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Encyclopaedia of Historical Metrology, Weights, and Measures, 3 Volumes

Jan Gyllenbok
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Science Networks Historical Studies 56
[Reviewed by
Mark Bollman
, on

Reviewing something called an "encyclopedia" is a challenge. While I read through two complete sets of the World Book Encyclopedia as a child, I recognize that that's not how that kind of work is meant to be consumed, a caution that applies equally to this monumental work.

That said, a careful reading of at least a few large portions seems necessary if one is to appreciate the scope of this three-volume set, which represents a 40-year project on Jan Gyllenbok's part. Trying to pass judgment on what is essentially a lifelong interest adds another tricky dimension to this review.

Fortunately, this is an outstanding compendium of all things metrological. Starting with the alphabetical listing of units in Volume 1, there was not a unit that I looked for without finding. That included "millihelen", the "jocular" (in the author's words) unit of beauty sufficient to launch one ship. In and among the very serious units of measurement, one can find several such whimsical proposed units, and searching for them is a pleasant, perhaps unanticipated, reason for reading carefully.

Along the same lines, I don't know who figured out that 1 attoparsec per microfortnight is approximately 1 inch per second (actually 1.0043 in/s), but I'm glad someone did, and equally glad that it's recorded here.

The subsequent volumes are exactly what one might expect to find: a very comprehensive description of units and their uses from all over the world. Antarctic currency? It's there. The description of different units of measurement developed over time by the various states of India? Also present, and an excellent illustration of the advantages of a widely-accepted set of standards for measurement- one can imagine the challenges inherent in trade among so many states with so many measurement systems.

As a reference work, this set is outstanding, but it also rewards occasional casual reading if you're a fan of measurement. Jan Gyllenbok can take pleasure in a life well-spent.

Mark Bollman ( is professor of mathematics and chair of the department of mathematics and computer science at Albion College in Michigan.  His mathematical interests include number theory, probability, and geometry. Mark’s claim to be the only Project NExT fellow (Forest dot, 2002) who has taught both English composition and organic chemistry to college students has not, to his knowledge, been successfully contradicted.  If it ever is, he is sure that his experience teaching introductory geology will break the deadlock.

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.