System of measurement

Last updated

A system of measurement is a collection of units of measurement and rules relating them to each other. Systems of measurement have historically been important, regulated and defined for the purposes of science and commerce. Systems of measurement in use include the International System of Units (SI), the modern form of the metric system, the British imperial system, and the United States customary system.



The French Revolution gave rise to the metric system, and this has spread around the world, replacing most customary units of measure. In most systems, length (distance), mass, and time are base quantities.

Later science developments showed that either electric charge or electric current could be added to extend the set of base quantities by which many other metrological units could be easily defined. (However, electrical units are not necessary for such a set. Gaussian units, for example, have only length, mass, and time as base quantities, and the ampere is defined in terms of other units.) Other quantities, such as power and speed, are derived from the base set: for example, speed is distance per unit time. Historically a wide range of units was used for the same type of quantity: in different contexts, length was measured in inches, feet, yards, fathoms, rods, chains, furlongs, miles, nautical miles, stadia, leagues, with conversion factors which were not powers of ten. Such arrangements were satisfactory in their own contexts.

The preference for a more universal and consistent system (based on more rational base units) only gradually spread with the growth of science. Changing a measurement system has substantial financial and cultural costs which must be offset against the advantages to be obtained from using a more rational system. However pressure built up, including from scientists and engineers for conversion to a more rational, and also internationally consistent, basis of measurement.

In antiquity, systems of measurement were defined locally: the different units might be defined independently according to the length of a king's thumb or the size of his foot, the length of stride, the length of arm, or maybe the weight of water in a keg of specific size, perhaps itself defined in hands and knuckles. The unifying characteristic is that there was some definition based on some standard. Eventually cubits and strides gave way to "customary units" to meet the needs of merchants and scientists.

In the metric system and other recent systems, a single basic unit is used for each base quantity. Often secondary units (multiples and submultiples) are derived from the basic units by multiplying by powers of ten, i.e. by simply moving the decimal point. Thus the basic metric unit of length is the metre; a distance of 1 m is 1,000 millimetres, or 0.001 kilometres.

Current practice

Metrication is complete or nearly complete in almost all countries. US customary units are heavily used in the United States and to some degree in Liberia. Traditional Burmese units of measurement are used in Burma. U.S. units are used in limited contexts in Canada due to the large volume of trade; there is also considerable use of Imperial weights and measures, despite de jure Canadian conversion to metric.

A number of other jurisdictions have laws mandating or permitting other systems of measurement in some or all contexts, such as the United Kingdom – whose road signage legislation, for instance, only allows distance signs displaying imperial units (miles or yards) [1] – or Hong Kong. [2]

In the United States, metric units are used almost universally in science, widely in the military, and partially in industry, but customary units predominate in household use. At retail stores, the liter is a commonly used unit for volume, especially on bottles of beverages, and milligrams, rather than grains, are used for medications. Some other standard non-SI units are still in international use, such as nautical miles and knots in aviation and shipping.

Metric system

A baby bottle that measures in three measurement systems--metric, imperial (UK), and US customary. MetricImperialUSCustomaryUnits.jpg
A baby bottle that measures in three measurement systems—metric, imperial (UK), and US customary.

Metric systems of units have evolved since the adoption of the first well-defined system in France in 1795. During this evolution the use of these systems has spread throughout the world, first to non-English-speaking countries, and then to English speaking countries.

Multiples and submultiples of metric units are related by powers of ten and their names are formed with prefixes. This relationship is compatible with the decimal system of numbers and it contributes greatly to the convenience of metric units.

In the early metric system there were two base units, the metre for length and the gram for mass. The other units of length and mass, and all units of area, volume, and derived units such as density were derived from these two base units.

Mesures usuelles (French for customary measurements) were a system of measurement introduced as a compromise between the metric system and traditional measurements. It was used in France from 1812 to 1839.

A number of variations on the metric system have been in use. These include gravitational systems, the centimetre–gram–second systems (cgs) useful in science, the metre–tonne–second system (mts) once used in the USSR and the metre–kilogram–second system (mks). In some engineering fields, like computer-aided design, millimetre–gram–second (mmgs) is also used.[ citation needed ]

The current international standard for the metric system is the International System of Units (Système international d'unités or SI). It is a system in which all units can be expressed in terms of seven units. The units that serves as the SI base units are the metre, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, mole, and candela.

Imperial and US customary units

Both imperial units and US customary units derive from earlier English units. Imperial units were mostly used in the former British Empire and the British Commonwealth, but in all these countries they have been largely supplanted by the metric system. They are still used for some applications in the United Kingdom but have been mostly replaced by the metric system in commercial, scientific, and industrial applications. US customary units, however, are still the main system of measurement in the United States. While some steps towards metrication have been made (mainly in the late 1960s and early 1970s), the customary units have a strong hold due to the vast industrial infrastructure and commercial development.

While imperial and US customary systems are closely related, there are a number of differences between them. Units of length and area (the inch, foot, yard, mile, etc.) have been identical since the adoption of the International Yard and Pound Agreement; however, America and, formerly, India retained older definitions for surveying purposes. This gave rise to the US survey foot for instance. The Avoirdupois units of mass and weight differ for units larger than a pound (lb). The imperial system uses a stone of 14 lb, a long hundredweight of 112 lb and a long ton of 2240 lb. The stone is not used in the US and the hundredweights and tons are short: 100 lb and 2000 lb respectively.

Where these systems most notably differ is in their units of volume. A US fluid ounce (fl oz), about 29.6 millilitres (ml), is slightly larger than the imperial fluid ounce (about 28.4 ml). However, as there are 16 US fl oz to a US pint and 20 imp fl oz per imperial pint, the imperial pint is about 20% larger. The same is true of quarts, gallons, etc.; six US gallons are a little less than five imperial gallons.

The Avoirdupois system served as the general system of mass and weight. In addition to this there are the Troy and the Apothecaries' systems. Troy weight was customarily used for precious metals, black powder and gemstones. The troy ounce is the only unit of the system in current use; it is used for precious metals. Although the troy ounce is larger than its Avoirdupois equivalent, the pound is smaller. The obsolete troy pound was divided into 12 ounces, rather than the 16 ounces per pound of the Avoirdupois system. The Apothecaries' system was traditionally used in pharmacology, but has now been replaced by the metric system; it shared the same pound and ounce as the troy system but with different further subdivisions.

Natural units

Natural units are physical units of measurement defined in terms of universal physical constants in such a manner that selected physical constants take on the numerical value of one when expressed in terms of those units. Natural units are so named because their definition relies on only properties of nature and not on any human construct. Various systems of natural units are possible.

Some other examples are as follows:

Non-standard units

Non-standard measurement units also found in books, newspapers etc., include:



Units of currency

A unit of measurement that applies to money is called a unit of account in economics and unit of measure in accounting. [3] This is normally a currency issued by a country or a fraction thereof; for instance, the US dollar and US cent (1100 of a dollar), or the euro and euro cent.

ISO 4217 is the international standard describing three letter codes (also known as the currency code) to define the names of currencies established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Historical systems of measurement

Throughout history, many official systems of measurement have been used. While no longer in official use, some of these customary systems are occasionally used in day-to-day life, for instance in cooking.




North America


South America

See also

Conversion tables

Notes and references

  1. "Statutory Instrument 2002 No. 3113 The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002". Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO). 2002. Retrieved 18 March 2010.
  2. HK Weights and Measures Ordinance
  3. Financial Accounting Standards Research Initiative: The Unit of Account Issue [ permanent dead link ]
  4. M. Ismail Marcinkowski, Measures and Weights in the Islamic World. An English Translation of Professor Walther Hinz's Handbook "Islamische Maße und Gewichte", with a foreword by Professor Bosworth, F.B.A. Kuala Lumpur, ISTAC, 2002, ISBN   983-9379-27-5. This work is an annotated translation of a work in German by the late German orientalist Walther Hinz, published in the Handbuch der Orientalistik, erste Abteilung, Ergänzungsband I, Heft 1, Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1970.


Related Research Articles

The density, of a substance is its mass per unit volume. The symbol most often used for density is ρ, although the Latin letter D can also be used. Mathematically, density is defined as mass divided by volume:

Imperial units System of units that were implemented on 1 January 1826 in the British Empire

The imperial system of units, imperial system or imperial units is the system of units first defined in the British Weights and Measures Act 1824 and continued to be developed through a series of Weights and Measures Acts and amendments. The imperial units replaced the Winchester Standards, which were in effect from 1588 to 1825. The system came into official use across the British Empire in 1826. By the late 20th century, most nations of the former empire had officially adopted the metric system as their main system of measurement, but imperial units are still used in the United Kingdom, Canada and some other countries formerly part of the British Empire. The imperial system developed from what were first known as English units, as did the related system of United States customary units.

The pound or pound-mass is a unit of mass used in the imperial, United States customary and other systems of measurement. Various definitions have been used; the most common today is the international avoirdupois pound, which is legally defined as exactly 0.45359237 kilograms, and which is divided into 16 avoirdupois ounces. The international standard symbol for the avoirdupois pound is lb; an alternative symbol is lbm, #, and or ″̶.

United States customary units are a system of measurements commonly used in the United States since it was formalized in 1832. The United States customary system developed from English units which were in use in the British Empire before the U.S. became an independent country. The United Kingdom's system of measures was overhauled in 1824 to create the imperial system, changing the definitions of some of its units. Subsequently, while many U.S. units are essentially similar to their imperial counterparts, there are significant differences between the systems.

Cooking weights and measures

In recipes, quantities of ingredients may be specified by mass, by volume, or by count.

Troy weight System of units of mass

Troy weight is a system of units of mass that originated in 15th-century England, and is primarily used in the precious metals industry. The Troy weights are the grain, the pennyweight, the troy ounce, and the troy pound. The troy grain is equal to the grain-unit of the avoirdupois system, the troy ounce is heavier than the avoirdupois ounce, yet the troy pound is lighter than the avoirdupois pound.

Grain (unit) Unit of mass

A grain is a unit of measurement of mass, and in the troy weight, avoirdupois, and Apothecaries' system, equal to exactly 64.79891 milligrams. It is nominally based upon the mass of a single virtual ideal seed of a cereal. From the Bronze Age into the Renaissance the average masses of wheat and barley grains were part of the legal definitions of units of mass. Expressions such as "thirty-two grains of wheat, taken from the middle of the ear" appear to have been ritualistic formulas, essentially the premodern equivalent of legal boilerplate. Another source states that it was defined as the weight needed for 252.458 units to balance a cubic inch of distilled water at 30 inches of mercury pressure and 62 degrees Fahrenheit for both the air and water. Another book states that Captain Henry Kater, of the British Standards Commission, arrived at this value experimentally.

The ounce is the name of several different units of mass, weight, or volume used in most British derived customary systems of measurement.

Avoirdupois system System of weights (more properly, mass) based on a pound of 16 ounces

The avoirdupois system is a measurement system of weights which uses pounds and ounces as units. It was first commonly used in the 13th century and was updated in 1959.

Fluid ounce

A fluid ounce is a unit of volume typically used for measuring liquids. Various definitions have been used throughout history, but only two are still in common use: the British Imperial and the United States customary fluid ounce.


A bushel is an imperial and US customary unit of volume based upon an earlier measure of dry capacity. The old bushel is equal to 2 kennings (obsolete), 4 pecks, or 8 dry gallons, and was used mostly for agricultural products, such as wheat. In modern usage, the volume is nominal, with bushels denoting a mass defined differently for each commodity.

Stone (unit) Unit of measure equal to 14 pounds avoirdupois

The stone or stone weight is an English and imperial unit of mass now equal to 14 pounds. The stone continues in customary use in Britain and Ireland for body weight, but was prohibited for commercial use in the United Kingdom by the Weights and Measures Act of 1985.

The dram is a unit of mass in the avoirdupois system, and both a unit of mass and a unit of volume in the apothecaries' system. It was originally both a coin and a weight in ancient Greece. The unit of volume is more correctly called a fluid dram, fluid drachm, fluidram or fluidrachm.

Apothecaries system Historical system of mass and volume units used by physicians and apothecaries

The apothecaries' system, or apothecaries' weights and measures, is a historical system of mass and volume units that were used by physicians and apothecaries for medical recipes and also sometimes by scientists. The English version of the system is closely related to the English troy system of weights, the pound and grain being exactly the same in both. It divides a pound into 12 ounces, an ounce into 8 drachms, and a drachm into 3 scruples of 20 grains each. This exact form of the system was used in the United Kingdom; in some of its former colonies, it survived well into the 20th century. The apothecaries' system of measures is a similar system of volume units based on the fluid ounce. For a long time, medical recipes were written in Latin, often using special symbols to denote weights and measures.

English units are the units of measurement used in England up to 1826, which evolved as a combination of the Anglo-Saxon and Roman systems of units. Various standards have applied to English units at different times, in different places, and for different applications.

History of measurement Aspect of history

The earliest recorded systems of weights and measures originate in the 3rd or 4th millennium BC. Even the very earliest civilizations needed measurement for purposes of agriculture, construction, and trade. Early standard units might only have applied to a single community or small region, with every area developing its own standards for lengths, areas, volumes and masses. Often such systems were closely tied to one field of use, so that volume measures used, for example, for dry grains were unrelated to those for liquids, with neither bearing any particular relationship to units of length used for measuring cloth or land. With development of manufacturing technologies, and the growing importance of trade between communities and ultimately across the Earth, standardized weights and measures became critical. Starting in the 18th century, modernized, simplified and uniform systems of weights and measures were developed, with the fundamental units defined by ever more precise methods in the science of metrology. The discovery and application of electricity was one factor motivating the development of standardized internationally applicable units.

Cup (unit)

The cup is a cooking measure of volume, commonly associated with cooking and serving sizes. It is traditionally equal to half a liquid pint in US customary units, or an amount between 200 ml and 250 ml in the metric system, which may vary due to location. Because actual drinking cups may differ greatly from the size of this unit, standard measuring cups are usually used instead.

Comparison of the imperial and US customary measurement systems

Both the British Imperial and United States customary systems of measurement derive from earlier English systems used in the Middle Ages, that were the result of a combination of the local Anglo-Saxon units inherited from German tribes and Roman units brought by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Before the introduction of the Metric system, one may divide the history of Indian systems of measurement into three main periods: the pre-Akbar's period, the period of the Akbar system, and the British colonial period.

Imperial and US customary measurement systems

The imperial and US customary measurement systems are both derived from an earlier English system of measurement which in turn can be traced back to Ancient Roman units of measurement, and Carolingian and Saxon units of measure.