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History of Systems for Measuring Length

From the beginning of history, humans improvised using what was available to establish measurement systems. The earliest system for measuring length was the human body. Greeks adopted the human body for their measurement units, and the Romans based their method of measure on the Greek system.

While the human body system was convenient and practical for building rough structures, it created confusion for commerce. Because units came from body measurements, the unit sizes varied from region to region and even within a locality. Through much refinement, we now have uniform standards for universally consistent measures.

Today Americans will recognize these units; however, now they have been standardized. While the rest of the world uses the metric system for all purposes, the United States uses two systems; the Metric System and the United States Customary System.

Two wooden rulers showing U.S. systems for measuring length: Customary System and Metric System.

Historical Units of Length

Unit of LengthThenNow
InchWidth of a thumb at the base of the nail1/36th of a yard
Hand5 digits across or 5 inches4 inches
FootLength of the average foot or 11 1/42 inches12 inches
CubitMan’s forearm from the elbow to middle fingertip18 inches
PaceDistance of the human step30 inches
YardLength of man’s girdle or belt36 inches


Different unit sizes between locations caused trade disputes and made commerce between regions difficult. As trade grew between countries, establishing a uniform system for measuring length became more important.

The thumb was an early measurement unit for length. The thumb on the tape measure shows the relationship between an inch and the historical unit for an inch.

To become standardized, everyone has to agree to use the same standard. A standard represents a unit established by an authority. Many years ago, the thumb, hand, and foot were standard measurements for lengths determined by a person of power, such as a king. Objects with etchings made from ivory, wood, or metal bars let everyone know the standards. Authorities placed standards in areas where the public could find them.

Leaders of countries understood that everyone should use the same standard for measuring. Scientists had to find an accurate system to determine the standards. The scientists also needed to find a material and design for the bar that would not shrink, expand, or change shape.

As technology changes, the standard is revised to be more precise. Today, the proton standard bar is a visual representation; however, the standard for length is not a tangible object. Instead, the standard for the length measurement has a description explained as the speed of light.

British Imperial Units of Measure

The British Imperial System derives from the Roman, Saxon, and Norman period’s systems for measuring length.

In 1495, the King of England, King Henry VII, instituted a set of standards known as the Winchester measure. Winchester was the capital city where the standard was. Next, Queen Elizabeth ordered the creation of the Exchequer Standards in 1588. England used the Exchequer Standards until 1824 when the Weights and Measures Act passed.

Beginning in 1824, the British Imperial System was the official system in Great Britain. The British Imperial System, also known as the Imperial Units System, replaced the Winchester and Exchequer Standards. In 1965 the metric system replaced the British Imperial System.

Early Fathers of Metric

John Wilkins

In 1668, John Wilkins (1614-1672), the bishop of Chester located in Cheshire, England, proposed a universal measurement system based on the timing of the swing of a pendulum. He multiplied and divided the standard units by tens, hundreds, and thousands creating the first decimal system.

Gabriel Mouton

Two years later, in 1670, Gabriel Mouton (1618-1694), a French priest, proposed the now-called nautical mile based on one minute of the earth’s arc. He proposed a decimal subdivision system for shorter units. Most consider Gabriel Mouton to be the founding father of the metric system.

Metric Units of Measure

In 1790, the National Assembly of France assigned the French Academy of Sciences to create a consistent standard for all measures. In 1795, France adopted the metric decimal system based on units of 10.

National Prototype No. 27  sent to the United States National Archives represents the metric system of measurement
The modified x-section prototype made from platinum with 10 percent iridium alloy.

The new standard chosen equaled one ten-millionth of the distance between the north pole and the equator. The name given to the new standard of length was mètre (meter), taken from the Greek word metron, meaning a measure.

After the Academy selected the most accurate standard, it was presented to the Council of the Assembly by a delegation of scientists on June 22, 1799. The mètre represented the distance between the polished ends of the bar at a specific temperature. The platinum bar representing the standard is called the “Mètre des Archives.” The Council deposited the mètre (meter) in France’s National Archives.

Copies of the standard were distributed to delegates. The mètre bar for the United States, National Prototype #27, is in the collection at the NIST museum in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

It took another 170 years until Great Britain and Canada adopted the metric system.

Metric Conversions

Millimeter .1 centimeter.01 decimeters.0001 meter
Centimeter10 millimeters .1 decimeter.01 meter 
Decimeter100 millimeters10 centimeters .1 meter
Meter1000 millimeters100 centimeters10 decimeters 

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) recognized the need for a universal measuring system and supported a decimal measurement system. On July 4, 1790, Thomas Jefferson, serving as Secretary of State to President George Washington, presented a report to establish a uniform currency.

Mint Act

In 1792, two years after the National Assembly gathered in France, the United States Congress passed the Mint Act. The decimal currency system established the value of a dollar at 100 cents and had already been established in 13 states when the Mint Act passed.

United States Customary System

The U.S. Customary System derives from the British Imperial System. Three countries: the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar use the Imperial System.

In 1832, the United States adopted the yard as the standard unit of length. The standard for the yard is 3 feet or 36 inches.

Customary length units: inch, foot, yard, and mile.

Inch 0.0833 foot0.0277 yard1.5783e-5 mile
Foot12 inches .333 yard0.000189394 mile
Yard36 inches3 feet 0.000568182 mile
Mile63,360 inches5,289 feet1760 yards 

Treaty of the Mètre

In 1866, an Act passed by Congress legalized the use of the metric system for contracts, dealings, and court proceedings; however, the Act did not mandate its use.

In 1875, the United States was among 16 other countries to sign the Treaty of the Mètre at the Convention of the Mètre held in France. The Treaty of the Mètre (Meter) established the International Bureau of Weights to be directed by the General Conference and situated near Paris.

Bureau of Weights

The Bureau of Weights and Measures is an intergovernmental organization comprised of member governments and associates of the Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures, CGPM.

General Conference

The General Conference on Weights and Measures is the International Bureau of Weights and Measures’ supreme authority. In 1960, the General Conference revised the metric system, giving the newer system the name International System of Units (S.I.), abbreviated S.I.

Metric Timeline

1781Ratification of the Articles of Confederation
1787The U.S. Constitution is signed, giving Congress the power to fix the standard for measures
1790Ratification of the Constitution
1795France adopts the Metric System
1799The mètre bar is selected and deposited in the National Archives in France
1832Secretary of the Treasury declares the meter as the official U.S. length measure
1866An Act of Congress legalizes the metric system
1875Convention du Métre (Convention of the Meter) established the Treaty of the Métre (Meter)
1893Mendenhall Order is published
1901The National Bureau of Standards (NBS) established
1957The U.S. Army and Marine Corps adopt the metric system
1960S.I., the International System of Units, is established
1965Great Britain adopts the metric system
1970Canada adopts the metric system
1975The Metric Conversion Act is signed
1982The United States Metric Board abolished
1983NIST redefines the meter in terms of the speed of light
1988The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act passes
1991Executive Order 12770 – Metric Usage in Federal Governmental Programs Issued
201860 nations voted unanimously to revise the SI
2019S.I. is revised

Mendenhall Order

April 5, 1893, the Superintendent of Weights and Measures, T.C. Mendenhall, published the “Mendenhall Order,” defining the standard for length as the international meter for both metric and customary measures.

National Institute of Standards (NIST)

Congress established the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in 1901 and, in 1903, renamed it the Bureau of Standards. Thirty years later, in 1934, the name reverted to the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) again. In 1988 the name changed to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

U.S. metric study interim report – A History of the Metric System Controversy in the United States issued in August 1971 was the Tenth in a series of reports prepared by the National Bureau of Standards.

UNT Digital Library offers a free pdf version of A Brief History of Measurement with a Chart of Modernized Metric System. The U.S. National Bureau of Standards published the pamphlet in 1976.

The Modernized Metric System Chart from Brief History of Measurement Systems by the National Bureau of Standards.

United States. National Bureau of Standards. Brief History of Measurement Systems: with a Chart of the Modernized Metric System, pamphlet, August 1976; Washington D.C.. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc123542/: accessed August 11, 2022), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.

In 1986, the National Bureau of Standards updated Weights and Measures Standards of the United States: a brief history by Lewis V. Judson, first published in 1963. The publication details the history of standards of weights and measures sold at $1. Today, NIST provides the publication as a pdf for free.

NIST maintains U.S. standards, which is now part of the U.S. Department of Commerce and is a nonregulatory agency. NIST provides calibrations and standards to the states, and they also enforce the standards. The International Bureau of Weights and Measures, located in France, maintains worldwide uniformity of standards.

The history of systems for measuring length is shown on the Road To The Revised SI shows the history of measure from 1799  to 2019
May 20, 2019
Credit N. Hanacek/NIST

U.S. Metric Board

The Metric Conversion Act sanctioned the metric system as the preferred system of weights and measures for trade and commerce and called for voluntary conversion to the metric system. The Metric Conversion Act of 1975, passed by Congress, established the United States Metric Board (USMB). The board’s function was to provide planning, coordination, and public education in implementing the Metric System.

The U.S. Metric Board dissolved in 1983. The responsibility for voluntary metric conversion moved to the Department of Commerce.

National Institute of Standards and Technology Redefines the Meter

SI, the International System of Units, is the international standard for measurement.

In 1983, the S.I. replaced the meter bar with a new definition. The new description for length is the path traveled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second. Click here to learn how NIST refined the meter through technology.

Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act

In 1988, The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act amended the Metric Conversion act of 1975. The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act’s passing required all Federal agencies to use the metric system.

Executive Order

In response to the slow conversion to metrification, President George Bush issued Executive Order 12770 – Metric Usage in Federal Governmental Programs on July 25, 1991. The order designated the Secretary of Commerce to direct and coordinate metric usage by Federal Departments and agencies. The Secretary of Commerce was authorized to charter an Interagency Council on Metric Policy (ICMP).

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) chairs The Interagency Council on Metric Policy (ICMP)

Unanimous Vote

A unanimous vote passed on Nov. 16, 2018, at the 26th General Conference of Weights and Measures scientific meeting in Versailles, France. Scientists from 60 countries voted to revise the SI and adopt a system based on the speed of light and constants found in physical science instead of physical objects.

History of the Tape Measure

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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. 

Cage crinoline

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.

Alvin Fellows

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.

Electric Reel

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.

Nathanial’s Patent

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.

Care tips

  • 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.

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