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A Brief History of Measuring Systems and Tools

Measurements are part of our everyday lives. We use them to bake cookies, pass a math test, and figure out the exact dimensions of our kitchen counter. It only makes sense then to know the story behind all those feet, meters, and pounds!

Where did the tools we use to measure come from? Why is the United States so against the metric system? Let’s discuss the fascinating history of measurements, inch by inch!

Mathematics is often praised (or ignored) on the grounds that it is far removed from the lives or ordinary people, but that assessment of the subject is utterly mistaken.

– Luke Heaton, author of A Brief History of Mathematical Thought

What Are the Different Types of Measurements?

Things are measured across, up-and-down, and all around. For the better part of history, here are some of the most common ways we’ve measured the world around us:

  • Length
  • Width
  • Volume
  • Time
  • Temperature
  • Area
  • Perimeter
  • Weight

It would be like a college thesis paper to dive into the full scope of everything on this list, but to make it simple, most of these concepts boil down to one thing: astronomy.

They may look pretty in the night sky, but the stars, planets, and celestial bodies were important to ancient civilizations. They used them to create the measuring tools and systems we use even to this day!



List of Measuring Tools from Ancient Civilizations to Today

There is a wide variety of gizmos and gadgets that have been used to measure time, space, temperature, and more over the years. The list includes:

  • Royal Cubits
  • Water Clocks & Hourglasses
  • Obelisks & Sundials
  • Roman Calendars
  • Rulers & Yardsticks
  • Odometers
  • Pedometers
  • Barometers
  • Mercury Thermometers
  • Sextants
  • Spring Scales
  • Protractors
  • Tape Measures
  • Measuring Cups & Spoons
  • Wristwatches
  • Smartphones
  • 16th Century BCE;
    8th Century

    16th Century BCE; 8th Century https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hourglass

    Water Clocks & Hourglasses

    The water clock, also known as the clepsydra, measured time by the amount of water that dripped from a tank. The hourglass, which made its debut hundreds of years later, worked on a similar principle but used sand instead.

  • Est. 1971 BC;
    293 BC

    Est. 1971 BC; 293 BC https://www.timecenter.com/articles/when-time-began-the-history-and-science-of-sundials/

    Obelisks & Sundials

    Giant towers called obelisks were built in Egyptian or Babylonian villages to track the time of day based on the sun’s shadow. Smaller more portable versions of obelisks were known as sundials.

  • 753 BCE

    753 BCE https://www.timecenter.com/articles/the-history-of-the-western-calendar/

    Roman Calendars

    Early civilizations had a really difficult time agreeing on one right way to keep track of time. It’s the Roman calendar, however, that we’ve been using for the last 2,500 years.

  • 16th Century;
    1883

    16th Century; 1883 Rulers & Yardsticks

    Rulers & Yardsticks

    William Bedwell invented the ruler in the same era where creativity was at an all-time high! The Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel, and many other great works of art made their debut. Historians have also found ivory and wood rulers that date back to the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks.

  • 1643

    1643 https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/torricellis-barometer/1017293.article

    Barometers

    You know Galileo, but meet his assistant Evangelista Torricelli, the Italian physicist who’s credited with inventing the barometer. He came up with the idea after submerging a glass tube in a mercury bath and discovering that the level varied based on changes in weather.

  • 1714

    1714 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hourglass

    Mercury Thermometers

    Back in the 18th century, mercury thermometers were like the morning news when it came to telling the temperature outside. The original glass tube model was invented by Daniel Fahrenheit, but when the metric system made its debut later in the century, Anders Celsius created his own version.

  • 1731

    1731

    Sextants

    You’re probably more familiar with a compass or map, but a sextant is another navigational device. It had a 60° arc and measured the angle between an astronomical object, like a planet, with the horizon.

  • 1770

    1770 https://blog.withings.com/2011/09/30/a-short-history-of-the-weighing-scale-2/

    Spring Scales

    Richard Salter, a British inventor, came up with the idea of a spring scale, which measures pressure on a spring to deduce an object’s weight. His invention was based on a system perfected in ancient Pakistan where two plates were attached to a beam, and stones were used to create the equilibrium.

  • 1801

    1801 https://www.ssplprints.com/image/89497/stow-james-captain-joseph-huddart-hydrographer-1801

    Protractors

    An early protractor is thought to have been found in the tomb of Kha in Egypt. However, the modern version is credited to Joseph Huddart who used this device for ship navigation.

  • 1775

    1775 https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-odometers-4074178

    Odometers

    Cars hit the road in the late 19th century, but the odometer made its debut 100 years earlier. The modern version was inspired by Benjamin Franklin, who attached a device to his carriage that would help measure the mileage of his routes.

  • 1829

    1829

    Pedometers

    The history of the pedometer is traced all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci’s early sketches. The modern version, however, has a murky past. Some credit a Swiss watchmaker named Abraham-Louis Perrelet, while others swear Thomas Jefferson started monitoring his steps with a mechanical pedometer inherited from the French.

  • 1829

    1829 https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/James_Chesterman_and_Co

    Tape Measures

    James Chesterman is the man behind the tape measure. He worked in the fashion industry, and with some scraps of leftover tape, he created the “Steel Band Measuring Chain.” These sold for a whopping $17 each, which is about $300 today.

  • 1896

    1896 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/13/obituaries/fannie-farmer-overlooked.html

    Measuring Cups & Spoons

    Fanni Farmer was the first to publish a cookbook that used measurements. She believed in a more scientific approach to making recipes, which led her to also popularize the use of measuring cups and spoons. Before then, recipes would ask for a “handful” of rice or a “goodly amount” of sugar.

  • 1923

    1923 http://www.vintage-watches-collection.com/watch/rolex-watch/rolex-officers-with-hinged-lugs-late-rebberg-1923/

    Wristwatches

    Clocks first showed their faces (pun intended) in European monasteries in the 14th century. Eventually, they moved to our wrists thanks to inventor John Harwood.

  • 2019

    2019 https://mobilesyrup.com/2018/06/22/google-ar-measure-app-arcore-phones/

    Smartphones

    A cell phone can pretty much do it all! It tells you the time of the day, temperature outside, and can be used as a GPS. Google’s Measure app even works as a full-fledged tape measure and is compatible with both iPhones and Androids.


Measuring Systems: How We Calculate Time and Distance

Of course, the tools we use can only help so much when it comes to measurements. All of this information needs to be organized in a way that keeps the world more or less on the same page.

Why Do We Have Different Time Zones?

The Earth rotates on its axis and also around the sun, causing some areas to be light and others to be dark. It moves by 15 degrees every hour, so scientists divided the planet into 24 sections that served as the different time zones.

In the United States alone, there are six time zones that are shown in the map below.

Time Zone Infographic
Time Zone Infographic

It wasn’t always obvious that we needed different time zones. In fact, we didn’t even know the earth rotated around the sun until Nicolaus Copernicus blew everyone’s minds in 1543. Since then, new cities and countries have popped up on opposite sides of the sun due to mother nature, population booms, exploration, and war.

While there may be different time zones, the entire world has a dedicated time for day and night. It’s five o’clock somewhere, right?

Who Invented the Metric System?

The concept of measurement as a whole came from many ancient civilizations, but the French are considered the true inventors of the metric system in 1795. Trés bon!

Before then, there were over 250,000 different units for measurement. This made for a lot of complication in trades, especially since people were using their hands and grains from the land to dictate size and weight. The French Revolutionary National Assembly’s solution was to come up with one standard international unit: the meter. This was calculated as one ten-millionth of the total distance between the North Pole and the Equator.

The metric system gave us lengths and weights that would be the same across most of the world. It also provided a universal way to talk about measurements as a whole.

Want to learn more? This Ted Talk gives you an idea of why the metric system matters!

Why Do Americans Use the Imperial System?

There are only three countries in the entire world that haven’t adopted the metric system: Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States. The U.S. still uses imperial measurements because the country’s founders came from Great Britain, who to put it bluntly, didn’t get along with the French at the time.

https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2018/february/why-the-founding-fathers-were-probably-smarter-than-us

The irony is that Great Britain eventually did adopt the metric system, but it was long after they established the colonies in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, who was the Secretary of State at that time, even thought metrics were “too French” for the new country. The Constitution was then signed with a specific portion that read that Congress “shall have the power to fix the standard of weights and measures.” They decided Imperial was the way to go, and before they could change their minds, all the machinery created during the Industrial Revolution used that system. From that point on, there was no going back to any other way of thinking!

https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2018/february/why-the-founding-fathers-were-probably-smarter-than-us

Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re completely avoiding metrics entirely in the United States. If you drink a 2-liter bottle of soda, run your first 5K, or visit the one highway in Arizona that has road signs in kilometers, you’re interacting with the metric system!

How to Read Measurements

Are you cooking a recipe and worried you’ll mess up a teaspoon over a tablespoon? No worries! This helpful chart breaks down all the important abbreviations you should know.

How to Read Measurements
How to Read Measurements
  • C: Celsius
  • c: cup
  • cm: centimeter
  • cu: cubic
  • F: Fahrenheit
  • ft: foot
  • g: gram
  • gal: gallon
  • gb: gigabyte
  • hr: hour
  • in: inch
  • K: Kelvin
  • k: karat
  • kt: karat
  • kg: kilogram
  • kl: kiloliter
  • km: kilometer
  • kw: kilowatt
  • L: liter
  • lb: pound
  • m: meter
  • mb: megabyte
  • mg: milligram
  • mi: mile
  • min: minute
  • ml: milliliter
  • oz: ounce
  • pt: pint
  • qt: quart
  • sec: second
  • T: ton
  • t or tsp: teaspoon
  • w: watt
  • yd: yard

Make Sure Your Brand Measures Up

Ready to put all this measuring knowledge to good use? If you’re a business owner, the best way is by advertising with the right tools for the job. Print your logo and company’s contact information on any of these options, and you’ll be miles ahead of the competition!



The Bottom Line

This is a big world we live in, and the topic of measurements is even bigger. It’s used for the passing of time, the temperature outside, the distance we’re traveling, and the size of our bodies. Our entire world wouldn’t be the same without these tools and systems!

References

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