2004, 1990 by David A. Katz.
All rights reserved.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MEASUREMENT
Measurement was among one of the first intellectual achievements of early humans.
People learned to measure
centuries before they learned how to write and it was through measurement that people learned to count.
People of the Peking and Neanderthal periods had
determined to be the right length or weight for a particular
A tool that worked well became the model and
standard for another.
(See Figure 1)
To measure distance,
they used their fingers, hands, arms, legs, etc.
of weights were based on use of certain containers or what a
person or beast could haul.
Each unit was separate and
unrelated since their ability to count was not developed.
Since humans have ten fingers, we learned to count by tens,
and ways were soon found to relate units to each other.
of the most well known of the early units of measurement
the width of the thumb.
the width of the middle finger (about 3/4 inch)
the width of four fingers (about 3 inches)
the distance covered by the spread hand (about 9 inches)
the length of the foot.
Later expressed as the length of 36 -barleycorns taken from the
middle of the ear (about 12 inches).
distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger (about 18 inches).
distance from the center of the body to the fingertips of the outstretched arm (about 36
distance spanned by the outstretched arms (about 72 inches).
Of course, these units varied from person to person, creating many difficulties.
When individuals worked together,
the leader would use his body as the sole authority.
Measurements would be matched to samples made by him.
measurement and tools became more sophisticated, measuring sticks were made.
Many early civilizations tried to set up systems of weights and measures:
Shih Huang-Ti, a founder of the Chinese Empire has the Great Wall built during his rule.
His design for
Chinese unity was: one law, one weight, one measure.
Only the Great Wall continues to stand.
The Egyptians had a strong system of measurement. The royal cubit was 524 millimeters (20.62 inches) in
the Great Pyramid at Giza.
Variations, however, have been found in the Egyptian empire.
The Greeks and Romans had strong systems of measurements, but these disintegrated with the empires.
Through the medieval period, people used measurements which became accepted in particular trades, but no
Generally, measurements standards for a region would be embedded in the wall of the city hall or
in the central square of a town. (See Figure 2.) Finally, in an effort to introduce a standard into the measuring
system, in the eleventh century, King Henry I, of England, defined the standard yard from the tip of his nose to the
end of his thumb on his outstretched arm.