Open main menu

Metric time is the measure of time intervals using the metric system. The modern SI system defines the second as the base unit of time, and forms multiples and submultiples with metric prefixes such as kiloseconds and milliseconds. Other units of time: minute, hour, and day, are accepted for use with SI, but are not part of it. Metric time is used for time intervals, while decimal time is used for time of day.



The second derives its name from the sexagesimal system, which originated with the Sumerians and Babylonians. This system divides a base unit into sixty minutes, each minute into sixty seconds, and each second into sixty tierces.[1] The word "minute" comes from the Latin pars minuta prima, meaning "first small part", and "second" from pars minuta secunda or "second small part". Angular measure also uses sexagesimal units; there, it is the degree that is subdivided into minutes and seconds, while in time, it is the hour.

On March 28, 1794, the president of the French commission that developed the metric system, Joseph Louis Lagrange, proposed using the day (French jour) as the base unit of time, with divisions déci-jour and centi-jour (deciday and centiday in English).[2] The final system, as introduced in 1795, included units for length, area, dry volume, liquid capacity, weight or mass, and currency, but not 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.

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 various names. Such alternative units did not gain any notable acceptance. The centiday, (called in Chinese) was used in China for thousands of years.[citation needed] A centiday is about 14.4 minutes. In the 19th century, Joseph Charles François de Rey-Pailhade proposed using the centiday, abbreviated , divided into 10 decicés, 100 centicés, 1000 millicés.[3] and 10000 dimicés.[4][5]

James Clerk Maxwell and Elihu Thomson (through the British Association for the Advancement of Science - BAAS) introduced the Centimetre gram second system of units in 1874 to derive electric and magnetic metric units, following the recommendation of Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1832.

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.[6]

When the modern SI system was defined at the 10th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) in 1954, the ephemeris second (1/86400 of a mean solar day) was made one of the system's base units. Because the Earth's rotation is slowly decelerating at an irregular rate and was thus unsuitable as a reference point for precise measurements, 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. The international standard atomic clocks use caesium-133 measurements as their main benchmark.

In computingEdit

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.[7] 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 is strictly linear, as they each have discontinuities at leap seconds.


Metric prefixes for subdivisions of a second are commonly used in science and technology. Milliseconds, microseconds and smaller units are particularly common. Centiseconds and prefixes for multiples of a second are rarely used.

One problem lies in the size of time units created using metric prefixes. The first three SI multiples would be viable for use within a metric time system; they are:

Multiple Name of Unit Seconds Minutes
101 decasecond 10 0.166
102 hectosecond 100 1.666
103 kilosecond 1 000 16.666

However, the next multiples are:

Multiple Name of Unit Seconds Minutes Hours Days Years
106 megasecond 1 000 000 16 666.666 277.777 11.574 0.032
109 gigasecond 1 000 000 000 16 666 666.666 277 777.777 11 574.074 31.688

Such lengths of time are relatively impractical for measuring human activities.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "What does tierce mean". Retrieved 2016-03-23.
  2. ^ Procès-verbaux du Comité d'instruction publique de la Convention nationale by James Guillaume
  3. ^ Histoire d'heure - Fractionnement du temps Archived 2015-05-22 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ AJB, Volume 9, 1907
  5. ^ Report of the Sixth International Geographical Congress: Held in London, 1895
  6. ^ Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: empires of time By Peter Louis Galison
  7. ^ FILETIME documentation on MSDN

External linksEdit