French introduced this third and very important aspect to the metric system, and has done enough research to know that demi and myria were prefixes?—but act as if the metric system appeared out of an intellectual vacuum?
The debate concerning whether to use the seconds pendulum or a measurement of the Earth is then discussed:

For many years, it seemed like the seconds pendulum would be the preferred method. It had backers in England and France, and traced its linage back to Galileo,….

Again, there is deafening silence concerning Wilkins linguistic and metrological work that had circulated in England and Europe. As usual, the construction of a very elaborate seconds pendulum by the French savants, and the data they took, is completely left out of Vincent’s history. Of course there is more drama in the difficulties Delambre and Mechain encountered trying to measure one-quarter of the length around the Earth. There is the added drama of the “error” in their measurement of the Earth. There is less drama in the controlled and localized design and construction of the seconds pendulum standard. The comprehensive nature of the French seconds pendulum design, and its construction, is a technical marvel of the time, and should have gained at least some ink that it was employed, before it was politically abandoned.

Like John Bemelmans Marciano’s anti-metric polemic Whatever Happened to the Metric System, Vincent seems much more interested in the French Revolution than the origin of the metric system. When he discusses a “universal language” it is that of Condorcet, and apparently he either was unaware of Wilkins’ contribution to trying to develop a universal language, that would act as a sort of metric system of language. The author moves on to decimalized time, and we are finished with “the single most significant event in the history of measurement.” Over half of the book remains, and but a feckless discussion of the origin of the metric system has taken place. Vincent states:

The metric system and its egalitarian principles were happily incorporated into the new order, with metre and kilogram taking their place in a symbolic language of republicanism.

But without the historical context of the contributions of John Wilkins, and Simon Steven’s decimalization, we don’t realize the idea for this measurement system had been an idea that had been proposed, and circulated in England and Europe for decades. Only with the right political environment could it possibly be implemented, and as he points out, the moment came, and then vanished, as the French then turned their backs on the metric system in 1804. He sees the metric system as arising, fully formed from the head of Zeus. This is not good scholarship.

The book discusses the origin of land surveying, mostly in the US and Britain, then mortality statistics, and statistics in general, and their dark side.

Vincent eventually returns to the metric system in a chapter titled “Metric vs imperial and metrology’s culture war.” The author discusses the creation of Active Resistance to Metrication (ARM), formed in 2001, and their altering or removing more than 3 000 signposts across the UK. The leader of this group believes they have a biblical mandate to halt metrication. It is noted that UK metric conversion began in 1965, long before the EU came into existence. The sale of a bunch of bananas using imperial measure was the incident which precipitated the “Metric Martyrs” into becoming the subjects of national press coverage. Revisionist history blamed “EU overreach” for this measurement imposition. This incident may have affected the vote for “Brexit” and the UK leaving the EU, even though the EU had surrendered in 2007, and told the UK it could use Imperial measures if it wanted.

The author summarizes the anti-metric battles of the 19th century in the US. The pyramid inch and other pseudo-scientific arguments are presented. Vincent then makes an interesting comparison:

We can see how the nineteenth-century Battle of the Standards resembles present-day culture wars, pitching an “authentic” class of workers against an out-of-touch elite.

The rest of his discussion of anti-metrication in the US is little different than that found in other works. It ends with Tucker Carlson’s rant against the metric system. It is difficult to recommend a book on measurement, and the metric system, that includes Tucker Carlson, and omits John Wilkins.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.