(WHTM) — For millennia, humans have been measuring things. We’ve had cubits, stadia, long tons, short tons, shipping tons, hides, oxgangs, buddams, gills, hogsheads, hobbits (yes, seriously!), uncias, roods, zolotniks, antsingae, paus, pecks, and salt spoons-just to name a very, very few.
The problem, though, has always been coming up with standardized measurements. Many measurements were based on parts of the human body-the foot, of course, was based on the foot, a yard was based on the length of an arm, and the hand (still used for measuring the height of horses) was based on the hand. The closest anyone could come to any sort of standardization would be when a monarch would declare all measurements in the kingdom would be based on his or her hands, arms, and feet. That of course would only be good in that kingdom, and would often change when the next monarch ascended the throne.
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Everyone could see the benefits of having international units of measurement, but nothing much came of it until the 1700s-and it took the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to get things rolling. In 1790, the National Assembly of France called upon the French Academy of Sciences to “deduce an invariable standard for all the measures and all the weights.” to replace the system set up in the reign of Charlemagne. (Perfectly good system in its way, but people kept messing with the measurements.) The system the academy created was beautifully simple, and driven by the notion of deriving measurements from nature. The basic unit of length, the metre (or meter if you will) would be equal to one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator along a line of longitude. (This length has changed the same, even though more precise methods of measuring the meter have replaced the line of longitude.)
The new system was also decimal. Ten millimeters equal a centimeter, and 100 centimeters made a meter. Conversions could be made by just shifting a decimal point-none of this “16 ounces to a pound” or “12 inches to a foot” weirdness.
Units of volume and mass were derived from the meter. The gram is one cubic centimeter of water-cooled to just above freezing. (1000 grams=1 Kilogram.) The liter is the volume of a cubic decimeter (1/10 meter).
The French government adopted this new metric system on April 7, 1795. A conference including scientists from France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Spain, and Italy worked from 1798 to 1799 to design standard meters and kilograms, which were then crafted from platinum. France adopted these official standards in 1799.
Over the next two centuries, the Metric System, or The International System of Units (SI) as it’s now officially known, took over the world. The United States legalized the use of the Metric System in 1866, and while we’re using the English system of measurement on a day-to-day basis, it’s pretty hard to find a product on our shelves that doesn’t list its metric equivalent.
And for what it’s worth, all our English units of measurement-the foot, inch, pound, yard, etc.-have been officially defined by metric units since 1893…
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