What Ever Happened to the Metric System…And Madeline?

In Children's, Discussion by Kevin DiCamillo

We talk to John Bemelmans Marciano, author of What Ever Happened to the Metric System? and the man who revived his grandfather’s Madeline franchise for the 21st century.

By Kevin DiCamillo with Sherrie A. Wilkolaski


John Bemelmans Marciano

In an Old House in Brooklyn,
In a part called Red Hook,
Madeline’s uncle wrote a wonderful book
On why we don’t use the Metric System.

If the last line of that poem falls flat, that’s kind of what happened with the Metric System and how it didn’t happen in the U.S.A. If you grew up in the 1970s, like John Bemelmans Marciano (and myself), you were told — warned! — by teachers from Kindergarten through junior high that, like Haley’s Comet:

“The Metric System is coming! You’d better learn it! You don’t want to be left behind!”

Sure, there were delays in the American implementation of the Metric System. And more delays. And Gerald Ford’s best aping of Yogi Berra that “America is miles ahead when it comes to implementing the metric system.” (Yes, he actually said this).

And then one day, during Reagan’s “Morning In America” it was all gone: we didn’t have to learn it and that was it.

Or was it?

In his delightful — and cleverly sub-titled — Whatever Happened To The Metric System? How America Kept Its Feet (Bloomsbury, 2014), John Bemelmans Marciano traces the (surprisingly long) history of the Metric System (or for you purists, the “SI”), which, for the purposes of his book, begins with no less a personage than America’s original Renaissance man, Thomas Jefferson—along with Parisian favorite Benjamin Franklin and John Adams who all happened to be in America’s newest ally, France.

“Actually, I wanted to go back to like the 1600s, and do a full-on ‘history-of-measurement’ — but they said the book would be too long”, Bemelmans said, commenting on the fate of all books in the hands of an angry editor: Make It Shorter.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about this book is that it really reads: Bemelmans, who admits, “I must have done four years of research” writes like a Professor talking about his favorite topic, with which he is completely at home.

As an added bonus: the book has stunning colur-plates and a black-and-white insert that are so well done they could be in an art book.

“One of things I had to get over was not reading book-reviews”, said Marciano. However, the book received excellent marks from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and The Brooklyn Paper — the last who quipped, “This book sounds like kilograms of fun!.” The “criticism” that all three at least implied was that the book was “overly-researched”. Marciano, who suffers from being tall, dark and handsome (and fit), responded that, “in a book like this it’s really important to go into detail as to why the metric system was created the way that it was: it’s one/40-millionth of the earth’s circumference as it was measured in the 1790s.”

CoverMetricImageFurther, “Different people want different things from the same book, so some readers didn’t care for the section on spelling simplification” [e.g. “publick” becomes “public”] Which all plays a part in the weird cosmic ballet of measurement—whether we are measuring drinks, medicine, the earth, coinage, or letters.

Marciano, who has lived in Canada and Italy — as well as a farm on New Jersey — has a literal world view that prevents him from sounding like an Angry American Who Doesn’t NEED The Metric System. Nor is he one of these insufferable nouveau Brooklynite writers whose latest affectation is a Continental love of all things Metric. Instead, Marciano gives a personal and heavily — and loving-researched — look at “why we are not completely metric” in the United States.

“I think people — at least of our generation — are interested in WHY we didn’t go full-metric. Whether or not that turns into sales of the book is another story”. We’ll have to see: the book was only just released on August 5th. And if Amazon rankings mean anything it’s currently ranked in the 50,000s.

Why the US Doesn’t Need Metric

The answers for the near-total demise of the metric system in the U.S. of A. are many and yet simple — I don’t believe in spoiler alerts — but if you lived through this time of Hurry-Up-And-Learn-Metric, replete with School House Rock Saturday morning “educational videos,” and then had to deal with a series of half-measures (no pun intended), you will, if not love this book, identify with it.

For example: all our medicine is in metric — but when your temperature is taken at the doctor, it’s in Fahrenheit. All soda is in liters (unless you are buying the 12-ounce can) and international sporting events, though even the Olympics retains the 26.2-mile marathon. Yet we still buy our pounds of butter, gallons of milk (and gas), and every year have a Triple Crown that is measured in furlongs. It is this admixture — of metric and American measurements — that makes it a good fit for, well, America. After all, we are a country without an official language—though there’s sure a lot of Spanish subtitles. And Polish ones in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And, as Marciano demonstrates, with McLuhan’s “global village” shrinking all the time, there’s really no need for America to switch to “full-fledged Metric.”

…and for Madeline

Madeline and the Cats of RomeThe book begins in France, and it’s impossible to talk to Marciano about things French and not mention Madeline, whose creator, Ludwig Bemelmans, is John’s grandfather. And Madeline is based on John’s own mother. John re-created an entire Madeline industry (he is an autodidact artist, just like grandfather) and produced Madeline and the Cats of Rome, Madeline Says Merci, Madeline and the White House, Madeline at the Zoo, Madeline and Her Dog, and Madeline and An Old House in Paris. But that’s it: “I’m not writing any more Madeline books,” Marciano declares.

And Whatever Happened To The Metric System? is a watershed for Marciano in that it is (a) not a childrens’ book, (b) not a popular word-origins books (cf. Marciano’s previous books on this subject, Anonyponymous and Toponymity, sold very well), and (c) is a melding of serious scholarship with a popular, personal look at a time when, as Peter N. Carroll called it, “It Seemed Like Nothing Happened.” Indeed, at his best, Marciano writes in a style that reminds one of Paul Collins (Banvard’s Folly) and Miles Harvey (The Island of Lost Maps).

With Metric Week looming (October 5-11—which coincides with the Frankfurt Book Fair) and enrollment in The U.S. Metric Association growing (somewhat), and the Metric System firmly entrenched in our medicine and soda-systems, Marciano has captured not only the brief flash that almost was the Metric System in America, but all that led up to it, starting with our Founding Fathers being feted in France.

About the Author

Kevin DiCamillo

Kevin DiCamillo is a freelance editor and writer whose most recent work has been on The Pope Francis Resource Library (Crossroad Publishing). He has published three books of poetry, been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. He has edited over 100 books for Paulist Press/HiddenSpring/Stimulus Books, Penguin/Celebra and Crossroad/Herder&Herder. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends the Yale Publishing Course.