History of the Metric System: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Danielle Wilson

Danielle is a certified elementary, middle school math, and special education teacher. She has a master's degree in elementary education and special education.

Did you know you can only run a mile in three countries, which are the only ones that use this unit of measurement? All of the other countries on our planet use the metric system, which you'll learn about in this lesson.

What is the Metric System?

Metric system adoption by country
Metric System Adoption by Country

The metric system is a base-ten measurement system that is widely used on our planet. It is now more commonly known as the International System of Units or the SI System. The U.S. uses a different system called the customary system.

The metric system is easier to use because it's based on the decimal system; to convert from one measurement to another you only need to move a decimal point. The customary system is more complicated, and there are many people who wish the U.S. would adopt the metric system instead. There's even an online petition with over 40,000 signatures to get the U.S. to switch over!

History of the Metric System

The metric system was created in order to make a standardized unit of measurement. Long ago, people used all types of body parts, like arms and palms, to measure. Imagine how hard would it be to follow a bread recipe that called for two handfuls of flour and a nose width of butter? No two loaves would taste the same!

By the late 18th century, there were so many individual systems of measurement that it became very difficult to convert across different regions and countries. During the French Revolution (1789-1799), the French government asked a team of scientists to develop a standardized system that everyone could use to measure. The team developed the metric system based on the discoveries of past mathematicians, including Simon Stevin, John Wilkins, and Gabriel Mouton.

Napoléon Bonaparte, France's first emperor, decided he didn't like the system and got rid of it in 1812. It was reinstated in 1840, 20 years after Napoleon's death.

Measuring with the Metric System

Metric System Chart

The basic linear unit of measurement in the metric system is the meter; this is similar to a yard (or 3 feet). The meter was defined as one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator. All other units are based on a multiple of ten from the meter. For instance, if a meter is 1, then a decimeter is 0.1 of a meter, and a decameter is 10 meters. The metric system commonly uses ten other prefixes that are also multiples of 10, based on a standard of 1.

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