The kilogram is defined in terms of three fundamental physical constants: The speed of light c, a specific atomic transition frequency ΔνCs, and the Planck constant h. The formal definition is:
- The kilogram, symbol kg, is the SI unit of mass. It is defined by taking the fixed numerical value of the Planck constant h to be 6.62607015×10−34 when expressed in the unit J⋅s, which is equal to kg⋅m2⋅s−1, where the metre and the second are defined in terms of c and ΔνCs.
This definition makes the kilogram consistent with the older definition: the mass remains almost exactly the same as the mass of a litre of water.
The development of the first metric system began about 1790. The initial mass unit was the grave, defined in 1793. Within three years it was replaced by the kilogram.
The gram, 1/1000 of a kilogram, was provisionally defined in 1795 as the mass of one cubic centimetre of water at the melting point of ice. The Kilogramme des Archives was manufactured as a prototype in 1799 and served as a basis for the International Prototype Kilogram (IPK) in 1875. It had a mass equal to the mass of 1 dm3 of water under atmospheric pressure and at the temperature of its maximum density, which is approximately 4 °C.
The International Prototype Kilogram was commissioned by the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) under the authority of the Metre Convention (1875), and is in the custody of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) who hold it on behalf of the CGPM. The IPK was rarely used or handled. Copies of the IPK kept by national metrology laboratories around the world were compared with the IPK in 1889, 1948, and 1989 to provide traceability of measurements of mass anywhere in the world back to the IPK.
The kilogram was the last SI unit that was directly defined by an artefact rather than fundamental physical properties that could be independently reproduced in different laboratories. Three other base units (cd, A, mol) and 17 derived units (N, Pa, J, W, C, V, F, Ω, S, Wb, T, H, kat, Gy, Sv, lm, lx) in the SI system were defined in relation to the kilogram, and thus its stability was important. The definitions of only eight other named SI units did not depend on the kilogram: those of temperature (K, °C), time and frequency (s, Hz, Bq), length (m), and angle (rad, sr).
Replacement of the International Prototype Kilogram
After the International Prototype Kilogram had been found to vary in mass over time relative to its reproductions, the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) recommended in 2005 that the kilogram be redefined in terms of a fundamental constant of nature. At its 2011 meeting, the CGPM agreed in principle that the kilogram should be redefined in terms of the Planck constant, h. The decision was originally deferred until 2014; in 2014 it was deferred again until the next meeting. CIPM proposed revised definitions of the SI base units for consideration at the 26th CGPM. The formal vote on 16 November 2018 approved the change.