Metric system, international decimal system of weights and measures, based on the metre for length and the kilogram for mass, that was adopted in France in 1795 and is now used officially in almost all countries.
The French Revolution of 1789 provided an opportunity to pursue the frequently discussed idea of replacing the confusing welter of thousands of traditional units of measure with a rational system based on multiples of 10. In 1791 the French National Assembly directed the French Academy of Sciences to address the chaotic state of French weights and measures. It was decided that the new system would be based on a natural physical unit to ensure immutability. The academy settled on the length of 1/10,000,000 of a quadrant of a great circle of Earth, measured around the poles of the meridian passing through Paris. An arduous six-year survey led by such luminaries as Jean Delambre, Jacques-Dominique Cassini, Pierre Mechain, Adrien-Marie Legendre, and others to determine the arc of the meridian from Barcelona, Spain, to Dunkirk, France, eventually yielded a value of 39.37008 inches for the new unit to be called the metre, from Greek metron, meaning “measure.”
By 1795 all metric units were derived from the metre, including the gram for weight (one cubic centimetre of water at its maximum density) and the litre for capacity (1/1,000 of a cubic metre). Greek prefixes were established for multiples of 10, myria (10,000), kilo (1,000), hecto (100), and deca (10), while Latin prefixes were selected for the submultiples, milli (0.001), centi (0.01), and deci (0.1). Thus, a kilogram equals 1,000 grams, a millimetre 1/1,000 of a metre. In 1799 the Metre and Kilogram of the Archives, platinum embodiments of the new units, were declared the legal standards for all measurements in France, and the motto of the metric system expressed the hope that the new units would be “for all people, for all time.
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