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This website is about Imperial units and other older British units, but here is one page is about the metric system. Metric units are logical, easy to understand, easily convertible, easy to learn, unambiguous, and boring!
|SI base units|
|Does Britain uses metric or Imperial units?|
|Relationship to older British units|
|Metric versions of sayings|
These units should really be known as SI units. The SI stands for Système Internationale because the system was invented by the French. It can be called the MKS system (for metre/kilogram/second). This is why the British spell metre and litre in the French way, either as a compliment, or to point out that these foreign units are nothing to do with us. I'll leave you to make up your mind!
These are the units covered by this website (see below for conversion to British units):
|Main unit||Other common units|
|length||metre||kilometre, centimetre, millimetre|
I'm not sure if the grad is an official SI unit. They seem to prefer the radian. But grads were the metric degrees.
Once you know the basic name of a system, then you can generate all the other names. Take, for example, a metre:
|1 metre =||
|10 metres = 1||decametre|
|100 metres = 1||hectometre|
|1,000 metres = 1||kilometre|
|1,000,000 metres = 1||megametre|
|1,000,000,000 metres = 1||gigametre|
|1,000,000,000,000 metres = 1||terametre|
|1,000,000,000,000,000 metres = 1||petametre|
|1,000,000,000,000,000,000 metres = 1||exametre|
|1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metres = 1||zettametre|
|1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metres = 1||yottametre|
You will probably only have heard of millimetres, centimetres, metres and kilometres, but the rest are there if you want them.
Once you have grasped the idea, then you can work out other units, for example, 1000 millilitres = 1 litre, and 1000 grams = 1 kilogram. You can see where Kilobytes, Megabytes and Gigabytes came from. A kilo (which we use to mean kilogram) merely means a thousand of something. A micron is really a micrometer. The mil is a milliradian. The system is very logical, but people in the real world tend to adjust it a little!
There has been some suggestion that only prefixes in powers of multiples of three should be allowed. This would make the centimetre (10-2 metres) and the hectare (102 ares) unofficial units. This doesn't seem to have happened yet. The hectare would be particular embarrassing, as the hectare is recognised, but the 'are' isn't!
Effective from 20 May 2019, the International System of Units, the SI, is based on this set of universal constants:
|Name of constant||Value of constant||base unit||other unit|
|unperturbed ground state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium 133 atom||9 192 631 770 Hz||second (time)|
|speed of light in vacuum||299 792 458 m/s||metre (length)|
|Planck constant||6.626 070 15 × 10-34J s||kilogram (mass)||joule (energy)|
|elementary charge||1.602 176 634 × 10-19C||ampere (electricity)||coulomb (electric charge)|
|Boltzmann constant||1.380 649 × 10-23J/K||kelvin (temperature)|
|Avogadro constant||6.022 140 76 × 1023mol-1||mole (numbers of atoms/molecules)|
|luminous efficacy of monochromatic radiation of frequency 540 × 1012 Hz||683 lm/W||candela (light)||lumen (light)|
All other S.I. units are based on these units. You can obviously get square and cubic measurements from length ones, and volumes are just a type of cubic measurement. One millilitre is equal to 1 cubic centimetre.
The metric system was first proposed by the French astronomer and mathematician Gabriel Mouton (1618-94) in 1670, and was standardised in France under the Republican government in the 1790s, its use being made compulsory there in 1801. They defined a metre as one ten-millionth of the length of a line from the North Pole to the Equator, going through Paris. It was intended that a gradian of Latitude should be 100 Kilometres. The centigrad (Kilometre) would replace the nautical mile. They got it slightly wrong - the poles are 10,002 Km from the equator. Now SI units are strictly defined using scientific constants, or in the case of the kilogram, a specific lump of metal (see above).
Now most (all?) of mainland Europe uses metric measures. Australia changed to metric from 1970-1980, although informally older people still use Imperial quite a lot. Britain is partly metric, partly Imperial (see index page). America seems fairly aggressively non-metric (they describe their system of measures as U.S. Customary systems) apart from their scientists, of course, although I have been informed that the American Military also use the metric system.
|Websites about SI units|
Modern definitions of SI units|
More information about SI units including their history
United Kingdom Metric Association
Some people may be interested to know whether Britain uses metric or Imperial units. This is not easy to answer. Legally, at the moment (2009), Britain is mostly a metric country. The Statutory Instrument 1995 No. 1804 says so. But it also specifies exceptions, such as
A correspondent has pointed out that "As from 1-Jan-2010, the acre could no longer be used for the registration of land. In practice the Land Registry Office had stopped using acres some years ago, so the removal of the acre was a bureaucratic tidying up exercise."
Many British people, especially older people, continue to use Imperial units informally. I found this table in 2021. Note that temperature is specified as only centigrade.
|length||kilometre||1 km = 0.62 mile|
1 km = 1093.61 yards
|metre||1 m = 1.09 yards|
|centimetre||1 cm = 0.39 inches|
|millimetre||1 mm = 0.039 inches|
1 mm = 39.37 thou or mil
|area||hectare||1 hectare = 2.47 acres|
|volume||litre||1 litre = 1.76 pints|
|millilitre||1 ml = 0.04 fluid ounce|
1 ml = 16.89 minim
|weight||kilogram||1 kg = 2.2 lbs|
|gram||1 gram = 0.04 oz|
1 gram = 15.43 grains
|angle||grad||1 grad = 0.9°|
|temperature||Celsius||0°C = 32°F, then for each 1°C, add 1.8°F|
An inch is legally defined in Britain as being 2.54 centimetres, so Imperial units are really part of the metric system!
You may notice that after liquid measures on packages in Britain (and elsewhere within the European Union), you will see an 'e'. This is a legal requirement, and says that the number is accurate within a certain pre-defined limit (only downwards - they don't care if you give too low a figure!) It stands for 'estimation' rather than 'Europe'.
This appeared in New Scientist: "Drinking a litre of beer is like emptying a bottle the length of the universe with the cross-sectional area of a medium-sized nucleus." So there!
The universe is about 100 yottametres across (but it's getting larger all the time).
Metric versions of sayings (frivolous)
A miss is as good as 1.6 kilometers.
Put your best 0.3 of a metre forward.
28 grams of prevention is worth 453 grams of cure.
Give a man 2.5 centimetres and he'll take 1.6 kilometres.
Peter Piper picked 8.8 litres of pickled peppers.
Spare the 5.03 metres and spoil the child.
My generation spent a lot of time at school having to learn Imperial units. For example, we learnt that a yard was 36 inches and 3 feet make a yard. However, as Britain started to use metric units more and more, the school children were taught metres and centimetres, and knew nothing about the older units.
Some time ago, my husband and I wanted to buy 2 nets curtains. One was 5 foot by 6 foot, and the other 3 foot or a yard square. A local shop showed some in their window, marked with Imperial (rather than metric) units. We went in to buy them, and found the young shop assistant, who valiantly tried to serve us despite obviously not knowing a thing about Imperial units. We described the first curtain, and she asked what the drop was. We said 5 foot. She asked "What was in inches?" Patiently we said 60 inches (that was the sort of thing we had drilled into us at school). She got the right roll, then asked what the width was. We said 6 feet. "What was that in yards?" she asked. Trying to keep a straight face, we said 2 yards. She cut the right amount, then asked about the second curtain. My husband, trying to hurry things up, said it was 36 inches by 1 yard. "Which was the drop and which was the width?" she asked. We were tempted to get them the wrong way round and then convert them to show that the curtain was square, but instead we solemnly said that 36 inches was the drop, and the width a yard.
This story is not intended to crow over her ignorance. It demonstrates how complicated Imperial units are, and how much of our school time was wasted drilling us.
Another, more serious problem arose with the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998, which was to study the Martian weather. It was intended to enter orbit at an altitude of 140-150 km above Mars. However, a navigation error caused the spacecraft to reach as low as 57 km. The spacecraft was destroyed by atmospheric stresses and friction at this low altitude. The navigation error arose because a NASA subcontractor (Lockheed Martin) used Imperial units (pound-seconds) instead of the metric system.
However, we mustn't gloat over the metric system too much. There seems to be wide-spread disagreement whether a pound is a unit of mass or weight, rather an important distinction! The Imperial system has a mess of units, for example, 'quart', 'quarter' or 'quarto' were widely used to mean a quarter of something else. School children had to learn long tables of conversions and be drilled in their use. The metric system is easier. But still boring!
© Jo Edkins 2009 - Return to units index