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SI Units – Length

m - Meter - Length - 2018

The meter (m) is defined by taking the fixed numerical value of the speed of light in vacuum c to be 299,792,458 when expressed in the unit m s−1, where the second is defined in terms of ∆νCs.

The meter was once defined by a physical artifact - two marks inscribed on a platinum-iridium bar. The Length - Evolution from Measurement Standard to a Fundamental Constant explains the evolution of the definition of the meter. Follow these changes over time in the NIST Length Timeline.

From the meter, several other units of measure are derived such as the:

  • unit of speed is the meter per second (m/s). The speed of light in vacuum is 299 792 458 meters per second.
  • unit of acceleration is the meter per second per second (m/s2).
  • unit of area is the square meter (m2).
  • unit of volume is the cubic meter (m3). The liter (1 cubic decimeter), although not an SI unit, is accepted for use with the SI and is commonly used when measuring fluid volume, but is also used when measuring gases and solids.

FAQ: When did the metric redefinition of the inch occur?

In 1958, a conference of English-speaking nations agreed to unify their standards of length and mass, and define them in terms of metric measures. The American yard was shortened and the imperial yard was lengthened as a result. The new conversion factors were announced in 1959 in Federal Register Notice 59-5442 (June 30, 1959), which states the definition of a standard inch: The value for the inch, derived from the value of the Yard effective July 1, 1959, is exactly equivalent to 25.4 mm.

The conversion factor can be determined:

length equation
Units of Length
10 millimeters (mm) = 1 centimeter (cm)
10 centimeters = 1 decimeter (dm)
10 centimeters = 100 millimeters
10 decimeters = 1 meter (m)
10 decimeters = 1000 millimeters
10 meters = 1 dekameter (dam)
10 dekameters = 1 hectometer (hm)
10 dekameters = 100 meters
10 hectometers = 1 kilometer (km)
10 hectometers = 1000 meters

FAQ: How do I get a metric ruler?

Metric rulers are available from many retail vendors, which can be identified by using search terms such as "metric rule," "meter stick," or "metric stick." Printable rulers, such as the centimeter Color-square rules, can be color printed on to overhead transparency sheets to make inexpensive metric rulers.

Resources for Students and Teachers

  • Meter – Whether it’s the interminable distance to Grandma’s house, a span of cloth, the number of yards to the goal line, or the space between the unfathomably small transistors on a computer chip, length is one of the most familiar units of measurement. (NIST)
  • National Prototype Meter No. 27. (NIST)
  • Using a Metric Ruler. (WeldNotes, Video)
  • Using a Micrometer. (University of Toronto)
  • Using a Caliper and Micrometer. (University of Capetown, Department of Physics)
  • Scale of Things Chart. (U.S. Department of Energy)
  • Examine Cell Size and Scale using an interactive graphic. (University of Utah)
  • Practice measuring length with centimeters in the Squares and Rectangles activity. (PBS)
  • Calculate Focal Length in this hands-on activity and explore this important concept that’s used in STEAM tools like microscopes, telescopes, and cameras. (The Optical Society)
  • Develop an understanding of how small a nanometer really is with the What is a Nanometer activity? During the lesson students will measure common classroom objects and convert the results to nanometers. (IEEE)
  • Become familiar with equivalent metric length measurements with the Length Column Game. Draw a line to connect between like measurements. Look carefully, because some items do not have a match! (Quintessential Instructional Archive)
  • Design, plan, and draw a garden layout to scale using a metric ruler. (University of California at Berkley, University of Nottingham)
  • SI Area. Explore resources to become familiar with units used to measure area, including the hectare.
  • SI Volume. Explore resources to become familiar with units used to measure volume, including the liter.
  • Calculate Circumference, Area and Volume. Become familiar with methods used to calculate the circumference, area, and volume of common objects. (NIST)
graphic image of SI Superhero, Meter Man
Credit: J. Wang and B. Hayes/NIST

League of SI Superheroes – Meter Man:

This comic book-style video animation series has been developed to help middle school students learn about the 7 SI base measurement units. With his sharp eyes and stretchy ruler arms, no distance is too big or small for Meter Man to measure. A meter is the distance light travels in a tiny fraction of a second.

Navigate to more SI base unit information:


Created April 12, 2010, Updated August 16, 2021