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History of measurement

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This page reviews non standard measurement and standard measurement and a chronology that shows how politics shaped the use of measurement in the United States.

Measurement is a tool (technology) for representing objects in the world. It evolved as a body based solution for problems poised by craft production and trade.

Examples of body based units are found in early Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese, Roman, Greek, Aztec, and Mayan cultures.

Measurement as a dimension of mathematics is unique in that body based measurements have continued to be of value after standard units were invented. What makes them unique is the value of their use for solutions that are unique to individual people. For example making a poncho that is tailor made to fit a particular person or a set of skis that is efficient for the height and weigh of each user.

Let's review some body based, non standard measurements, along with some activities.

Body based & physical activity based measurements, as non standard measurements

Body based measurements are determined by different parts of the human body.

Example is when King Edward IV orders every Englishman, between 16-60, to build a longbow that is their height plus one fitmele (width of fist and extended thumb).

Other physical activity-based measurements include units of measure of a day's journey by foot or stone's throw (linear measures) or a day's worth of plowing (measure of area).

Historical examples include:

  • Armful As much as a person can carry in both arms (a measure of volume), or the circumference that the arms can surround.
  • Arm length Any units based on the length of an arm, typically from tip of outstretched fingers to one of the following: armpit, shoulder, or middle of chest (half-fathom).
  • Arm thickness As thick as the arm (or wrist).
  • Cubit (ell) The distance from the tip of the elbow to the tip of an extended finger (typically the middle finger). Also sometimes measured to, e.g... the closed fist or wrist, or from elbow crease to fingertips. Other similar forearm-based units are included.
  • Fathom (arm span) Distance between fingertips (or closed hand) of outstretched arms.
  • Finger length Length of any of the four fingers, thumb excluded (see "thumb length"). Includes the length of finger joints and combinations thereof.
  • Finger width Width of one or multiple fingers (or fingernails). excluding the thumb (see "thumb width").
  • Fistmele Width of the fist with an extended thumb (Similar to "thumbs-up" gesture).
  • Foot Inner or outer length of the foot. Also includes foot width.
  • Hand span Distance between the tip of the extended thumb to the tip of one of any four other fingers on an outstretched hand.
  • Handful Cupped hand (handful) or two cupped hands (double handful), a measure of volume.
  • Hand length The length of a hand, typically from the wrist joint or crease to the tip of the middle finger.
  • Hand width Width of the palm (also known simply as the "palm").
    Also includes the width of four fingers or the fist, or the circumference of the palm.
  • Leg length The distance from the sole of the foot to the knee or hip.
  • Leg thickness As thick as (any part of) the leg.
  • Height A person's height from the sole of the foot to the tip of the head, or to the tip of vertically extended arms. Also includes measures of height to other specified points of the upper body (e.g... navel, eyes, and forehead).
  • Pace A pace, step, or stride.
  • Pinch A small measure for volume measured by pinching the thumb against the tip of a finger (e.g.. a "pinch of salt").
  • Ring Measure of circumference made by pinching the tip of a finger to the thumb (similar to the "OK" or "ring" gesture).
  • Thumb length The length of the thumb or thumb joints).
  • Thumb width The width of the thumb (including nail width).

Examples of objects designed with body-based units.

  • Karelian skis, early 1900s. The gliding ski was made as long as the user's fathom plus six spans. Too narrow it will sink in the soft snow and too wide will make it more cumbersome and increase friction in the snow.
  • Mapuche ponchos were measured from the neck to halfway between the waistline and knee and from neck to thumb with the arm outstretched.
  • Yahi bow, early 1900s. The bow's length was from the opposite hip joint to the tip the outstretched arm. The width below and above the hand grip was four fingers for a very powerful bow.
  • Yup'ik kayak along the Alaskan coast, late 1800s. The kayak's length was two fathoms, plus one half-fathom, plus the length of the cockpit, which was the length of an arm with a closed fist. The kayak's height at the cockpit was one cubit with closed fist. The kayak's width was two cubits.
  • Common length of a double-bladed Greenland paddle is the user's fathom plus one cubit, and the blade width is the maximum breadth that one can grip.

Uses of measurement

Technological domains

  • Garments and cloth Body-based units are used in the design, measurement, or weaving of garments or cloth. Includes textiles, clothes, footwear, and other wearable items.
  • Building Body-based units are used in the design or construction of buildings or other infrastructure. Includes carpentry.
  • Weaponry Body-based units are used in the design construction of weapons (e.g.. bows and spears).
  • Transport Body-based units are used in the design or construction of transport-related technologies (e.g... kayaks, canoes, boats. skis, equestrian items, and sleds).
  • Household Body-based units are used in the design or construction of other household items, such as mats, pottery. utensils, and looms.
  • Fishing tools Body-based units are used in the context of fishing (also, e.g. crabbing, shellfish, and harvesting), such as the measurement of fishing nets, lines, hooks, and harpoons.
  • Agricultural tools Body-based units are used in the design or construction of agricultural technologies, such as scythes, axes, and plows.
  • Instrument Body-based units are used in the design or construction of musical instruments.

Other cultural domains

  • Trade Body-based units are used for trade, in markets and barter. or for measuring units of currency...
  • Agriculture Body-based units are used in agriculture (or horticulture). Agriculture
    e.g., in measuring cultivated land or agricultural products or distance between sowed seeds.
  • Ritual Body-based units are used in ritual, ceremonial, religious, burial, or divination purposes.
  • Animals Body-based units are used to measure the size (or value) of livestock and other animals.
  • Cooking Body-based units are used in cooking and the measurement of food items.
  • Medicine Body-based units are used for medical purposes.
  • Games Body-based units are used in the context of games or play.


  • Linear Body-based units measure linear distance (one-dimensional between two points).
  • Area Body-based units measure area (two dimensional space).
  • Volume Body-based units measure volume (three-dimensional space).


  • Ergonomic instances where body-based units of measure are mentioned to be used in designing custom-sized (ergonomic) technologies.
  • Temperature Instances where the body is used to measure temperature when something is too hot to touch or of body temperature fever.


From these different uses of measurement Kaaronen et. al. identified four reasons to explain why body-based units were used to begin with and why they were sustained and sometimes preferred to standardized units.

  1. Ergonomic design is a logical basis to design personalized tools and objects. Kayak, bow, clothes, shoes,
  2. Motor efficiency is a logical basis to design personalized tools and objects. Fishing nets, ropes, fathom.
  3. Availability is logical to use what is useful and at hand. Body parts as measurement.
  4. Integration with local knowledge logical to use what makes sense to the users. When is grandma coming? Two sleeps. Canoe trip is three coconut drinks. Not only general length of time the trip will take, but tells what quantity of hydration will be needed to sustain the navigator depending on the local conditions and kind of trip. Same with a days worth of plowing.

Source: Body-based units of measure in cultural evolution.
Roope O. Kaaronen, Mikael A. Manninen, Jussi T. Eronent. Science June 2, 2023.

Standard measurement

Any system of measurement must have a basic unit. When people agree on a unit for measurement, then it becomes a standard. This fact has been the basis for rejection and acceptance of various systems. Historically standards have included:

  • The unit of length (cubit) from the back of the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.
  • The unit of length (foot) of a human foot.
  • The unit of length (meter) a pendulum would travel in one full swing in one second. This unit had the practical problem of varying with temperature and altitude.
  • The unit of length (meter) equal to one ten-millionth of the length of the arc from the equator to the North Pole, or a quadrant of the Earth's meridian circle.
  • The unit of mass (kilogram) of water contained in a cube whose sides are one-tenth the unit of length (meter).
  • The unit of volume (liter) in a cube whose sides are one-tenth the unit of length (meter).
  • The unit of length (meter) constructed by a precise measurement of the arc of meridian between Dunkirk, France, and Barcelona, Spain. The length of the arc from the equator to the North Pole was then to be inferred from astronomical measurements of angle. The survey was completed in November 1798, and platinum artifact reference standard for the meter and the kilogram were constructed in June 1799. These two standards, were in the French National Archive in Paris. Known as the Meter of the Archives and the Kilogram of the Archives.

A Chronology of the Metric System and Measurement in the United States

In his book The Tenth, Simon Stevin suggests that a decimal system should be used for weights and measures, coinage, and divisions of the degree of arc.
Authorities give credit for originating the metric system to Gabriel Mouton, a French vicar, in about this year.
Article I, Section 8 of the U. S. Constitution gives Congress the power to fix the standard of weights and measures for the nation.
History of Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson and the metric system
Thomas Jefferson proposes to the Congress of the United States a decimal based measurement system. Congress took no action. Metric system was not yet developed. When considering changing to a decimal based measurement system Thomas Jefferson asks John Quincy Adams … Shall we mould our citizens to the law, or the law to our citizens?
France’s Louis XVI authorizes scientific investigations aimed at a reform of French weights and measures.
Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre & Pierre-Francois-Andre Mechain spend more than seven years of extensive research to create the metric system. As they traveled across France they faced extreme weather, inhospitable terrain, hyper inflation, epidemics, and constant threat of violence from skeptical citizens and their curious endeavor. These investigations led to the development of the first metric system.
The U.S. Mint is formed to produce the world’s first decimal currency (the U.S. dollar consisting of 100 cents).
France officially adopts the metric system.
Napoleon temporarily suspends the compulsory provisions of the 1795 metric system adoption.
John Quincy Adams submits to congress a report and review of systems of weight. He did not recommend the use of the metric system as he felt it would not be accepted by the public and the many changes required to implement it would be impractical at the time.
The metric system is reinstated as the compulsory system in France.
Congress enacts the Metric Act of 1866 (Public Law 39-183). It authorized, but not mandated, the use of the metric system in the United States. It is signed into law by President Andrew Johnson on July 20, 1866. It regulated the coordination of weights and measures between the United States and other nations and made it unlawful to refuse to trade or deal in metric quantities.
The Convention of the Metre signed on 20 May 1875 in Paris by 17 nations.
The United States participated in the Convention of the meter in Paris in 1875, signed the Treaty of the Metre, received prototypes of the standard meter bar and standard kilogram in 1893, which became the nation's official unit standards for length and mass, both for metric and customary weights and measures.
The Meter Convention, often called the Treaty of the Meter in the United States, provided for improved metric weights and measures and the establishment of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) devoted to international agreement on matters of weights and measures. To recognize this anniversary, May, 20 is now World Metrology Day, as found on the Metric events and anniversaries page.
As a result of the Metre Convention, the U.S. received a prototype meter and kilogram to be used as measurement standards.
Meter, liter, kilogram
These metric prototypes were declared “fundamental standards of length and mass” in the Mendenhall Order. Since that date, the yard, pound, etc. have been officially defined in terms of the metric system.
In 1901 the U.S. National Bureau of Standards is established to serve the worlds of science and technology.
The Metric Association formed as a non-profit organization advocating adoption of the metric system in U.S. commerce and education. The organizational name started as the American Metric Association and was changed to the U.S. Metric Association (USMA) in 1974.
The Metric Association published its first metric style guide. Its current edition is now available as Guide to the Use of the Metric System (SI)
United States prints the Establishment of Standard Decimal and Division of Weights, ... Vol 66. United States Congress House committee on coinage, weights, and measures. 35 pages.
The International System of Units begins its development at the 10th CGPM. Six of the new metric base units were adopted.
A conference of English-speaking nations agree to unify their standards of length and mass, and define them in terms of metric measures. The American yard was shortened and the imperial yard was lengthened as a result. The new conversion factors were announced in the Federal Register (v. 24(128), 1959-Jul-01, p. 5348-5349).
The General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) adopts the name Système International d’Unités, with the international abbreviation SI, for the metric system and lays down rules for prefixes, derived units, and other matters, specifying six base units (meter, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, candela).
The meter is redefined in terms of a wavelength of light emitted by krypton atoms, replacing the 1889 prototype bar of platinum-iridium (see the history of definitions of the meter).
The National Bureau of Standards (NBS) made the metric system its standard, “except when the use of these units would obviously impair communication or reduce the usefulness of a report.”
Public Law 90-472 authorizes a 3-year U.S. Metric Study, to determine the impact of increasing metric use in the U.S. This study is carried out by the National Bureau of Standards (NBS).
The U.S. Metric Study results in the Report to the Congress: A Metric America, A Decision Whose Time Has Come. The 13-volume report concluded that the U.S. should, indeed, go metric deliberately and carefully through a coordinated national program, and establish a target date 10 years ahead, by which time the U.S. would be predominately metric.
The mole becomes SI’s seventh base unit.
The UCLA/USMA/LACES/STC and other professional groups National Metric Conference, the largest ever held, totaling 1700 registrants, took place at the University of California, Los Angeles in September. It took place as a result of USMA’s recommendation. USMA coordinated and directed the event. One of the speakers was the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
The American National Metric Council (ANMC) formed as a not-for-profit, non-advocative trade organization to plan and coordinate SI implementation by U.S. industry.
The Education Amendments of 1974 (Public Law 92-380) encouraged educational agencies and institutions to prepare students to use the metric system of measurement as part of the regular educational program.
The initials U.S. were added to the Metric Association name by the Board of Directors. The organization is now known as the U.S. Metric Association, Inc. with the initialism USMA.
The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-168) passed by Congress. The Metric Act established the U.S. Metric Board to coordinate and plan the increasing use and voluntary conversion to the metric system. However, the Metric Act was devoid of any target dates for metric conversion.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) starts the National Metric Week tradition, with the first one during the week of May 10, 1976, the year after the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 is enacted.
The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) requires wine producers and importers to switch to metric bottles in seven standard [liter and milliliter] sizes.
The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) requires distilled spirits (hard liquor) bottles to conform to the volume of one of six standard metric [liter and milliliter] sizes.
President Ronald Reagan disbands the U.S. Metric Board and cancels its funding. Responsibility for metric coordination is transferred to the Office of Metric Programs in the Department of Commerce.
The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 (Public Law 100-418) amended and strengthened the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, designating the metric system as the preferred measurement system, and requiring each federal agency to be metric by the end of fiscal year 1992.
President George H. W. Bush signs Executive Order 12770, Metric Usage in Federal Government Programs directing all executive departments and federal agencies implement the use of the metric system. The Executive Order is also available as an appendix to: Interpretation of the SI for the United States and Federal Government Metric Conversion Policy
The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) is amended to add a requirement for metric units on most consumer products.
1996 April 15
All four Canadian Stock Exchanges begin decimal trading, the first exchanges in North American to abandon the old “pieces-of-eight” trading system and welcome the new decimal system. The old tradition of trading stocks in increments of one-eighth of a dollar, or 12.5 cents, dates back to when the Spanish mille dollar was divided into “pieces of eight”.
1996 July
All surface temperature observations in National Weather Service METAR/TAF reports are now transmitted in degrees Celsius.
2000 September 30
Now suspended, the deadline for metricating highway construction, including all agreements, contracts, and plans processed by individual states for federally-funded highway construction to be in metric units, is canceled by Congressional action, leaving metric conversion as voluntary but still recommended to comply with the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988.
2001 April 09
U.S. Stock Exchanges finalizes the change to decimal trading. The Securities and Exchange Commission orders that all stocks must be quoted in dollars and cents rather than fractions by this date. The switch to decimal trading brought the U.S. in line with the rest of the world’s major exchanges. This follows the change of the Canadian Stock Exchanges to decimal trading in 1996.
2004 July 08
UK Metric Association (UKMA) issues a comprehensive report, A Very British Mess, on the need to complete UK metrication.
2005 January 20
Speed limits in Ireland are converted from miles per hour to kilometers per hour (km/h). To accompany this, new cars have kilometers as the primary speed displayed on their speedometers. Wind speeds in weather reports were also changed to kilometers per hour.
2007 January 08
Metric Moon press release: NASA decides to use metric units for all operations on the lunar surface when it returns to the Moon. See the NASA announcement. NASA’s Constellation Program is to be metric, according to a Program Management Directive issued on 19 December 2007, with the metric system as the “primary system of measure” for the Constellation Program, Projects, Systems, and Mission.
2009 December 31
Now suspended indefinitely, the EU measurement directive that would have banned non-metric units in Europe (with limited exceptions, and with dual-labeling of products not permitted), has been canceled by the EU Commission, hoping in return that U.S. regulations will allow voluntary metric-only labeling on consumer products. The U.S. should allow metric-only packaging by amending the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). This would be a good response to the elimination of EU requirements for SI-only labels which had been planned to take effect at the end of 2009.