National Physical Laboratory

Educate & Explore - Outreach Measurement

[from measure verb + ment] The action or an act of measuring: A dimension ascertained by measuring; a size, quantity, or extent measured by a standard: A system of measuring or of measures. Shorter Oxford Dictonary Fifth Edition.


How could you do the following everyday activities without measurement?

Types of measurement activity

Measurement is everywhere, playing a vital role in our lives.

Measurement underpins the welfare of a modern society and touches almost every part of daily life:

  • Ensuring the safety and effectiveness of healthcare diagnostics and treatments
  • Measuring the composition, energy value and quantity of gas piped to our homes, or of fuel in our vehicles
  • Ensuring safe operation of aircraft in flight
  • Ensuring consistency of international time standards so we can communicate reliably and navigate accurately throughout the world
  • Quantifying emissions of greenhouse gases to understand and mitigate climate change
  • Ensuring the security and sustainability of our food supply
  • Ensuring fairness between buyers and sellers in markets where goods are sold by weight or volume

It is almost impossible to describe anything accurately or conduct our daily lives without the use of measurement. Measurements range from the huge (an astronomer measuring the distance between stars) to the tiny (a nanotechnology scientist detecting particles). They range from the oldest measurement of length and weight, used to build the pyramids, to the latest measurement of single photons that may revolutionise computer technology in the future.

Measurement plays a fundamental part in the innovation process. To develop new products and processes, companies need to measure quantity, quality and performance. To trade successfully, companies utilise a regulatory framework, based upon measurement confidence, ensuring access to global markets that are fair and open and without unnecessary barriers to trade. Supporting this is an established infrastructure of traceable measurement linked seamlessly to the national standards maintained on behalf of the UK.

In some industries the need for accurate measurement is critical. For example, companies manufacturing precision engineering components used in aero engines will be working to tight specifications and must be able to measure size, material composition and performance to very accurate levels.

For many of us a visit to a hospital may not be desirable, but knowing that the treatment has been appropriately measured throughout its development, trials and final delivery to the patient, is vital to confidence in its application and effectiveness.

Measurement provides structure, removes chaos, reduces waste, ensures open and fair markets, supports precision where required and saves lives, money and time.

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When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.
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Lord Kelvin,
British scientist
(1824 - 1907)