Metric system

The metric system of measurement is an internationally agreed-upon set of units for expressing the amounts of various quantities such as length, mass, time, and temperature. As of 1994, every nation in the world has adopted the metric system, with only four exceptions: the United States, Brunei, Burma, and Yemen (which use the English units of measurement).

Because of its convenience and consistency, scientists have used the metric system of units for more than 200 years. Originally, the metric system was based on only three fundamental units: the meter for length, the kilogram for mass, and the second for time. Today, there are more than 50 officially recognized units for various scientific quantities.

Measuring units in folklore and history

Nearly all early units of size were based on the always-handy human body. In the Middle Ages, the inch is reputed to have been the length of a medieval king's first thumb joint. The yard was once defined as the distance between English king Henry I's nose and the tip of his outstretched middle finger. The origin of the foot as a unit of measurement is obvious.

Eventually, ancient "rules of thumb" gave way to more carefully defined units. The metric system was adopted in France in 1799.

The metric units

The metric system defines seven basic units: one each for length, mass, time, electric current, temperature, amount of substance, and luminous intensity. (Amount of substance refers to the number of elementary particles in a sample of matter; luminous intensity has to do with the brightness of a light source.) But only four of these seven basic quantities are in everyday use by nonscientists: length, mass, time, and temperature. Their defined units are the meter for length, the kilogram for mass, the second for time, and the degree Celsius for temperature. (The other three basic units are the ampere for electric current, the mole for amount of substance, and the candela for luminous intensity.)

The meter was originally defined in terms of Earth's size; it was supposed to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. Since Earth is subject to geological movements, this distance does not remain the same. The modern meter, therefore, is defined in terms of how far light will travel in a given amount of time when traveling at the speed of light. The speed of light in a vacuum—186,282 miles (299,727 kilometers) per hour—is considered to be a fundamental constant of nature that will never change. The standard meter is equivalent to 39.3701 inches.

The kilogram is the metric unit of mass, not weight. Mass is the fundamental measure of the amount of matter in an object. Unfortunately, no absolutely unchangeable standard of mass has yet been found on which to standardize the kilogram. The kilogram is therefore defined as the mass of a certain bar of platinum-iridium alloy that has been kept since 1889 at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France. The kilogram is equivalent to 2.2046 pounds.

Metric System


Metric System

Unit Abbreviation Mass of Grams U.S. Equivalent (approximate)
metric ton t 1,000,000 1.102 short tons
kilogram kg 1,000 2.2046 pounds
hectogram hg 100 3.527 ounces
dekagram dag 10 0.353 ounce
gram g 1 0.035 ounce
decigram dg 0.1 1.543 grains
centigram cg 0.01 0.154 grain
milligram mg 0.001 0.015 grain
microgram μm 0.000001 0.000015 grain


Metric System

Unit Abbreviation Mass of Grams U.S. Equivalent (approximate)
kilometer km 1,000 0.62 mile
hectometer hm 100 328.08 feet
dekameter dam 10 32.81 feet
meter m 1 39.37 inches
decimeter dm 0.1 3.94 inches
centimeter cm 0.01 0.39 inch
millimeter mm 0.001 0.039 inch
micrometer μm 0.000001 0.000039 inch


Metric System

Unit Abbreviation Mass of Grams U.S. Equivalent (approximate)
square kilometer sq km or km 2 1,000,000 0.3861 square miles
hectare ha 10,000 2.47 acres
are a 100 119.60 square yards
square centimeter sq cm or cm 2 0.0001 0.155 square inch


Metric System

Unit Abbreviation Mass of Grams U.S. Equivalent (approximate)
cubic meter m 3 1 1.307 cubic yards
cubic decimeter dm 3 0.001 61.023 cubic inches
cubic centimeter cu cm or cm 3 or cc 0.000001 0.061 cubic inch


Metric System

Unit Abbreviation Mass of Grams U.S. Equivalent (approximate)
kiloliter kl 1,000 1.31 cubic yards
hectoliter hl 100 3.53 cubic feet
dekaliter dal 10 0.35 cubic foot
liter l 1 61.02 cubic inches
cubic decimeter dm 3 1 61.02 cubic inches
deciliter dl 0.10 6.1 cubic inches
centiliter cl 0.01 0.61 cubic inch
milliliter ml 0.001 0.061 cubic inch
microliter μl 0.000001 0.000061 cubic inch

The metric unit of time is the same second that has always been used, except that it is now defined in a very accurate way. It no longer depends on the wobbly rotation of our planet (1/86,400th of a day), because Earth is slowing down. Days keep getting a little longer as Earth grows older. So the second is now defined in terms of the vibrations of a certain kind of atom known as cesium-133. One second is defined as the amount of time it takes for a cesium-133 atom to vibrate in a particular way 9,192,631,770 times. Because the vibrations of atoms depend only on the nature of the atoms themselves, cesium atoms will presumably continue to behave exactly like cesium atoms forever. The exact number of cesium vibrations was chosen to come out as close as possible to what was previously the most accurate value of the second.

The metric unit of temperature is the degree Celsius, which replaces the English system's degree Fahrenheit. It is impossible to convert between Celsius and Fahrenheit simply by multiplying or dividing by 1.8, however, because the scales start at different places. That is, their zero-degree marks have been set at different temperatures.

Bigger and smaller metric units

In the metric system, there is only one basic unit for each type of quantity. Smaller and larger units of those quantities are all based on powers of ten (unlike the English system that invents different-sized units with completely different names based on different conversion factors: 3, 12, 1760, etc.). To create those various units, the metric system simply attaches a prefix to the name of the unit. Latin prefixes are added for smaller units, and Greek prefixes are added for larger units. The basic prefixes are: kilo- (1000), hecto- (100), deka- (10), deci- (0.1), centi- (0.01), and milli- (0.001). Therefore, a kilometer is 1,000 meters. Similarly, a millimeter is one-thousandth of a meter.

Minutes are permitted to remain in the metric system even though they don't conform strictly to the rules. The minute, hour, and day, for example, are so customary that they're still defined in the metric system as 60 seconds, 60 minutes, and 24 hours—not as multiples of ten. For volume, the most common metric unit is not the cubic meter, which is generally too big to be useful in commerce, but the liter, which is one-thousandth of a cubic meter. For even smaller volumes, the milliliter, one-thousandth of a liter, is commonly used. And for large masses, the metric ton is often used instead of the kilogram. A metric ton (often spelled tonne) is 1,000 kilograms. Because a kilogram is about 2.2 pounds, a metric ton is about 2,200 pounds: 10 percent heavier than an American ton of 2,000 pounds. Another often-used, nonstandard metric unit is the hectare for land area. A hectare is 10,000 square meters and is equivalent to 0.4047 acre.

[ See also Units and standards ]

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