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The metric system is an internationally agreed decimal system of measurement that was originally based on the mètre des Archives and the kilogramme des Archives introduced by France in 1799. Over the years, the definitions of the metre and kilogram have been refined and the metric system has been extended to incorporate many more units. Although a number of variants of the metric system emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the term is now often used as a synonym for "SI"[Note 1] or the "International System of Units"—the official system of measurement in almost every country in the world.

The metric system has been officially sanctioned for use in the United States since 1866, but it remains the only industrialised country that has not adopted the metric system as its official system of measurement. Many sources also cite Liberia and Burma as the only other countries not to have done so. Although the United Kingdom uses the metric system for most official purposes, the use of the imperial system of measure, particularly in unregulated sectors such as journalism, is widespread.

Although the originators intended to devise a system that was equally accessible to all, it proved necessary to use prototype units under the custody of government or other approved authorities as standards. Control of the prototype units of measure was maintained by the French government until 1875 when it passed to an inter-governmental organisation—the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM).[Note 1] It is now hoped that the last of these prototypes can be retired by 2014.

From its beginning, the main features of the metric system were the standard set of inter-related base units and a standard set of prefixes in powers of ten. These base units are used to derive larger and smaller units that could replace a huge number of other units of measure in existence. Although the system was first developed for commercial use, the development of coherent units of measure made it particularly suitable for science and engineering.

The uncoordinated use of the metric system by different scientific and engineering disciplines, particularly in the late 19th century, resulted in different choices of fundamental units, even though all were based on the same definitions of the metre and the kilogram. During the 20th century, efforts were made to rationalise these units and in 1960 the CGPM published the International System of Units which, since then, has been the internationally recognised standard metric system.

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