History of the Tape Measure
July 14 became National Tape Measure Day after Alvin Fellows filed a patent in 1868. In celebration, here is a short history about the people that played a role in developing that nifty little measuring tool found in every carpenter’s toolbox.
Evolution of the Tape Measure
James Chesterman, an English flat wire maker, was granted the first patent for a steel tape measure in 1821. Flat wire formed the hoop part of crinoline skirts in the 1800s. The stiff crinoline fabric made from horsehair and cotton formed the bell shape and supported an underskirt known as a petticoat.
Attempts to use stiffened cord, whalebone, and brass for skirts had all failed to hold up. The fashion industry found steel to be the solution. The steel flat wire was lightweight, strong, and flexible.
The process to form the hoops used soft coiled steel rods. Steel rods were heated to soften and then scoured with acid to remove the oxide, followed by a coating of rye flour. After drying, the steel was shaped into diameters up to 6 feet around. James Chesterman made the wire stronger by using a heat-treated process, allowing the steel to form at longer lengths.
In 1842, when hoop skirts fell out of fad, James Chesterman produced the first long steel tape from the surplus wire. James adapted his plant to produce measuring tapes with etched graduated markings on the steel wire and marketed the new product with a case as a Steel Band Measuring Chain.
William H. Bangs, Jr.
In 1864, William H. Bangs, Jr. from Connecticut became the first to file a patent for a spring-loaded tape measure with a click secured.
The design, patterned from one piece of metal, eliminated the need to use separate pieces of metal and allowed the click, spring, and pivot action without escaping the spring’s pressure. The mechanism held the tape where it was stopped and returned to its case by sliding a button.
William H. Bangs, Jr. assigned his patent to Nathanial L. Bradley and Walter Hubbard, both from Connecticut.
Four years later, Alvin Fellows, also from Connecticut, improved upon William H Bang, Jr.’s measuring tape by adding a locking mechanism and enclosing the tape in a metal case.
Alvin Fellows received a patent on July 14, 1868, for a spring click tape measure. Because of that, once a year we now celebrate National Tape Measure Day. Alvin Fellow combined the internal parts, redesigned the case, and added components: lever, knob, cover plate, and spring lock. The tape could be locked to hold in place and released with a button. The spring action allowed the tape to retract. This new feature helped the tape measure find its place in construction.
Alvin Fellows also assigned his patents to Nathanial L Bradley and Walter Hubbard.
Bradley and Hubbard Manufacturing Company
Nathaniel L. Bradley started his career successfully in Meriden, Connecticut selling clocks in 1850 at age 21. Two years later, Nathaniel was elected director of the clock company that he formed with his brother William, Walter Hubbard, Orson Hatch, and Chitten Hatch, which they named Bradley, Hatch & Company. When Orsen and Chitten Hatch left the company in 1854, Nathaniel reorganized the business with his brother William L. Bradley and brother-in-law Walter Hubbard and called the new company Bradley and Hubbard.
In 1875, the company became Bradley and Hubbard Manufacturing Company. Bradley and Hubbard Manufacturing Company expanded into producing kerosene burning lamps and household goods. Over time Bradley and Hubbard Manufacturing secured 238 design and utility patents.
After 88 years, Bradley and Hubbard Manufacturing was sold to the Charles Parker Company in 1940. The following year the United States entered World War II. Bradley and Hubbard’s metal production went toward the war effort. Ten years later, the metal division of Bradley and Hubbard was shut down. Any records that existed for the company perished in a fire in 1976.
Justus Roe and Sons
Justus Roe, a surveyor, established his business in Patchogue, New York with his son Howard in 1876 and began selling tapes made in Brooklyn and New York. When his sons Austin and Henry joined the company, the company became Justus Roe and Sons.
In 1888, Justus patented a tape measure reel design that allowed fingers to be inserted into slots to keep the tape from springing back when wound; however, the tape measure reel was never marketed and sold. Two years later, in 1890, Justus took out a patent for a 14” protractor that folded into a 7-inch rule. Protractors are small tools, usually a half circle or full circle with a scale, that are used to determine the degree of an angle.
Justus Roe and Sons patented the Roe Electric Reel on May 24, 1892, which didn’t have electricity. The measurements were marked with holes and rivets instead of etched markings. Justus Roe’s patented design solved the problem of the rivets getting pushed against the frame and was sold more inexpensively compared to the competitors.
A few years later, Justus’s youngest son Nathanial joined the business. Nathanial designed a printing press that etched measurements onto the steel tape and began selling them in 1895 throughout the country on consignment.
Click here to learn more about Justus Roe & Sons…by Author Louise Muse.
Growth and Change
In 1960, the company expanded into a new location and updated the printing press. Justus Roe and Sons began producing tape for other companies, including Stanley.
In 1976, Justus Roe and Sons became Roe International. In 1981, Roe International was purchased by Irwin and renamed Irwin Measuring Tool Company. Then in 1990, Carol Basset, the company’s president, bought it and renamed it U.S. Tape. U.S. Tape was sold to RAF Industries in 1998 and has kept the name U.S. Tape.
Farrand Rapid Rule
Hiram Farrand received a patent in 1922 for the Farrand Rapid Rule, also called a push-pull tape. The new tape had a concave-convex shape and could manually coil into a small open can. Hiram Farrand opened a factory in 1927. In 1928, Commander Admiral Byrd requisitioned the Farrand Rapid Rule to explore the South Pole. Hiram Farrand made more than a million dollars selling the Farrand Rapid Rule, then in 1931, he sold the company for fifty thousand dollars to Stanly Works and went to work for Stanley.
Stanley Black and Decker
Frederick Stanley started manufacturing bolts, hinges, and hardware in 1843. In 1852, his company became Stanley Works. Today Stanley Black+Decker is the world’s largest tool company and now includes well-known tool brands Irwin, Bostitch, DeWalt, and Porter-Cable.
1843 – Frederick Stanley builds a factory to make wrought iron bolts and handles
1852 – Frederick Stanley’s business, Stanley Works, is incorporated
1854 – Stanley Works begins to manufacture boxwood rules
1857 – Frederick’s cousin Henry founds Stanley Rule and Level Company
1910 – S. Duncan Black & Alonzo G. Decker founded Black & Decker
1920 – Stanley Works purchases Stanley Rule and Level
1931 – Stanley introduces the first steel tape rule
1963 – Stanley introduces the PowerLock Tape Measure
1999 – Stanley introduces the FATMAX Tape Measure
2010 – Black and Decker merged with Stanley Works to become Stanley Black and Decker
2014 – Black and Decker rebrands to Black+Decker
2017 – Stanley Black + Decker purchases Craftsman from Sears
Tape Measure Markings
- Most extended lines at 1 inch
- 1/2” is halfway between the inch
- 1/4” smaller line between the 1/2”
- 1/8” smaller line between the 1/4”
- 1/16” is the shortest line
- Red numbers indicate 16-inch-on-center spacing
- Red marks every other foot for 24-inch-on-center spacing
- Black diamond
- 16-inch-on-center spacing = six framing members per 8 feet
- 24-inch-on-center spacing = four framing members per 8 feet
Why does the end of the tape wiggle? The 1/8” thick end is a feature called “true zero.” The feature produces accurate measurements, whether taken from outside or inside the object.
- Nail Grab – small slot on the hook to grab nails or screws
- Scribing Tool – the serrated edge of the hook for scratching a mark
- Adjustable End – 1/16” inch metal plate moves to allow for accurate inside and outside measurements
- Housing Size – listed on the case for inside measurements
- Concave shape – keeps the tape from collapsing
Pro-tip: To use as a compass to form an arc or a circle, hammer in a nail or insert a screw at the point to measure from, then rotate tape from the appropriate distance.
For accuracy, always use the same measuring device for all measurements on a project. If using multiple tape measures, calibrate the tape measures. The calibration process involves comparing the tape measure with another accurate measurement tool, such as a metal ruler. Different tape measures can have varying degrees of accuracy. Class 1 tapes have the highest degree of accuracy. Most commercial tape measures, such as Stanley, Milwaukee, and Irwin are Class 2.
If the lines of the tape measure line up with the other measuring tool, the next step is to check the condition of the end hook to see if it is bent and has debris attached. Remove foreign debris from the blade and hook. If the hook end is bent, minor adjustments can be made by using two pliers by holding one stationary and using the other plier to adjust. If the rivets are loose, tightening may be possible by using a drift punch and hammer to adjust.
- Keep the tape clean
- Keep it dry
- Retract the tape slowly
- If the hook end gets bent, replace the tape measure
Pro-tip: Keep the hook-end in good shape. A bent hook-end will produce inaccurate cuts.