Metric time

Metric time

Metric time is the measure of time interval using the metric system, which defines the second as the base unit of time, and multiple and submultiple units formed with metric prefixes, such as kiloseconds and milliseconds. It does not define the time of day, as this is defined by various time scales, which may be based upon the metric definition of the second. Other units of time, the minute, hour, and day, are accepted for use with the modern metric system, but are not part of it.



When the metric system was introduced in France in 1795, it included units for length, area, dry volume, liquid capacity, weight or mass, and even currency, but not for time. Decimal time of day had been introduced in France two years earlier, but was set aside at the same time the metric system was inaugurated, and did not follow the metric pattern of a base unit and prefixed units. James Clerk Maxwell and Elihu Thomson (through the British Association for the Advancement of Science - BAAS) introduced the Centimetre gram second system of units (cgs) in 1874, in order to derive electric and magnetic metric units, following the recommendation of Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1832.

The ephemeris second (defined as 1/86400 of a mean solar day) was made one of the original base units of the modern metric system, or International System of Units (SI), at the 10th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) in 1954. The SI second was later redefined more precisely as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom.

Alternative units

Numerous proposals have been made for alternative base units of metric time. On March 28, 1794, the president of the commission which developed the metric system, Joseph Louis Lagrange, proposed in a report to the commission the names déci-jour and centi-jour (deciday and centiday in English).[1] Base units equivalent to decimal divisions of the day, such as 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000, or 1/100,000 day, or other divisions of the day, such as 1/20 or 1/40 day, have also been proposed, with names such as tick, meck, chi, chron, moment, etc., and multiple and submultiple units formed with metric prefixes. Such alternative units have not gained any notable acceptance, however, mostly from sheer lack of acquaintance and familiarity.

A modified second = 1/100 000 of a day = 0.864 s could be a viable alternative. Any redefinition of the second, however, creates conflicts with anything based on its precise current definition. Another unit for time, more familiar than some other suggestions, could be 14.4 minutes, i.e. a shorter quarter of an hour, or a centiday, as proposed by Lagrange. The centiday was used in China (called ke in Chinese) for thousands of years.

In the 19th century, M.J. de Rey-Pailhade proposed using the centiday, abbreviated , divided into 10 decicés, 100 centicés, 1000 millicés.[2] and 10000 dimicés.[3][4]

In 1897, the Commission de décimalisation du temps was created by the French Bureau of Longitude, with the mathematician Henri Poincaré as secretary. The commission proposed making the standard hour the base unit of metric time, but the proposal did not gain acceptance and was eventually abandoned.[5]

Alternative meaning

Metric time is sometimes used to mean decimal time. Metric time properly refers to measurement of time interval, while decimal time refers to the time of day. Standard time of day is defined by various time scales, such as UTC, which are now usually based upon the metric base unit of time, the second. Some proposals for alternative units of metric time are accompanied by decimal time scales for telling the time of day based upon these alternative units. Other proposals called "metric time" refer only to decimal time, and therefore are not truly metric.

French decimal time is sometimes called "metric time" because it was introduced around the same time as the metric system and both were decimal, but it was not part of the decree creating the original metric system and its units were named for the hour, minute and second, instead of using metric prefixes. Other decimal time standards, such as Swatch Internet Time, are not considered metric time.

In computing

In computing, at least internally, metric time gained widespread use for ease of computation. Unix time gives date and time as the number of seconds since January 1, 1970, and Microsoft's FILETIME as multiples of 100ns since January 1, 1601.[6] VAX/VMS uses the number of 100ns since November 17, 1858 and RISC OS the number of centiseconds since January 1, 1900.

None of these systems are strictly linear, as they have discontinuities at leap seconds.

Fractions of a second

While larger metric prefixes of a second are rarely used, subdivision prefixes are well established within science and technology. Milliseconds, microseconds and smaller units (but not centiseconds) are well established.


The main problem of metric time lies in the units. The International System of Units has only developed prefixes regarding 10 units exponentially in both the multiple and submultiple directions. The first three multiples would be viable for use within a metric time system; they are:

Multiple Name of Unit Seconds Minutes
101 decasecond 10
102 hectosecond 100 1.666
103 kilosecond 1 000 16.666

However, the SI Units’ fourth value is:

Multiple Name of Unit Seconds Minutes Hours Days Years
106 megasecond 1 000 000 16 666.666 277.777 11.574
109 gigasecond 1 000 000 000 16 666 666.666 277 777.777 11 574.074 31.689

This makes for relatively nonviable units with which to measure human time/life.

To make this system of prefixes work for metric time, standard units and prefixes would need to be developed or revived for the 4th and 5th exponents to make metric time viable to human life. Historically, the metric system included a myria- prefix to represent 104, but the SI disposed of it.

Multiple Name of Unit Seconds Minutes Hours Days
104 myriasecond 10 000 166.6 2.777
105 gradasecond 100 000 1 666.6 27.77 1.157

In popular culture

Metric time appears in science fiction writing on occasion. In the novel A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, the spacefaring Qeng Ho culture is depicted as using metric units such as the kilosecond and megasecond for all time interval measurements.

The novels Accelerando and Glasshouse by Charles Stross have several uses of metric time, including kiloseconds, megaseconds, and megayears. In the second case, humans are living in habitats circling brown dwarfs, with no lingering connection to the Solar System that gave birth to the earlier time scale. In Glasshouse characters use kiloseconds, "megs" etc. to refer to different periods of time, any earlier use of megayears has been dropped.

The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld uses metric time to measure time within an empire that extends over many star systems.

In television, the Simpsons episode "They Saved Lisa's Brain" has Principal Skinner saying that, thanks to the city being under Mensa's control, that the city's trains are not only running on time, but they are running on metric time, while looking at an analog clock with numbers 1–10 (which indicates decimal time).[7]

An opening scene of Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis shows a metric clock with ten numbers instead of twelve, illustrating the improved efficiency of future industrial society.

A song off of the 2000 album Veni Vidi Vicious by the Swedish band The Hives is titled "The Hives - Introduce the Metric System in Time".

See also


External links

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