Decimalization, Money, Science, and Libraries

One of the more interesting perspectives I've read recently related to the history of science comes from a book called, "The History of Money," by Jack Weatherford. This is one of my favorite books because, like it or not, money makes the world go 'round, and this clearly written and well-constructed book, although a bit dated, still illuminates much about a subject that is relevant to more than we might imagine, science and technology included.

How we value goods and services has been an eons-long project, and quirky systems proliferated for a long time (and do to this day). However, a familiar and more rigorous system emerged with the move toward a decimalized (100-base) currency system.

The first major move toward decimalization of our world came from Russia's move in the early 18th century. Other currency systems of the time were based on an odd assemblage of values. The Spanish dollar consisted of eight reales. The English system rested on farthings, crowns, sovereigns, pennies, guineas, and pounds. In this system, a shilling consisted of 12 pence, and a pound of 20 shillings, making a pound worth 240 pence. A guinea (a pound and a shilling) was worth 260 pence. This made it easy to perpetuate fraud and obscure price changes, and generally harder to do business.

The Russian system was not adopted in Europe because Russia was viewed as backwards. However, the United States, an ocean away, felt no such qualms, and became the first coinage system to become wholly decimal-based -- 100 pennies = 1 dollar. France soon followed, with the move to decimal-based currency coinciding nicely with the development of the metric system.

However, the metric system was not an instant success. While the scientific community saw the value of a standardized system of measures, agreeing on which set to use was a challenge. James Watt was a major proponent of standardized systems, but his ideas were adopted incompletely, with the main ones remaining being the watt and horsepower (747.5 watts).

It was within the bounds of international trade shows -- World Fairs and the like -- that commercial and scientific measurement systems commingled, synthesized, and standardized. As Weatherford writes:

At the urging of industrialists and other supporters of the metric system for coins, weights, and measures, scientists gathered for an international statistical meeting during the . . . world's fair, held in Paris in 1855. . . . The Vienna Coin Treaty of January 24, 1857, helped move forward the adoption of the decimal system for coinage, and it encouraged the adoption of metric weights and measures.

There is a particularly rich and rueful section omitted from this simple summary, which is one of many examples from the book showing how Weatherford has a great sense for historical irony.

In another development tying information systems into this entire commercial and scientific mix, we have this, following the observation that Americans have been loathe to adopt the decimal system for their weights and measures:

Americans, however, did apply the decimal system in an unexpected way through the work of an otherwise little known New York librarian and Columbia University professor, Melvin Dewey. He divided library books into ten classifications, which he further divided and redivided into what became known as the Dewey decimal system.

Money, libraries, and measurements all filtered down from the upper reaches of society to the poorest segments, making simple acts like "counting to 100" and "dividing by 10" second-nature for all. Stories reflected the shift into greater awareness of financial matters and the transformative power of harnessing nature, as "Jack and the Beanstalk" deals with a silly barter for beans that ultimately transform into a way to gain the secret wealth of a giant, and Rumplestiltskin, in which straw can be spun into gold and a pinprick can lead to death.

Weatherford writes convincingly about how the decimalization of value, the natural world, and our information sphere changed the world:

Money forces humans to reduce qualitative differences to quantitative ones. It forces a numbering of things, and this quantification allows things that are very unalike to be compared. This numbering pushed ahead the development of mathematics, and when applied to other fields, it made science possible. This tendency toward numbering became the basis of modern thought from the rise of mathematics and science through to the increased objectification of law, medicine, teaching, and virtually all other professions.

We continue to see these approaches proliferate, from sabremetrics in baseball to the scores related to movies in Rotten Tomatoes to the ratings on shopping and recipe sites -- they all point to the drive to quantify experiences and activities for the sake of comparison. In scholarly publishing, the impact factor, altmetrics, and a variety of other measures represent similar attempts to allow us to compare.

This kind of empirical approach to the world informs success at many levels -- in how information is organized, how we understand the world (including customers and their values), and how we plan for the future.