Historical perspective: Unit of mass, kilogram


The 1889 definition of the kilogram was simply the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram, an artefact made of platinum-iridium. This was, and still is, kept at the BIPM under the conditions specified by the 1st CGPM when it sanctioned the prototype and declared that "this prototype shall henceforth be considered to be the unit of mass". Forty similar prototypes were made at about the same time and these were all machined and polished to have closely the same mass as the international prototype. At the 1st CGPM (1889), after calibration against the international prototype, most of these "national prototypes" were individually assigned to Member States, and some also to the BIPM. The 3rd CGPM, in a declaration intended to end the ambiguity in common usage concerning the use of the word "weight", confirmed that "the kilogram is the unit of mass; it is equal to the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram". The complete version of these declarations appears on p. 70 of the above-mentioned CGPM proceedings.

By the time of the second verification of national prototypes in 1946 it was found that on average the masses of these prototypes were diverging from that of the international prototype. This was confirmed by the third verification carried out from 1989 to 1991, the median difference being about 25 micrograms for the set of original prototypes sanctioned by the 1st CGPM (1889). In order to assure the long-term stability of the unit of mass, to take full advantage of quantum electrical standards and to be of more utility to modern science, a new definition for the kilogram based on the value of a fundamental constant, for which purpose the Planck constant h was chosen, was adopted by Resolution 1 of the 26th CGPM (2018).


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CGPM Resolution 1 (2018)

On the revision of the International System of Units (SI)

DOI : 10.59161/CGPM2018RES1E

CGPM Declaration 2 (1901)

Declaration on the unit of mass and on the definition of weight; conventional value of gn

DOI : 10.59161/CGPM1901DECL2E

CGPM Declaration (1889)

Sanction of the international prototypes of the metre and the kilogram

DOI : 10.59161/CGPM1889DECLE