What is a Quadrillion?

What a quadrillion means depends upon both where and when the term was used. There are two different systems used for naming numbers larger than a million.

The American System

In the American system, the Latin prefix refers to the number of groups of three zeros, not including the last group of three, which represents a thousand. Thus in the USA, a billion is 1,000,000,000 (109) and a quadrillion is a mere 1,000,000,000,000,000. (1015).

The British System

In the British system, the Latin prefix represents the power of a million, thus a British billion is 1,000,000,000,000 (1012) and a British quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1024).

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Current British Usage

Common usage in most English-speaking countries, including Britain, has now almost completely adopted the American system, so it is now a thousand times easier to become a British billionaire. This change started taking place slowly around the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century, so when determining what the words billion, trillion, and quadrillion mean, it is necessary to consider both when and where they were used.

For a long time the BBC World Service used to say one thousand million rather than one billion to make the meaning absolutely clear, but as national budgets and deficits increased this solution became unworkable. (Imagine having to say one thousand million million!).

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