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As civilization developed, so too did the need for units of

measurement. These were required for numerous tasks such as: constructing
dwellings of an appropriate size and shape, fashioning clothing, or bartering
food or raw materials.


Weights and measures have taken a great variety of forms over the
course of history, from simple informal expectations in barter transactions to
elaborate state and supranational systems that integrate measures of many
different kinds. Weights and measures from the oldest societies can often be
inferred at least in part from archaeological specimens, often preserved in
museums. 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
GreekParthenon with the description given by Plutarch from which a fairly
accurate idea of the size of the Attic foot is obtained. Because of the
comparative volume of artifacts and documentation, we know much more
about the state-sanctioned measures of large, advanced societies than we
do about those of smaller socieities or about the informal measures that
often coexisted with official ones throughout history. 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. It is possible to group official measurement systems for large
societies into historical systems that are relatively stable over time,
including: the Babylonian system, the Egyptian system, the Phileterian
system of the Ptolemaic age, the Olympic system of Greece, the Roman
system, the British system, and the metric system.

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 system attributed to the Indus Valley Civilization (ca. 2600 BC) is
sometimes cited as particularly accurate.[1] Based on an ivory scale found
in Lothal, their smallest unit corresponded to approximately 1.704 mm
(0.067 in), the smallest division ever recorded on a scale of the Bronze Age.

Early Babylonian and Egyptian records and the Hebrew 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.



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 units of length
used in ancient India included the dhanus (bow), the krosa (cry, or cow-call)
and the yojana (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 or the length
between the tip of little finger to the tip of the thumb (one-half cubit), the
palm or width of the hand (one sixth), and the digit or width of the middle
finger (one twenty-fourth). The Royal Cubit, which was a standard cubit
enhanced by an extra palmthus 7 palms or 28 digits longwas used in
constructing buildings and monuments and in surveying in ancient Egypt.
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 11001135) 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


The use in typography of the point, which was one twelfth of a ligne in
the customary French measures of the Ancien Rgime, as a unit for
measuring print type predates the metric system. Various typographic points
were defined, including the Truchet point by Sbastien Truchet (16571729),
the Fournier point by Pierre Simon Fournier in 1737 and the Didot point by
the Didot brothers, Francois Ambroise and Pierre Francois, in 1755 or 176 or
1783, which was exactly two Truchet points. The point was first used in the
United States in 1878 or 1872 by a Chicago type foundry (Marder, Luse, &

The point was defined as 1/12 of a pica consisting of 1/6 of an inch truncated
to thousandths of an inch (1/12 of 0.166 inches) in the USA in 1886 and was
quickly adopted by Britain and its colonies;.[6] This number has been
approximated in various ways depending on the technology, prejudices, and
information available to engineers involved in the production of typesetting
machinery since then. Common approximations in use are 1/72.27 inch (now
equal to 0.3514598 mm) and simply 1/72 of an inch. Other typographic
points are used in other countries.

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


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.

The division of the circle into 360 degrees and the day into hours, minutes,
and seconds can be traced 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 -- counting
hours, decimal time, etc. Other calendars divided the year differently.


The metric system was first described in 1668, and officially adopted
by France in 1799. Over the course of the 1800s and 1900s, it became the
dominant system worldwide including the only measurement system enacted
by law by the United States. Numerous countries continue to use their
customary units. The American system is unusual, however, in not having
adjusted itself to close metric values in the manner of the Scandinavian
mile (now 10 km exactly) or the Chinese jin (now kg exactly).