Units of Weights and Measures before the Metric System

Buzzle Staff May 10, 2019
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Today, we take for granted that a meter is a meter, or a kilogram is a kilogram, regardless of who is doing the measuring. Even an inch is always an inch, and a pound is always a pound. This has not always been true.
How many barleycorns are in a cubit, or a furlong, or a league? How many grains are in a slug, or a stone, or a hundredweight? The answer might depend on who is doing the measuring. For centuries, there were no universally accepted standards for measuring how long something was, or how much it weighed.
The Greek philosopher Protagoras said that "Man is the measure of all things." For centuries, this was literally true. Early methods of measurement were based on readily available things, such as a rock or a body part.
For building projects, the early Egyptians and other Middle Eastern people measured lengths based on the distance from the builder's elbow to his outstretched fingertips. This unit was called a cubit, and was subdivided into digits, which were roughly equal to the width of a finger. Later, the width of the thumb began to be used, which was called an inch.
In fact, according to the article English Customary Weights and Measures by Russ Rowlett of the University of North Carolina, in many languages, the same word is used for both inch and thumb. In the same way, the foot was used for longer measurements.
A yard was the distance from a man's nose to his outstretched fingers, and a fathom was the distance from the tips of the fingers of one hand to the tips of the fingers of the other hand when the arms were stretched out.
For rough measurements, these methods were very handy―after all, you were never without your ruler. The obvious problem was that, it was difficult for one craftsman to match the measurements used by another.
Units for measuring weight, volume, and other quantities have similar histories. Merchants would often use stone weights when selling items that had to be measured out, setting these on one side of a balance scale with the item for sale on the other.
This afforded a dishonest merchant with an opportunity to cheat his customers. In fact, the world's oldest book, the Bible, comments on this, instructing the Israelites not to have two sets of stone weights, one for buying and another for selling.
Eventually, units for measuring weight came to be called pounds, from the Latin pendere, meaning to weigh. Various sizes for the pound have been used over the years, with different sizes sometimes being used at the same time for weighing different things.
There is also a direct relationship between the pound as a unit for measuring weight and the name given to British currency, since one monetary pound was originally equal to a certain quantity of silver.
Over the centuries, various attempts were made to set and enforce standards for weights and measures. For example, in the 10th century, the yard in southern Saxon lands was based on a standard yardstick kept at Winchester by the Saxon king Edgar.
About a century later (1196), during the reign of Richard the Lionhearted, the Assize of Measures stated that "Throughout the realm there shall be the same yard of the same size and it should be of iron." Later, physical standards for lengths and weights were made from bronze. These were usually kept at the capital, with copies sent to all the major cities.
International standards were slow in coming and slower in implementation. For example, until 1959, Great Britain and the United States used different standards for the inch. Even after they agreed on a standard length, land surveyors in the US continued to use the old value for several years.
Today, of course, virtually every country in the world has adopted the metric system, at least in theory. For many people, however, the old units just seem more comfortable, like a well worn garment.
It makes you wonder whether people in centuries past had a hard time adapting to the use of a ruler, or whether they insisted on continuing to measure with their thumb or arm.
~By Earl Hunsinger
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