Beyond Measure by James Vincent review – worth its weight in gold

Once upon a time there was no time at all. And no weight, no mass, no height, no volume. None of the gauges and instruments we use to make sense of the world around us existed. They hadn’t been invented yet. And although the physical properties measurements refer to existed before the names humans coined to describe them, James Vincent notes in Beyond Measure, the point at which people developed systems to quantify the physical world around them was a moment of transformation for our species. Thirty-two thousand years later, that transformation is still unfolding, as measurement embeds itself ever further into our lives, from work to health, love to death: the world made data.

A Fitbit is some distance from a bone ruler, and the gap marks a huge expenditure of energy across a vast expanse of time during which generations laboured over finer and finer gradations of measurement. What motivation could there possibly be for this kind of devotion? In the first instance, Vincent says, the simplest imaginable: survival.

In agricultural society, the ability to measure the passage of time – to follow a calendar, a pattern of sowing and reaping – made harvests possible. A sharper sense of weather – an eye, in other words, for measurement – made harvests predictable. Nilometers in ancient Egypt, Vincent discovers on a trip to the country, could tell Nile-side worriers how far fertilising flood waters had risen that spring, predicting feast or famine later in the year.

Even today, the gravity attached to the yearly ritual is almost palpable: dead pharaohs would be buried with measure-sticks in hand. Early on, the right to assess – and enforce – measurement became concomitant with political authority. We call them rulers for a reason.

Defining and maintaining standard weight and volume – particularly in the all-consuming food and drink trade – continued as one of the state’s central obligations for millennia. Vincent is a nimble storyteller, and a sympathetic one: his sensitivity to the human drama at work behind the grand theories is particularly visible in his treatment of the chaotic centuries before standardisation.

Special police forces, such as the Byzantine empire’s bullotai, roamed the empire checking weights. Legal systems, such as England’s court of piepowder (“the lowest and the most expeditious court of justice in England”), greased the gears of a society dependent on trusted standards – and uneasily conscious of how fragile those standards actually were. When French commoners demand “One king, one law, one weight and one measure”, or medieval townsfolk petition for a municipal clock, we’re reminded that however abstruse measurement appears, it’s never distant: a life shared with hundreds, let alone millions of people, would be unthinkable without it.

Only natural, then, that sea changes in the way we live affect the way we measure. France in the throes of revolution is Vincent’s paradigm here. When absolute monarchy was toppled, measurement’s ancien regime fell with it. Old systems of measurement based on the human body – such as the hand-to-elbow cubit, or the thumb-width inch – were intuitive but inaccurate, as variable as human beings themselves. A standard founded on the underlying structure of the universe would, by contrast, be universally usable and universally accessible: fraternity through the tape measure.

James Vincent: ‘a nimble storyteller, and a sympathetic one’
James Vincent: ‘a nimble storyteller, and a sympathetic one’. Photograph: Faber

No wonder that the metre (marking one 10-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator) was originally proposed by revolutionary France as an internationalist gesture, a paving stone on the road to universal human friendship. And no surprise that opposition to metricisation takes the form of outsized patriotism – from Victorians who believed the pyramids were built using British measures to Boris Johnson’s attempted resurrection of imperial units in time for the jubilee. Litres and kilograms, commonplace now, once acted as the heralds of a new world: rational, scientific, humane – building, measure by measure, a finer, happier world.

Those dreams died – along with some of the revolution’s bolder imaginings, such as the 10-day week. But scientific, standardised measurement went on to conquer the world. Beyond Measure is unabashed about the good that has achieved – food chains couldn’t function without it, let alone complex civilisation.

But Vincent is unsentimental about measurement’s darker aspect: the way common standards can enchain as well as liberate. In a later chapter, he follows guerrilla campaigners against the metric system in the heart of England, and – although not quite convinced by their replacement of kilometre signposts with ones noting miles – he knows that the forwards march of measurement brings loss as well as gain.

Metres and centimetres may be more scientific than feet and inches, but they’re both only as rational as the humans using them. Malign phenomena inspired or justified by measurement – from colonialism and eugenics to eating disorders – vindicate Vincent’s warnings that measures were created for the sake of human beings, not the other way round. In an endlessly quantified world, lines between the inhuman and inhumane can be hard to notice – and easy to cross.

In walking those lines, far worse guides could be found than Vincent, who marries infectious enthusiasm for the science with healthy scepticism about the uses human beings put it to. Giving critics of, and apologists for, measurement their due, Beyond Measure gently suggests that something is being missed. The point isn’t that measurement is good or bad, but that it’s human. And to be human is to adapt, to amend, to alter. If the quantified world isn’t working, no need to panic. Maybe it’s time for a change.

Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement by James Vincent is published by Faber (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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