Following the development of agriculture, the initial formation of cities, and bureaucratic governments, some people decided that it would be good to adopt a standardized form of measurement to improve the efficiency of trade and taxation. This standardization included weights, volume, and length.
The early forms of measurement, which were emerging by 5,000 years ago, were based on the human body. The cubit, for example, was the length from the inside of a man’s elbow to the tip of his outstretched middle finger. The cubit was subdivided into digits—the width of the finger, not the length. One cubit was 28 digits. The problem with using the human body as the basis for measurement, as some people noticed, was that not all people were the same size. There had to be a better way, perhaps a scientific way, to determine measurements.
The solution to the dilemma of accurate, reliable, and scientific measurement can be traced to the French Revolution. The French Revolution broke out in 1789. The revolution brought not only great changes to the French government, but also resulted in the adoption of the metric system as a standard form of French measurement. Over the next two centuries this standard of measurement would be adopted by all of the industrialized nations of the world, with the notable exception of the United States, and by nearly all of the developing nations as well.
The decimal system was introduced in Europe by Simon Steven, a Flemish mathematician, in his pamphlet De Thiende. He introduced dominate numbers into daily life. He suggested that it would be logical to have decimal coinage, measures, and weights.
The metric system was first proposed in 1670 by Gabriel Mouton, the vicar of St. Paul’s Church in Lyon, France. Mouton, who was also an astronomer, suggested that measurement should be based on the dimensions of the earth. He proposed that a sensible system of weights and measures be adopted, a system in which the units would be divided decimally. Such a system would allow for easier and more accurate computation of measurements. It would also make it easier for scientists from different countries to exchange information.
In 1790, the National Assembly ordered the French Academy of Sciences to devise a metric system. Since this was France, it was decided that the meridian passing through Paris from the North Pole to the equator should serve as the fixed distance. One ten-millionth of that distance was then designated as a meter. The Academy proposed that one one-hundreth of a meter should be designated as a centimeter and one one-thousandth of a meter should be designated as a millimeter. One thousand meters would become a kilometer.
To determine weight, the Academy turned to the weight of one cubic centimeter of water at 4° C. This was designated as a gram. The kilogram was therefore the weight of one liter of water. One liter is the volume of a cube which measures 10 centimeters on each side (i.e. 1,000 cubic centimeters).
The French Academy of Science completed its work on the metric system in 1793, but it took until 1799 for it to be adopted as the official standard of measurement. The metric system was adopted under the motto “For all the people, all the time.” It was intended to be a universal system, a system to be used by the common people as well as engineers and scientists.
In the 1867 Paris Exhibition there was a stand devoted to the metric system. By 1872, the only European countries which had not adopted the metric system were Russia and the United Kingdom. In 1927, the Metric Association and the General Federal Association of Women’s Clubs, bolstered by petitions signed by millions of Americans, lobbied the American Congress to adopt the system. However, manufacturers opposed it so it was not adopted.