The first scientists to determine relative atomic masses were John Dalton and Thomas Thomson between 1803 and 1805 and Jöns Jakob Berzelius between 1808 and 1826. Relative atomic mass (Atomic weight) was originally defined relative to that of the lightest element, hydrogen, which was taken as 1.00, and in the 1820s, Prout's hypothesis stated that atomic masses of all elements would prove to be exact multiples of that of hydrogen. Berzelius, however, soon proved that this was not even approximately true, and for some elements, such as chlorine, relative atomic mass, at about 35.5, falls almost exactly halfway between two integral multiples of that of hydrogen. Still later, this was shown to be largely due to a mix of isotopes, and that the atomic masses of pure isotopes, or nuclides, are multiples of the hydrogen mass, to within about 1%.
In the 1860s, Stanislao Cannizzaro refined relative atomic masses by applying Avogadro's law (notably at the Karlsruhe Congress of 1860). He formulated a law to determine relative atomic masses of elements: the different quantities of the same element contained in different molecules are all whole multiples of the atomic weight and determined relative atomic masses and molecular masses by comparing the vapor density of a collection of gases with molecules containing one or more of the chemical element in question.
In the 20th century, until the 1960s, chemists and physicists used two different atomic-mass scales. The chemists used a "atomic mass unit" (amu) scale such that the natural mixture of oxygen isotopes had an atomic mass 16, while the physicists assigned the same number 16 to only the atomic mass of the most common oxygen isotope (16O, containing eight protons and eight neutrons). However, because oxygen-17 and oxygen-18 are also present in natural oxygen this led to two different tables of atomic mass. The unified scale based on carbon-12, 12C, met the physicists' need to base the scale on a pure isotope, while being numerically close to the chemists' scale. This was adopted as the 'unified atomic mass unit'. The current International System of Units (SI) primary recommendation for the name of this unit is the dalton and symbol 'Da'. The name 'unified atomic mass unit' and symbol 'u' are recognized names and symbols for the same unit.
The term atomic weight is being phased out slowly and being replaced by relative atomic mass, in most current usage. This shift in nomenclature reaches back to the 1960s and has been the source of much debate in the scientific community, which was triggered by the adoption of the unified atomic mass unit and the realization that weight was in some ways an inappropriate term. The argument for keeping the term "atomic weight" was primarily that it was a well understood term to those in the field, that the term "atomic mass" was already in use (as it is currently defined) and that the term "relative atomic mass" might be easily confused with relative isotopic mass (the mass of a single atom of a given nuclide, expressed dimensionlessly relative to 1/12 of the mass of carbon-12; see section above).
In 1979, as a compromise, the term "relative atomic mass" was introduced as a secondary synonym for atomic weight. Twenty years later the primacy of these synonyms was reversed, and the term "relative atomic mass" is now the preferred term.
However, the term "standard atomic weights" (referring to the standardized expectation atomic weights of differing samples) has not been changed, because simple replacement of "atomic weight" with "relative atomic mass" would have resulted in the term "standard relative atomic mass."