Where does the Metric System come from?

The beginning

If any one man can be credited with being the creator of the Metric System it would be the French vicar, Gabriel Mouton. As far back as 1670 his method of measurement, based on the decimal system, was discussed. He based the ideas for this upon the measurement of what would later become a nautical mile: one minute of the the arc of the Earth’s circle. His measurement ideas that he had, including a unit of length based upon a pendulum swing of one beat per second, were all later elaborated on by French scientists, bringing us closer to the current Metric system.

metric system

During the French Revolution these ideas were carried one step further by Talleyrand (the Bishop of Autun). The revolution encouraged many changes and reforms, amongst them the need to reform the way that things were measured and weighed. Talleyrand’s political indulgence and guidance allowed the French Academy to begin research into a new French system for measures and weights. One of the ideas carried forward used the length based on a decimal fraction of the distance between the North Pole and the equator, the move towards decimalization was underway.

Amidst all this complication the French Revolution continued unabated. Despite wider concerns in this difficult period the National Assembly of France pressured the scientific community into creating a simple standard to be followed. Like the previous ideas this too was based upon measurements of the Earth length was determined as a fraction of the circumference of the globe. In an interlinked system both the measures for volume and mass were also to use length as their foundation. A base unit of ten was determined to be the best system for either smaller or larger multiples of the units. By using the base system of ten previously complicated measuring calculations were simplified greatly.

Harking back to classical history a word of Greek origin was used for length. In Greek, Metron means to measure, thus was born the new word: metre. If one runs a line from the North Pole to the equator and divides by ten million the measurement that is thus derived is the modern metre.

In a way this was actually measured by a French surveying team. Headed up by M.Mechain and M.Delambre over 6 years were spent in surveying, often amidst great adversity, the meridian that ran from the North Pole through Dunkirk and Barcelona. Modern findings however find that the phenomena of oblateness was not taken into account as flattening of the Earth’s surface was not taken into account. Despite this the measure itself has remained unchanged with only semantic differences taken into account for the actual definition.

Length was of course only one part of the picture and other units derived from the basic metre had to be constructed. Like the Earth’s measurement other natural artifacts were used. Water was the keystone for gram as it was determined that the mass of one cubic centimetre of water was to be the basis for the unit to be known as a “gram”. A litre was also derived from length as it became based upon the volume of a cube with dimensions of 0.1 metres on each side.

It wasn’t always an easy ride for the newly founded metric system. In fact it even gained Napoleon’s disapproval at one time and he forbade its use. An official adoption of the system happened on 7 April 1795. The metric system was soon to spread from its French origins and a big step along that road was a Pan-European science conference that was used to lend credence to the new system and confirm standardization. Actual physical standards were constructed from platinum for both the measure of mass and length; towards the end of the 18th Century France made these official. This was followed by legislation that made it obligatory to use it from 1840.

What really increased the prominence of the new system was the fact that it was uniquely suited to the needs of the scientific community. As the modern world embraced technology and there was a virtual scientific revolution to follow on the political revolutions the decimal system was a strong tool helping this change. The USA long following on their admiration of the changes coming from France even used an Act of Congress to ensure that all contracts and other legal obligations had to employ the weights and measures of the metric system.

The Convention of the Metre

With much of the world starting to adopt the system it became necessary to keep up standards and continue to improve the definitions used. The international community had a rare moment of parity in 1875 when an agreement known as the Convention of the Metre was adopted. 17 countries altogether signed up for the agreement including the USA where it was signed and became commonly known as the Treaty of the Meter. Standards were ratified and distributed around the world and since 1893 have been adopted as the agreed measurement standards.

By the turn of the century 35 Nations had signed up to it with both the Old World and almost the entirety of South America adopting it. Developments still continued with 1960 seeing the system undergoing further simplification and improvement. It was at this General Conference on Weights and Measures that the base units were finally agreed upon. The seven units included the ampere, kelvin, candela, mole, meter, kilogram and second. It was from this conference that the International System of Units (Systeme International D’Unites or SI) gained universal adoption.

Further developments in the USA

With such a simple system it was only a matter of time before business pushed for universal adoption. In the USA the Secretary of Commerce attempted to coordinate a program in which a decade long program would see the adoption of the metric system throughout the country. 1975 saw the Metric Conversion act promulgated in response to the program in which voluntary adoption was encouraged. This act was changed in 1988, in the amendments it was decided that by the end of the business year of 1992 every federal agency would do their best to use the metric system in all of its business related activities.

The Future

Periodic meetings of the General Conference on Weights and Measures continue to improve the SI standard. Always means are sought to find better ways to define the measurement units so that technological advances don’t make the metric systems definitions obsolete. America still continues to have a mixed relationship with the metric system. Inches and pounds are still used in an uneasy alliance with the SI system. Voters have not unanimously pushed for the adoption but many businesses have adopted it. It is inevitable that the USA will eventually convert over completely due to pressure from their foreign customers who invariably order their products in metric units.

Author Bio: Duwain is a teacher who pursues a second career as a tech blogger and freelance writer. In his free time he frantically researches on the topics of apps and games. He is currently associated with Converterin which is an online unit providing the most accurate and up to date metric and measurement conversions.

Image Credit: http://pmccabe420.files.wordpress.com

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2 thoughts on “Where does the Metric System come from?

  1. Interesting article. I didn’t know Napoleon forbade the use of the metric system. I really do wish the US would just switch completely to the metric system. Considering that we use base 10 in many forms of measurement like currency, it really makes more sense to use a consistent measurement system. Perhaps a future post could be about the history of Imperial Units and why some countries and businesses prefer its use.

    • Thanks for the suggestion Nick. And thank you very much for your suggestions on how to improve this site.

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