The Prime Meridian is the meridian (line of longitude) at which longitude is defined to be 0°.
The Prime Meridian and the opposite 180th meridian (at 180° longitude), which the International Date Line generally follows, form a great circle that divides the Earth into the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.
Unlike the parallels of latitude, which are defined by the rotational axis of the Earth (the poles being 90° and the Equator 0°), the Prime Meridian is arbitrary. By international convention, the modern Prime Meridian is one passing through Greenwich, London, United Kingdom, known as the International Meridian or Greenwich Meridian. Historically, various meridians have been used, including four different ones through Greenwich.
The Greenwich Meridian, based at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, was established by Sir George Airy in 1851. By 1884, over two-thirds of all ships and tonnage used it as the reference meridian on their maps. In October of that year, at the behest of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur, 41 delegates from 25 nations met in Washington, D.C., USA, for the International Meridian Conference. This conference selected the Greenwich Meridian as the official Prime Meridian due to its popularity. However, France abstained from the vote and French maps continued to use the Paris Meridian for several decades. The Greenwich Meridian is now marked at night by a laser beam emitted from the observatory.