Measurement of Earth's circumference has been important to navigation since ancient times. The first known scientific measurement and calculation was done by Eratosthenes, who achieved a great degree of precision in his computation. Treated as a sphere, determining Earth's circumference would be its single most important measurement. Earth deviates from spherical by about 0.3%, as characterized by flattening.
In modern times, Earth's circumference has been used to define fundamental units of measurement of length: the nautical mile in the seventeenth century and the metre in the eighteenth. Earth's polar circumference is very near to 21,600 nautical miles because the nautical mile was intended to express one minute of latitude (see meridian arc), which is 21,600 partitions of the polar circumference (that is 60 minutes × 360 degrees). The polar circumference is also close to 40,000 kilometres because the metre was originally defined to be one 10-millionth (that is a km is one 10-thousandth) of the arc from pole to equator (quarter meridian). The physical length of each unit of measure has remained close to what it was determined to be at the time, but the precision of measuring the circumference has improved since then.