History of measurement
Any system of measurement must have a basic unit for its standard. This fact has been the basis for rejection of various systems. Historically standards have included:
- The unit of length (cubit) from the back of the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.
- The unit of length (foot) of a human foot.
- The unit of length (meter) a pendulum would travel in one full swing in one second. This unit had the practical problem of varing with temperature and altitude.
- The unit of length (meter) equal to one ten-millionth of the length of the arc from the equator to the North Pole, or a quadrant of the Earth's meridian circle.
- The unit of mass (kilogram) of water contained in a cube whose sides are one-tenth the unit of length (meter).
- The unit of volume (liter) in a cube whose sides are one-tenth the unit of length (meter).
- The unit of length (meter) constructed by a precise measurement of the arc of meridian between Dunkirk, France, and Barcelona, Spain. The length of the arc from the equator to the North Pole was then to be inferred from astronomical measurements of angle. The survey was completed in November 1798, and platinum artifact reference standard for the meter and the kilogram were constructed in June 1799. These two standards, were in the French National Archive in Paris. Known as the Meter of the Archives and the Kilogram of the Archives.
A Chronology of the Metric System and Measurement in the United States
In his book “The Tenth” Simon Stevin suggests that a decimal system should be used for weights and measures, coinage, and divisions of the degree of arc.
Authorities give credit for originating the metric system to Gabriel Mouton, a French vicar, on about this year.
Article I, Section 8 of the U. S. Constitution gives Congress the power to "fix the standard of weights and measures" for the nation.
History of Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson and the metric system
Thomas Jefferson proposed to the Congress of the United States a decimal based measurement system. Congress took no action. Metric system was not yet developed.
France’s Louis XVI authorized scientific investigations aimed at a reform of French weights and measures. These investigations led to the development of the first “metric” system.
The U.S. Mint was formed to produce the world’s first decimal currency (the U.S. dollar consisting of 100 cents).
France officially adopted the metric system.
Napoleon temporarily suspended the compulsory provisions of the 1795 metric system adoption.
John Quincy Adams submitted to congress a report and review of systems of weight. He did not recommend the use of the metric system as he felt it would not be accepted by the public and the many changes required to implement it would be impractical at the time.
The metric system reinstated as the compulsory system in France.
Congress enacted the Metric Act of 1866 (Public Law 39-183). It authorized, but not mandated, the use of the metric system in the United States. It was signed into law by President Andrew Johnson on July 20, 1866. It regulated the coordintion of weights and measures between the United States and other nations and made it unlawful to refuse to trade or deal in metric quantities.
The Convention of the Metre signed on 20 May 1875 in Paris by 17 nations.
The United States participated in the Convention of the meter in Paris in 1875, signed the Treaty of the Metre, received prototypes of the standard meter bar and standard kilogram in 1893, which became the nation's official unit standards for length and mass, both for metric and customary weights and measures.
The Meter Convention, often called the Treaty of the Meter in the United States, provided for improved metric weights and measures and the establishment of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) devoted to international agreement on matters of weights and measures. To recognize this anniversary, May, 20 is now World Metrology Day, as found on the Metric events and anniversaries page.
As a result of the Metre Convention, the U.S. received a prototype meter and kilogram to be used as measurement standards.
These metric prototypes were declared “fundamental standards of length and mass” in the Mendenhall Order. Since that date, the yard, pound, etc. have been officially defined in terms of the metric system.
In 1901 the U.S. National Bureau of Standards was established to serve the worlds of science and technology.
The Metric Association formed as a non-profit organization advocating adoption of the metric system in U.S. commerce and education. The organizational name started as the American Metric Association and was changed to the U.S. Metric Association (USMA) in 1974.
The Metric Association published its first metric style guide. [Its current edition is now available as Guide to the Use of the Metric System (SI)]
United States Establishment of Standard Decimal and Division of Weights, ... Vol 66. United States Congress House committee on coinage, weights, and measures. 35 pages.
The International System of Units began its development at the 10th CGPM. Six of the new metric base units were adopted.
A conference of English-speaking nations agreed to unify their standards of length and mass, and define them in terms of metric measures. The American yard was shortened and the imperial yard was lengthened as a result. The new conversion factors were announced in the Federal Register (v. 24(128), 1959-Jul-01, p. 5348-5349).
The General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) adopts the name Système International d’Unités, with the international abbreviation SI, for the metric system and lays down rules for prefixes, derived units, and other matters, specifying six base units (meter, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, candela).
The meter is redefined in terms of a wavelength of light emitted by krypton atoms, replacing the 1889 prototype bar of platinum-iridium (see the history of definitions of the meter).
The National Bureau of Standards (NBS) made the metric system its standard “except when the use of these units would obviously impair communication or reduce the usefulness of a report.”
Public Law 90-472 authorized a 3-year U.S. Metric Study, to determine the impact of increasing metric use on the U.S. This study was carried out by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS).
The U.S. Metric Study resulted in a Report to the Congress: A Metric America, A Decision Whose Time Has Come. The 13-volume report concluded that the U.S. should, indeed, “go metric” deliberately and carefully through a coordinated national program, and establish a target date 10 years ahead, by which time the U.S. would be predominately metric.
The mole becomes SI’s seventh base unit.
The UCLA/USMA/LACES/STC and other professional groups National Metric Conference, the largest ever held, totaling 1700 registrants, took place at the University of California, Los Angeles in September. It took place as a result of USMA’s recommendation. USMA coordinated and directed the event. One of the speakers was the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
The American National Metric Council (ANMC) formed as a not-for-profit, non-advocative trade organization to plan and coordinate SI implementation by U.S. industry.
The Education Amendments of 1974 (Public Law 92-380) encouraged educational agencies and institutions to prepare students to use the metric system of measurement as part of the regular educational program.
The initials “U.S.” were added to the Metric Assocation name by the Board of Directors. The organization is now known as the “U.S. Metric Association, Inc.” with the initialism “USMA”.
The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-168) passed by Congress. The Metric Act established the U.S. Metric Board to coordinate and plan the increasing use and voluntary conversion to the metric system. However, the Metric Act was devoid of any target dates for metric conversion.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) started the National Metric Week tradition, with the first one during the week of 10 May 1976, the year after the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 was enacted.
The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) requires wine producers and importers to switch to metric bottles in seven standard [liter and milliliter] sizes.
The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) requires distilled spirits (hard liquor) bottles to conform to the volume of one of six standard metric [liter and milliliter] sizes.
President Ronald Reagan disbanded the U.S. Metric Board and canceled its funding. Responsibility for metric coordination was transferred to the Office of Metric Programs in the Department of Commerce.
The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 (Public Law 100-418) amended and strengthened the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, designating the metric system as the preferred measurement system, and requiring each federal agency to be metric by the end of fiscal year 1992.
President George H. W. Bush signed Executive Order 12770, Metric Usage in Federal Government Programs directing all executive departments and federal agencies implement the use of the metric system. The Executive Order is also available as an appendix to: Interpretation of the SI for the United States and Federal Government Metric Conversion Policy
The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) was amended to add a requirement for metric units on most consumer products.
1996 April 15
All four Canadian Stock Exchanges began decimal trading, the first exchanges in North American to abandon the old “pieces-of-eight” trading system and welcome the new decimal system. The old tradition of trading stocks in increments of one-eighth of a dollar, or 12.5 cents, dates back to when the Spanish mille dollar was divided into “pieces of eight”.
All surface temperature observations in National Weather Service METAR/TAF reports are now transmitted in degrees Celsius.
2000 September 30
Now suspended, the deadline for metricating highway construction, including all agreements, contracts, and plans processed by individual states for federally-funded highway construction to be in metric units, was canceled by Congressional action, leaving metric conversion as voluntary but still recommended to comply with the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988.
2001 April 09
U.S. Stock Exchanges finalized the change to decimal trading. The Securities and Exchange Commission has ordered that all stocks must be quoted in dollars and cents rather than fractions by this date. The switch to decimal trading brought the U.S. in line with the rest of the world’s major exchanges. This follows the change of the Canadian Stock Exchanges to decimal trading in 1996.
2004 July 08
UK Metric Association (UKMA) issued a comprehensive report, A Very British Mess, on the need to complete UK metrication.
2005 January 20
Speed limits in Ireland were converted from miles per hour to kilometers per hour (km/h). To accompany this, new cars have kilometers as the primary speed displayed on their speedometers. Wind speeds in weather reports were also changed to kilometers per hour.
2007 January 08
Metric Moon press release: NASA has decided to use metric units for all operations on the lunar surface when it returns to the Moon. See the NASA announcement. NASA’s Constellation Program is to be metric, according to a Program Management Directive issued on 19 December 2007, with the metric system as the “primary system of measure” for the Constellation Program, Projects, Systems, and Mission.
2009 December 31
Now suspended indefinitely, the EU measurement directive that would have banned non-metric units in Europe (with limited exceptions, and with dual-labeling of products not permitted), has been canceled by the EU Commission, hoping in return that U.S. regulations will allow voluntary metric-only labeling on consumer products. The U.S. should allow metric-only packaging by amending the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). This would be a good response to the elimination of EU requirements for SI-only labels which had been plannned to take effect at the end of 2009.