Metric Systems Of Measurement

A metric system of measurement was first established in France in the years following the French Revolution, and various systems of metric units have been developed since that time. All metric unit systems are based, at least in part, on the International Metric Standards, which are the meter and kilogram, or decimal multiples or submultiples of these standards.

In 1795, a metric system called the centimeter-gram-second (cgs) system was proposed,and was adopted in France in 1799. In 1873, the British Association for the Advancement of Science recommended the use of the cgs system, and since then it has been widely used in all branches of science throughout the world. From the base units in the cgs system are derived the following:

Unit of velocity = 1 centimeter per second

Acceleration due to gravity (at Paris) = 981 centimeters per second per second

Unit of force = 1 dyne = 1⁄981 gram

Unit of work = 1 erg = 1 dyne-centimeter

Unit of power = 1 watt = 10,000,000 ergs per second

Another metric system called the MKS (meter-kilogram-second) system of units was proposed by Professor G. Giorgi in 1902. In 1935, the International Electro-technical Commission (IEC) accepted his recommendation that this system of units of mechanics should be linked with the electromagnetic units by the adoption of a fourth base unit. In 1950, the IEC adopted the ampere, the unit of electric current, as the fourth unit, and the
MKSA system thus came into being.

A gravitational system of metric units, known as the technical system, is based on the meter, the kilogram as a force, and the second. It has been widely used in engineering.

Because the standard of force is defined as the weight of the mass of the standard kilogram,the fundamental unit of force varies due to the difference in gravitational pull at different locations around the earth. By international agreement, a standard value for acceleration due to gravity was chosen (9.81 meters per second squared) that for all practical measurements is approximately the same as the local value at the point of measurement.

The International System of Units (SI).—The Conference Generale des Poids et Mesures (CGPM), which is the body responsible for all international matters concerning the metric system, adopted in 1954, a rationalized and coherent system of units, based on the four MKSA units (see above), and including the kelvin as the unit of temperature and the candela as the unit of luminous intensity. In 1960, the CGPM formally named this system the Système International d'Unites, for which the abbreviation is SI in all languages. In 1971, the 14th CGPM adopted a seventh base unit, the mole, which is the unit of quantity (“amount of substance”).

In the period since the first metric system was established in France toward the end of the 18th century, most of the countries of the world have adopted a metric system. At the present time, most of the industrially advanced metric-using countries are changing from their traditional metric system to SI. Those countries that are currently changing or considering change from the English system of measurement to metric have the advantage that they can convert directly to the modernized system. The United Kingdom, which can be said to have led the now worldwide move to change from the English system, went straight to SI.

The use of SI units instead of the traditional metric units has little effect on everyday life or trade. The units of linear measurement, mass, volume, and time remain the same, viz. meter, kilogram, liter, and second.


The SI, like the traditional metric system, is based on decimal arithmetic. For each physical quantity, units of different sizes are formed by multiplying or dividing a single base value by powers of 10. Thus, changes can be made very simply by adding zeros or shifting decimal points. For example, the meter is the basic unit of length; the kilometer is a multiple (1000 meters); and the millimeter is a sub-multiple (one-thousandth of a meter).

In the older metric systems, the simplicity of a series of units linked by powers of ten is an advantage for plain quantities such as length, but this simplicity is lost as soon as more complex units are encountered. For example, in different branches of science and engineering, energy may appear as the erg, the calorie, the kilogram-meter, the liter-atmosphere, or the horsepower-hour. In contrast, the SI provides only one basic unit for each physical quantity, and universality is thus achieved.

As mentioned before, there are seven base units, which are for the basic quantities of length, mass, time, electric current, thermodynamic temperature, amount of substance, and luminous intensity, expressed as the meter (m), the kilogram (kg), the second (s), the ampere (A), the kelvin (K), the mole (mol), and the candela (cd).

The SI is a coherent system. A system is said to be coherent if the product or quotient of any two unit quantities in the system is the unit of the resultant quantity. For example, in a coherent system in which the foot is the unit of length, the square foot is the unit of area, whereas the acre is not.

Other physical quantities are derived from the base units.

For example, the unit of velocity is the meter per second (m/s), which is a combination of the base units of length and time. The unit of acceleration is the meter per second squared (m/s2). By applying Newton's second law of motion—force is proportional to mass multiplied by acceleration—the unit of force is obtained that is the kilogram-meter per second squared (kg-m/s2). This unit is known as the newton, or N.

Work, or force times distance is the kilogram-meter squared per second squared (kg-m2/s2), which is the joule (1 joule = 1 newton-meter), and energy is also expressed in these terms. The abbreviation for joule is J.

Power or work per unit time is the kilogram-meter squared per second cubed (kg-m2/s3), which is the watt (1 watt = 1 joule per second = 1 newton-meter per second). The abbreviation for watt is W.

The term horsepower is not used in the SI and is replaced by the watt, which together with multiples and submultiples—kilowatt and milliwatt, for example—is the same unit as that used in electrical work.

The use of the newton as the unit of force is of particular interest to engineers. In practical work using the English or traditional metric systems of measurements, it is a common practice to apply weight units as force units. Thus, the unit of force in those systems is that force that when applied to unit mass produces an acceleration g rather than unit acceleration.

The value of gravitational acceleration g varies around the earth, and thus the weight of a given mass also varies. In an effort to account for this minor error, the kilogram-force and pound-force were introduced, which are defined as the forces due to “standard gravity” acting on bodies of one kilogram or one pound mass, respectively.

The standard gravitational acceleration is taken as 9.80665 meters per second squared or 32.174 feet per second squared. The newton is defined as “that force, which when applied to a body having a mass of one kilogram, gives it an acceleration of one meter per second squared.” It is independent of g. As a result, the factor g disappears from a wide range of formulas in dynamics. However, in some formulas in statics, where the weight of a body is important rather than its mass, g does appear where it was formerly absent (the weight of a mass of W kilograms is equal to a force of Wg newtons, where g = approximately 9.81 meters per second squared).




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