History of measurement: Wikis


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Some human-referenced units of measurement

Units of measurement were among the earliest tools invented by humans. Primitive societies needed rudimentary measures for many tasks: constructing dwellings of an appropriate size and shape, fashioning clothing, or bartering food or raw materials.


Earliest known systems

The inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3000–1500 BC, Mature period 2600–1900 BC) developed a sophisticated system of standardization, using weights and measures, evident by the excavations made at the Indus valley sites.[1] This technical standardization enabled gauging devices to be effectively used in angular measurement and measurement for construction.[1] Calibration was also found in measuring devices along with multiple subdivisions in case of some devices.[1]

The earliest known uniform systems of weights and measures seem all to have been created at some time in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC among the ancient peoples of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, and perhaps also Elam (in Iran) as well. The most astounding of these ancient systems was perhaps that of the Indus Valley Civilization (ca. 2600 BC). The Indus Valley peoples achieved great accuracy in measuring length, mass, and time. Their measurements were extremely precise since their smallest division, which is marked on an ivory scale found in Lothal, was approximately 1.704 mm, the smallest division ever recorded on a scale of the Bronze Age. The decimal system was used. Harappan engineers followed the decimal division of measurement for all practical purposes, including the measurement of mass as revealed by their hexahedron weights. Weights were based on units of 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500, with each unit weighing approximately 28 grams, similar to the English ounce or Roman uncia, and smaller objects were weighed in similar ratios with the units of 0.871.

Other systems were based on the use of parts of the body and the natural surroundings as measuring instruments. Early Babylonian and Egyptian records and the Bible indicate that length was first measured with the forearm, hand, or finger and that time was measured by the periods of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies. When it was necessary to compare the capacities of containers such as gourds or clay or metal vessels, they were filled with plant seeds which were then counted to measure the volumes. When means for weighing were invented, seeds and stones served as standards. For instance, the carat, still used as a unit for gems, was derived from the carob seed.

Present knowledge

Our present knowledge of early weights and measures comes from many sources. Archaeologists have recovered some rather early standards and preserved them in museums.[citation needed] The comparison of the dimensions of buildings with the descriptions of contemporary writers is another source of information. An interesting example of this is the comparison of the dimensions of the Greek Parthenon with the description given by Plutarch from which a fairly accurate idea of the size of the Attic foot is obtained. In some cases, we have only plausible theories and we must sometimes select the interpretation to be given to the evidence.

By studying the evidence given by all available sources, and by correlating the relevant facts, we obtain some idea of the origin and development of the units. We find that they have changed more or less gradually with the passing of time in a complex manner because of a great variety of modifying influences. We find the units modified and grouped into measurement systems: the Babylonian system, the Egyptian system, the Phileterian system of the Ptolemaic age, the Olympic system of Greece, the Roman system, and the British system, to mention only a few.

History of units


Units of length

The Egyptian cubit, the Indus Valley units of length referred to above and the Mesopotamian cubit were used in the 3rd millennium BC and are the earliest known units used by ancient peoples to measure length. The measures of length used in ancient India included the dhanus (bow), the krosa (cry, or cow-call) and the jojana (stage).

The common cubit was the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. It was divided into the span of the hand (one-half cubit), the palm or width of the hand (one sixth), and the digit or width of the middle finger (one twenty-fourth) and the span or the length between the tip little finger to the tip of the thumb. The Sacred Cubit, which was a standard cubit enhanced by an extra span—thus 7 spans or 28 digits long—was used in constructing buildings and monuments and in surveying in ancient Egypt; it may have been based on an astronomical measurement.[2] The inch, foot, and yard evolved from these units through a complicated transformation not yet fully understood. Some believe they evolved from cubic measures; others believe they were simple proportions or multiples of the cubit. In whichever case, the Greeks and Romans inherited the foot from the Egyptians. The Roman foot (~296 mm) was divided into both 12 unciae (inches) (~24.7 mm) and 16 digits (~18.5 mm). The Romans also introduced the mille passus (1000 paces) or double steps, the pace being equal to five Roman feet (~1480 mm). The Roman mile of 5000 feet (1480 m) was introduced into England during the occupation. Queen Elizabeth I (reigned from 1558 to 1603) changed, by statute, the mile to 5280 feet (~1609 m) or 8 furlongs, a furlong being 40 rod (unit)s (~201 m) of 5.5 yards (~5.03 m)each.

The introduction of the yard (0.9144 m) as a unit of length came later, but its origin is not definitely known. Some believe the origin was the double cubit, others believe that it originated from cubic measure. Whatever its origin, the early yard was divided by the binary method into 2, 4, 8, and 16 parts called the half-yard, span, finger, and nail. The association of the yard with the "gird" or circumference of a person's waist or with the distance from the tip of the nose to the end of the thumb of King Henry I (reigned 1100–1135) are probably standardizing actions, since several yards were in use in Britain. There were also Rods, Poles and Perches for measurements of length. The following table lists the equivalents.

12 lines = 1 inch
12 inches = 1 foot
3 feet = 1 yard
1760 yards = 1 mile
36 inches = 1 yard
440 yards = quarter mile
880 yards = half mile

100 links = 1 chain
10 chains = 1 furlong
8 furlongs = 1 mile
4 inches = 1 hand
22 yards = 1 chain
5.5 yards = 1 rod, pole or perch
4 poles = 1 chain
40 poles = 1 furlong

Typographical units

The point, which is a unit for measuring print type, is recent. It originated with Pierre Simon Fournier in 1737. It was modified and developed by the Didot brothers, Francois Ambroise and Pierre Francois, in 1755. The point was first used in the United States in 1878 by a Chicago type foundry (Marder, Luse, and Company). Since 1886, a point has been exactly 0.3514598 millimeters, or 1/72.27 inch.

The pica in any of several related systems measures 12 points.

Units of mass

The grain was the earliest unit of mass and is the smallest unit in the apothecary, avoirdupois, Tower, and troy systems. The early unit was a grain of wheat or barleycorn used to weigh the precious metals silver and gold. Larger units preserved in stone standards were developed that were used as both units of mass and of monetary currency. The pound was derived from the mina used by ancient civilizations. A smaller unit was the shekel, and a larger unit was the talent. The magnitude of these units varied from place to place. The Babylonians and Sumerians had a system in which there were 60 shekels in a mina and 60 minas in a talent. The Roman talent consisted of 100 libra (pound) which were smaller in magnitude than the mina. The troy pound (~373.2 g) used in England and the United States for monetary purposes, like the Roman pound, was divided into 12 ounces, but the Roman uncia (ounce) was smaller. The carat is a unit for measuring gemstones that had its origin in the carob seed, which later was standardized at 1/144 ounce and then 0.2 gram.

Goods of commerce were originally traded by number or volume. When weighing of goods began, units of mass based on a volume of grain or water were developed. For example, the talent in some places was approximately equal to the mass of one cubic foot of water. Was this a coincidence or by design? The diverse magnitudes of units having the same name, which still appear today in our dry and liquid measures, could have arisen from the various commodities traded. The larger avoirdupois pound for goods of commerce might have been based on volume of water which has a higher bulk density than grain. For example, the Egyptian hon was a volume unit about 11 per cent larger than a cubic palm and corresponded to one mina of water. It was almost identical in volume to the present U.S. pint (~473 mL).

The stone, quarter, hundredweight, and ton were larger units of mass used in Britain. Today only the stone continues in customary use for measuring personal body weight. The present stone is 14 pounds (~6.35 kg), but an earlier unit appears to have been 16 pounds (~7.25 kg). The other units were multiples of 2, 8, and 160 times the stone, or 28, 112, and 2240 pounds (~12.7 kg, 50.8 kg, 1016 kg), respectively. The hundredweight was approximately equal to two talents. The ton of 2240 pounds is called the "long ton". The "short ton" is equal to 2000 pounds (~907 kg). A tonne (t) is equal to 1000 kg.

Units of time and angle

Hindu units of time on a logarithmic scale.

We can trace the division of the circle into 360 degrees and the day into hours, minutes, and seconds to the Babylonians who had sexagesimal system of numbers. The 360 degrees may have been related to a year of 360 days. Many other systems of measurement divided the day differently; other calendars divided the year differently.

Metric conversion

The metric system was first described 1668, and officially adopted by France in 1799. Over the course of the 1800s and 1900s, it became the dominant system worldwide, with the largest exception being the United States.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Baber, page 23
  2. ^ Heath, Robin; Mitchell, John (2006). The Lost Science of Measuring the Earth. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press. pp. p15. ISBN 1931882509. 


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