weights and measures

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

weights and measures

weights and measures, units and standards for expressing the amount of some quantity, such as length, capacity, or weight; the science of measurement standards and methods is known as metrology.

Crude systems of weights and measures probably date from prehistoric times. Early units were commonly based on body measurements and on plant seeds or other objects from agriculture. As civilization progressed, technological and commercial requirements led to increased standardization. For example, because the length of the human foot or the width of the palm varies from individual to individual, it probably became necessary first to specify a particular individual (e.g., the king) and later to reproduce standards based on this commonly accepted unit of length. Units were usually fixed by edict of local or national rulers and were subdivided and multiplied or otherwise arranged into systems of measurement.

Standards varied greatly in different localities, although conquest and trade stimulated some correspondence between systems, e.g., between the systems of Egypt, Babylon, and Phoenicia. A high degree of standardization was achieved in the Roman Empire, but after its fall considerable diversity returned. The foot, which was one of the earliest units, is believed to have had as many as 280 variants in Europe as late as the 18th cent. Today the chief systems are the English units of measurement and the metric system.

The United States is one of the few countries still using the English system; all other major nations have either converted to the metric system or committed themselves to conversion. The English system is much older and less practical than the metric system, and in the United States there has been considerable discussion in favor of adopting the metric system as the principal system. However, attempts to legislate such a change in the U.S. Congress have failed. The basic units of the English system, the yard of length and the pound of mass, are now defined in terms of the metric standards, the meter of length and the kilogram of mass.

Before 1960 the meter was defined as the distance between two scratches on a prototype bar kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (est. 1875) at Sèvres, France, near Paris. In 1960 it was redefined in terms of an atomic standard. This new standard is more stable than the old meter bar, is indestructible, and is easily reproduced, eliminating the need for periodic comparison with a single standard. The kilogram is defined in terms of a prototype cylinder kept at the bureau.

In the United States, Congress has the constitutional right to fix standards, but except for purposes of customs and internal revenue, weights and measures legislation has been, for the most part, permissive. Sets of official weights and measures were sent to the states in 1856, but legislation and enforcement are largely state prerogatives. The federal government permitted the use of the metric system in 1866 and established a conversion table based on the yard and the pound; in 1893 the yard and the pound were redefined in terms of the metric prototypes of the meter and the kilogram. The major arguments against total conversion to the metric system in the United States are that it would involve great expense in industry and would cause widespread confusion among the general public.

See the table entitled Common Weights and Measures.

See M. Blocksma, Reading the Numbers (1989).

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

weights and measures
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.