Local author explains ‘Whatever Happened to the Metric System?’

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This book sounds like kilograms of fun!

The story of how the metric system came to be the standard mode of measure for almost every country in the world — basically, everywhere except the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar — is a slice of interesting and weird history that not many people know. But Brooklyn author John Marciano is hoping to change that with his new book “Whatever Happened to the Metric System? How America Kept Its Feet.”

“People think it is just one more place where Americans are stupid or stubborn,” said Marciano, who will launch the book at Greenpoint’s Word bookstore on Aug. 12. “But I think there is something very important about keeping these units of measurement alive.”

The book looks at how other countries made the shift from the imperial unit of measure over to the metric system — and why the United States did not. The United States actually had planned to inch its way into the new system, too — President Gerald Ford even signed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975. But it was hard to create the momentum to make the changes, explained Marciano.

“There were some things that people got very upset about and some things they did not care about,” he said. “No one cared about their fifth of vodka changing to liters but they absolutely hated seeing ‘kilometer per hour’ on road signs.”

Marciano is the grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans, who created the “Madeline” children’s book series, and Marciano himself has written and illustrated several recent “Madeline” titles. But he has also written several books that aren’t about precocious French schoolgirls, including “Anonyponym­ous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words” and “Toponymity: An Atlas of Words.” It was while writing these more serious tomes that he first became interested in units of measurement.

“I found out about words like ‘fathom,’ which means to take a sounding to measure how deep water is,” said Marciano.

John Marciano presents “Whatever Happened to the Metric System?” at Word [126 Franklin St. at Milton Street in Greenpoint, (718) 383–0096,]. Aug. 12 at 7 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at or by calling (718) 260-2511. Follow her at
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Lars from Greenwood Heights says:
It's a matter of patriotism. Besides, the SI system is arbitrary anyway, no matter how they measure it.
Aug. 6, 2014, 5:17 am
Terry from Westport CT says:
The irony of keeping the Imperial system of measurements in America and calling it patriotism...
Aug. 6, 2014, 7:07 am
ty from pps says:
"the SI system is arbitrary anyway"

Umm... no, not arbitrary.

adjective: arbitrary

based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.
Aug. 6, 2014, 9:26 am
Crayton from Florida says:
The Meter is not then length of anything in particular, that is what makes it arbitrary. Theoretically it is 10,000,000 of the distance to the Earth's core; so the meter is a derived unit anyway.

The Foot is actually something. Here is an article on standardizing the Customary system to make it more... metric:
Aug. 6, 2014, 11:05 am
ty from pps says:
Crayton -- The foot is not "actually something." It varied over time, from king to king, prince to prince. The yard was not always 3 feet. The gallon varies according to what country you're in...

Meanwhile, yes, the metric system is "derived." That's what makes it work. Over time things have been standardized / tweaked for consistency, but there is still a basis for most units. A liter is a 10cm X 10cm X 10 cm cube. A liter of pure water at sea level has a mass of 1 kg. Water freezes at 0 degrees and boils at 100 degrees. A kilometer is a fine measurement.

Oh -- and your blog post? The most confusing thing ever. So, what you're suggesting is base-12 counting is superior. But, since that's a ridiculous notion that will never happen -- ya know, since all math (except computer engineering and other types of science far outside the everyday experience) is base-10 -- it's not gonna happen.

But then you start going off the deep end "Really there are 1028, so we will be shortening the mile 28 yards, a hardly noticeable change." (just 3% change... or a 0.043ᘔ0Ɛ62ᘔ change in base-12)

Sooooo.... You want to ARBITRARILY change the lengths of the traditional units to fit you ridiculous base-12 fever dream. But changing to the metric system would be inappropriate?!

So, to recap... No metric because it's arbitrary or unnatural or something like that (too French?). But we should change the definition of units of length, weight and volume (not arbitrary, right?) and start using a counting system that is completely and utterly foreign to almost every living soul in the modern world... I can't foresee any 'transition' problems at all when 10 = 12 and ᘔ = 11. :-/

In the meantime, in reality, we have a choice between continuing the madness of 128 oz = a gallon and 12 inches = a yard and 16 oz = a pound and 2,000 pounds = a ton... well, except in certain industries. OR we can start to earnestly transition into the metric system that allows for easy math and is the standard system for all science (with the exception of civil engineers in ONLY this country). Oh and it's the standard measurements for almost all of the world! But we should maintain that "specialness" right?

Have you heard of the United Kingdom? Yeah, everyone there knows the metric system, but they still know imperial units for casual use. I can say to an Englishman that I'm 183 cm tall or that I'm 6ft tall. Guess what? He'd understand BOTH! The even use miles on their roads, but that's pretty much it. Their pint and gallon (both now standardized according to a metric equivalent) are bigger than our... what should we do about that?! Clearly those measurements aren't "real" like your duodecimal foot and altered mile.

Why simplify with the Metric System when we can learn new math and change the definitions of most of our units of measurement!!


By the way, the historical definition of the meter was 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the north pole (i.e., the quadrant of a meridian line); not the core of the earth.
Aug. 6, 2014, 12:03 pm
ty from pps says:
now you can thank me.
Aug. 6, 2014, 6:03 pm
Lars from Greenwood Heights says:
Dude, meters are totally arbitrary. They supposedly are based on measuring the distance from the equator to the north pole.

Yeah, of EARTH!

What about the other planets?

Talk about retrograde thinking. There hasn't been such an anthropologically geocentric system to plague the human mind since the arrival of Copernicus.
Aug. 6, 2014, 9:09 pm
K from Yours says:
Nerd alert on these comments !
Aug. 6, 2014, 9:38 pm
Mike from Brooklyn says:
At last -- an interesting conversation in the BP comments. Thank you.
Aug. 6, 2014, 11:11 pm
Bob from Chicago says:
I would prefer metric over the embarrasing collection of units we use. It is much simpler and elegant the U.S. Imperial units. Some have said that metric is arbitrary, but as someone mentioned feet and gallons changed with the king of England. That is far more arbitrary. Time to dump imperial and go metric.
Aug. 7, 2014, 6:27 pm
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
So Bob, how much to you weigh in kilos?

How tall are you in Meters?
Aug. 7, 2014, 7:47 pm
ty from pps says:
Seriously, Rufus?
That's your retort. I know how much I weigh in kg. I know how tall I am in cm. I know how much 250 grams of sliced turkey is. I know how much a liter of water is. I also know that a liter of water weighs a kilo. I know I might want to bring a sweater if someone tells me it's 18 degree Celsius. I know how fast 100 km/h is.
This stuff isn't exactly mysterious and strange -- well, I guess, unless you're you. Rufus, you're easily overwhelmed by reality aren't you?
Aug. 7, 2014, 8:27 pm
John from Williamsburg says:
The metric system has made the following inroads: Soda is sold in 2-liter and 1-liter bottles. Drug dealers weigh their drugs in kilos. Prescription drugs are measured in cubic centimeters and milligrams. Electricity is measured in kilowatt hours. That's about it.
Aug. 8, 2014, 10:35 am

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