Have you ever wondered about the origin of terms like inch, foot, and yard? Measurements have played a major role in history. Ancient civilizations used measurements as a valuable frame of reference to build, create, and trade. And many of the foundational principles of basic measurements are still used today.
Many early measurements, including inch, foot, and yard, were based on the human body. An inch was the width of a thumb, a foot was the length of a foot, and a yard was the length of a man’s belt. The cubit, developed by the ancient Egyptians, was considered the first unit of measurement. It was the length of the arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger—about 18 inches. The Greeks used the lick, which was the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the index finger. Ancient Roman soldiers used the pace, which was the length of a double step—about 5 feet. So, a mile would have been about 1,000 paces.
Eventually, with the development of measuring instruments, measurements became more standardized. In 1620, an English mathematician named Edmond Gunter, who was one of the great instrument-makers of the seventeenth century, introduced a hundred-link surveying chain. It became a standard surveyor's tool and was used well into the nineteenth century.
The measuring wheel, which is useful for measuring long distances quickly, also originated in the 1600s. The wheelwrights who were responsible for making and repairing wagon wheels often made measuring wheels. Even though the measuring wheel has evolved from its original design of wood and iron, it operates in much the same way it did hundreds of years ago. Measuring wheels are regularly used for surveying, construction, road paving, traffic control, fencing, and insurance purposes.
Technology in surveying equipment has advanced tremendously during my career. When I started in the industry, we used transit levels. We later progressed to lasers, then GPS, and now total station systems.
In 1851, Anton Ullrich invented the folding ruler, which became one of the more popular rulers for carpenters. The small six-inch wood ruler was joined together by pivoting hinges and could extend to over six feet. Offering the ability to draw straight lines without using a chalk box, the folding ruler was a valuable tool found in many old-school carpenters' toolboxes. Today, most carpenters have moved on to steel retractable tape measures, but folding rulers are still used by masons as they lay out the course of brick.
Tradespeople use many different tools, and each one has a history and story. The creativity and ingenuity of those in and connected to our industry have continued to push the limits of what we thought possible. There is a lot of history in our toolboxes.