The metric system refers to a series of measurements that are divisible by ten. In other words, meters are a metric form of measurement because they are made up of 100 centimeters which in turn are made up of 10 milimeters. Other examples are kilometres, kilos and grams. The metric system makes sense and makes it easy to work with various units and statistics without doing complex maths or having to remember complicated conversion rates. The system was brought in to replace the less obvious and methodical ‘imperial’ system which meanwhile relied on largely arbitrary and random units of measurements such as miles and inches.
Both imperial units and metric units began life in Europe. The imperial system was brought in by the British in the ‘Weights and Measures’ of 1824, while the French introduced ‘metrication’ in the 1790s. Over the following years metrication has gained popularity, and is considered the internationally dominating form of measurement and the legal standard.
However while the process has been largely successful, some countries are still lagging behind. For instance in the US imperial measurements are still used for many things such as cooking instructions, while in the UK miles are still used in road signs and pints are legally mandated to be the measuring unit for alcoholic beverages.
Part of the reason that the US has been slow to adopt the metric system used in most of Europe is potentially due to its close ties and shared language with the UK. The US also still uses ‘United States customary units’ (including miles and leagues) in some measurements which are derived from the English units used at the time of settlement (these customary units are largely the same as some of the well-known imperial units).
In the UK the slow adoption of the metric system compared with Europe could be a result of its isolated nature as an island, or it could be related to the fact that the Imperial units were originally a British creation. However the UK isn’t the only place in Europe where imperial units are still used – for instance the diameters of pipes are still measured in inches across much of Europe, in Northern Europe planks and nails are measured in inches in the construction industry, while Spain still uses the quiñón. As you would expect with any change on such a scale, it takes time for every country and industry to fully adapt – hundreds of years in fact it would seem.