A review of The Social Life of Measures: Metrication in the United States and Mexico, 1789-2004, by Hector Vera.
Since its invention by a handful of French savants at the end of the eighteenth century, the decimal metric system has become the official system of measurement employed by more than 95% of the world’s countries. The last country to adopt it was Santa Lucia, in 2000, and as I write, only six countries have not ratified it: Liberia, Myanmar, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and most notoriously, the United States. The success of the metric system seems so obvious and inevitable, standardized measures so natural and banal, that it is easy to overlook the struggles that shaped their adoption throughout the world in a matter of just two centuries. Hector Vera’s dissertation, comparing divergent responses to the metric system in the United States and its southern neighbor, Mexico — which culminated in the use of the decimal metric system in Mexico and in its rejection in the United States — is an important contribution to a growing field of studies (by scholars such as Witold Kula, Theodore Porter, Norton Wise, Alfred Crosby, Linda Derksen, Ken Adler, Bruno Latour, Susan Leigh Star among others) bent on revealing the social lives of measures, by interrogating the neutrality of standards and uncovering the work needed to stabilize them.
In itself, the fact that Mexico would have “gone metric” while the United States continued to use the feet, miles and pounds, is an aberration. In his first chapter, Hector Vera leads the reader through a historical geography of metric triumphs. Dividing his data into 50-year spans, Vera shows how, between 1800-1850, only France and its North African colonies had adopted the metric system. By the 1890s all of Latin America followed suit, and 1901-1950 saw the adoption of the decimal metric system by most countries, except for the United Kingdom and its colonies, which did so it by the late 1960s. Although these dates are hardly absolute (in most places resistance to the metric system continued long after the meter began to be used by the scientific community or after it was officially decreed as the only valid standard by the state), Vera’s exercise reveals the emergence of patterns: most countries adopted the metric system either through colonization or at moments of political watershed, like decolonization, independence or revolution. Neighboring a metric country was an important incentive for adopting the decimal metric system, as was the case with most countries in Latin America. It is surprising, therefore, that the United States remains the only non-metric country in the Americas, despite sharing borders with Canada and Mexico, and despite the commercial ties that bind the three countries. Why?
Vera’s dissertation, based on rich archival research in Mexico and the United States, unearths the dramas and debates which accompanied attempts to introduce the metric system in each of these two countries. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, both countries used a wide variety of units of measurement. In the United States there were 282 different units for the foot, while in Mexico, many units harked back to a long-gone political economy — caballería, for instance, corresponded to the plot of land granted to the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth centuries; such older units competed or merely co-exited with more recent units of measurement. It was clear that universal units were necessary and that the meter was one possibility for standardization among others. As Vera’s micro-history shows, why the meter “succeeded” in Mexico and was rejected in the United States was contingent on numerous factors, that included political structures, party ideology, the role played by science in government, and the consolidation of merchant or manufacturing association with strong group identities.
The United States, the first of the two countries to gain independence in 1776, was also the first of the two to attempt fixing standards, and Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the Establishment of a Money Unit and of a Coinage for the United States” (1784) was a first call for standardization. The result was the adoption of decimal currency but not of a decimal metric system, and the case in favor of the meter was made again during the period of Reconstruction, following the end of the Civil War. However, the Metric Act of 1866, identifying the meter as an agent of civilization, fell short because of its ambiguity, confiding, as it did, that each state of the union would end up adopting the metric system in due time. This was a lost opportunity, concludes Vera, since it was precisely at this moment of political watershed that the meter could have triumphed, had it been promoted more assertively. South of the border, in Mexico, which gained independence in 1821, the meter was also tied with currency reform. Changing the coin had many detractors, however, especially since the Mexican silver peso (divided into 8 reales) was a very successful unit of currency, which circulated widely in East Asia and was held in high regard in China because of its consistency, quality, shape and decoration. Lucas Alamán (1792-1853), conservative politician, merchant and scientist, defended the peso with a mixture of pragmatism and nationalism: it was best to protect a working institution than to rush into building a new one. (His objections were hardly groundless: the decimal peso lost terrain in China years later.) President Benito Juárez (1806-1872), who identified himself strongly with the French Revolution, made currency and measurement reform some of the cornerstones of his liberal reforms in the 1850s. Hector Vera concludes that strong autonomy of individual states in the United States worked against the adoption of the metric system, while in Mexico, the creation of a centralized state was key to the triumph of the meter. This did not translate, for many years to come, into the abandonment of other currently-in-use units of measurement, but there is not little irony in the fact that Emperor Maximilian, placed on the Mexican throne in 1865 by Napoleon III, found his Mexican subjects officially committed to the metric system, while his Austrian subjects at home continued to use the pfund.
The second big push for metrication came in the late nineteenth century, in the wake of the First International Conference of American States in 1889, where the hemisphere’s nations agreed on the necessity of shared standards in the interest of commerce and chose the meter as that standard. After signing the agreement, the delegates to the convention returned to their respective nations to implement it. In Mexico, strongman Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915), who had staffed his cabinet with a group of hardcore believers in the supremacy of science as a vehicle for progress — the so-called Los Científicos — continued the work started by Benito Juárez three decades earlier. In the United States, by contrast, scientists played a limited role in government. There, the most ambitious agents promoting the metric system were the Committee on Language, Weights and Measures, which recommended the adoption of the meter in 1901, and Melvil Dewey’s (1851-1931) American Metric Bureau. Vera builds up a vivid portrait of Dewey as an enthusiastic champion of standardization, who appealed to the universality and pragmatism of the universal calendar, the alphabet and Hindu-Arabic numerals, to promote the use of new forms of library classification and the adoption of auxiliary international languages, like Esperanto, and of the metric system. Only his library classification system was widely adopted. The meter met strong opposition from the American Society for Mechanical Engineers which, following Herbert Spencer’s objections to the meter, published a pamphlet entitled “The Metric Fallacy” in 1904. At the same time, the National Association of Manufacturers, which only a few years before had endorsed the metric system, stopped all initiatives for its adoption in Congress, an act which Vera characterizes as an instance of an “adamant defense by American industries of their perceived right to set technical standards and the reluctance by federal government to intervene” (p. 289).
The debate between those who wanted to facilitate trade and those who appealed to professional rights continued, and by the 1930s, United States opponents to the metric system had a new answer to the American nations south of the border. There was no reason why the Pan-American standard would have to be the meter; it was just as valid, they argued, if other American nations adopted United States’ units of measurement! The proposal was not received well in Latin America, where governments had been working for decades on the dissemination of the metric system among their populations, sometimes at terrible political and human cost. As case in point, Hector Vera describes in great detail the bloody revolt against the introduction of the meter in the Mexican state in Oaxaca early in the twentieth century. During the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (from 1934 to 1940) — whose celebrity rests today on his nationalization of Mexico’s oil — the metric system made important headway in Mexico, boosted by rural campaigns directed against the use of other systems of measurements. By contrast, in the United States, Reagan quenched the last efforts at the official adoption of the metric system and not even the trade agreement between Canada, United States and Mexico revived hopes for metrication in the country.
Built around a series of episodes, Hector Vera’s dissertation draws important conclusions about the macro-historical patterns at stake in the “trans-national and trans-generational diffusion of knowledge” (p. 3), as exemplified, in this case, by the adoption of the meter. He highlights the role played by nation-states in need for making territories, resources and populations legible, and for establishing monopolies on the means of measurement; the types of alliance or lack thereof between the state and science; the appropriation of expert knowledge by the general public, organizations, groups, and individuals; and ultimately the persistence of “irrationality” and the margin for difference, even in the face of highly authoritative and “rational” standards like the decimal metric system. After all, in Mexico, eggs are still sold by the dozen.
Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Cuajimalpa
National Archives of Mexico (AGN), Mexico City
Historical Archives of Mexico City (AHDF), Mexico City
Historical Archive “Ignacio Manuel Altamirano”, Mexican Society for Geography and Statistics, Mexico City
New York Historical Society, New York
Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University
The New School for Social Research. 2011. 515pp. Primary Advisor: Eiko Ikegami.
Image: The Measurers, oil on panel, attributed to Hendrik van Balen, 16th century (Museum of the History of Science, Oxford).