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In the past, various systems of units were utilized, which are defined as a set of units of measurement with regulations that connect them to each other. A unit of measurement is a specific magnitude of a quantity that is used as a standard for measuring the same kind of quantity, such as length, weight, and volume.
Previously, local systems of measurement were established, which could be based on arbitrary factors such as the length of a king's thumb. Although this may work on a local level, it makes interaction difficult when considering trade and science, as others may not be able to relate to or understand the units. Therefore, more universal and consistent systems were developed over time. Today, the metric system, the imperial system, and the United States customary units are some of the systems of units in use.
The International System of Units (SI) is the standard metric system currently used, consisting of seven SI base units of length, mass, time, temperature, electric current, luminous intensity, and amount of substance. Although SI is used almost universally in science, some countries such as the United States still use their own system of units. This is partly due to the substantial financial and cultural costs involved in changing a measurement system compared to the potential benefit of using a standardized system. As a result, everyday use of USC is still prevalent in the United States, and many unit converters, including this Conversion Calculator, exist to ensure that people globally can communicate different measurements effectively.
During the eighth and ninth centuries of the Common Era (CE), Arab civilization thrived in the Middle East and Spain. The Arabs used coins as a unit of weight measurement since a minted coin could not be easily cut or shaved to reduce its weight, providing a measurable standard. They used a silver dirhem as a basic measure of weight, which was roughly equivalent to 45 fully grown grains of barley. Ten dirhems made up a Wukryeh, which was translated into Latin as an "uncia," the origin of the word "ounce."
Trade eventually spread from the Mediterranean area to Europe, including the northern German City States. As a result, a pound, which was 16 ounces of silver or 7200 grains, became a commonly used measure in many regions.
Although England also adopted this measure, a shortage of silver caused King Offa to reduce the pound's measurement to 5400 grains to use smaller coins. When William the Conqueror became King of England, he retained the 5400-grain pound for minting coins but reverted to the 7200-grain pound for other purposes.
While many countries used the pound from that point onward, including England (the British pound sterling, or GBP, was equal to one pound-weight of silver in King Offa's time), the avoirdupois weight system was adopted during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century. It was a system based on the weight of coal, and its name was derived from the French phrase "avoir de pois" (goods of weight or property). The avoirdupois was equivalent to 7,000 grains, 256 drams of 27.344 grains each, or 16 ounces of 437 ½ grains each. Since 1959, the avoirdupois pound has been officially defined in most English-speaking countries as 0.45359237 kilograms.
Different systems of measurement also developed over time in Asian countries. For instance, in ancient India, a weight measure called the "Satamana" was used, which was equal to the weight of 100 gunja berries. In China, the first emperor Shi Huang Di created a system of weights and measures in the third century BCE (Before the Common Era). The measurement of weight was based on the shi, which was equivalent to approximately 132 pounds. The Chi and Zhang were units of length equivalent to approximately 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) and 3 meters (9.8 feet), respectively. The Chinese also developed a means to ensure accuracy through the use of a special size of bowl used for measurements that also made a specific sound when struck - if the sound was off pitch, the measurement was not accurate.
In 1668, John Wilkins proposed a decimal system that linked length, area, volume, and mass to each other based on a pendulum that had a beat of one second as a base unit of length. Gabriel Mouton proposed a decimal system in 1670 that was based on the circumference of the earth, an idea supported by other prominent scientists of the time such as Jean Picard and Christiaan Huygens, but it did not take hold for approximately another 100 years.
By the mid-eighteenth century, it was clear to nations who traded and exchanged scientific ideas that standardization of weights and measures was necessary. In 1790, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, the Prince of Talleyrand, approached the British (represented by John Riggs-Miller) and the Americans (represented by Thomas Jefferson) with proposals to define a common standard of length based on the length of a pendulum. In that same year, Thomas Jefferson presented the "Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States," which advocated for a decimal system in which units were related to each other by powers of ten. A committee that was formed in France comprised of some of the most prominent scientists of the day came to a similar conclusion and also proposed a decimal system for all weights and measures. Although Congress considered Jefferson's report, it was not adopted. In Great Britain, John Riggs-Miller lost his British Parliamentary seat in the 1790 election. As such, the measurement system was only implemented in France, and in 1795, the metric system was formally defined in French law. However, it was not until 1799 that the metric system was officially adopted in France, though it was still not universally observed across the country.
The spread of the metric system was not rapid, and areas that were annexed by France during Napoleon's reign were the first to adopt the metric system. By 1875, two-thirds of the European population and nearly half the world's population had adopted the metric system. By 1920, approximately 22% of the world's population used the imperial system or the US customary system, with 25% mainly using the metric system, and 53% using neither.
The International System of Units, currently the most widely used system of measurement, was published in 1960. It has been adopted by all developed countries except for the United States, although as previously mentioned, it is used in science as well as heavily in the military, even in the US.