The Fascinating History of Measurements You Didn’t Learn in School!

On thing that makes humans different from other animals is that there seems to be nothing they won’t measure. It could be the distance between two atomic particles, the weight of an electron, the distance between galaxies or the loudness of a rock concert. There are measurements for stacks of firewood, the weight of fabric and the temperature of an object. Here are some things about measurement that were probably not taught in school.

The Yard
Historians aren’t quite sure where the yard comes from. There are tales that it was the length of King Henry I of England’s arm or maybe the length from his nose to his fingers. Whatever it was, the 3 foot long yard became a standard length in England and kept cloth merchants from both shortchanging their customers and avoiding high taxes.

The Foot
The foot is 12 inches or exactly 0.3048 of a meter, though for centuries the length of the foot varied from country to country and sometimes from one town to the other. It of course gets its name from the length of a man’s foot, even though the feet of most men are not 12 inches long. The international foot of 0.3048 of a meter was not standardized until 1959.

The Cord
The cord is a measurement of firewood. It is 128 cubic feet or a stack of firewood that is 8 feet wide, 4 feet deep and 4 feet high. The word comes from the rope, used in centuries past, that measured out firewood.

The Mile
According to the International System of Units, a mile is 1,609.344 meters unless it’s not. A nautical mile is exactly 1.852 kilometers. The Italian mile is about 1.852 kilometers while the Chinese mile is precisely 500 meters. The word comes from Middle English and Old English, which in turn have their origins in the Latin word milia, which comes from mīlle passus. This is the Roman mile that a soldier could cover in 1000 steps.

The Furlong
A furlong is 1/8 of a mile or 660 feet. It comes from the Old English words for “furrow” and “long.” The furlough was the distance a team of oxen could pull a heavy plough in an acre of a ploughed communal field without having to rest.

The Momme
A momme is one way to measure the weight of a fabric woven of silk. One momme weighs 0.1280019 ounces per square yard. The abbreviation is mm, not to be confused with millimeter. Mommes range from 3 to 5, which is light as gauze, to 35 to 40, which is rough and dull like raw cotton. Momme comes from the Japanese.

The Candela
The candela measures the intensity of light an object gives off. Historically, one candela equals the light of one candle.

Measurements Named After People
Curie, Newton, Hertz, Fahrenheit, Celsius, Kelvin, Joule, Watt, Pascal, Tesla

These measurements were named after people.
A curie measures radioactivity and was named for Pierre (not Marie) Curie.
A newton is a unit of force and was named after Sir Isaac Newton.
Hertz is a measure of frequency and was named after Heinrich Rudolf Hertz.
Fahrenheit is a measure of temperature and was named after Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit.
Celsius is also a measure of temperature and was named after Anders Celsius.
Yet another measure of temperature, the Kelvin, was named after William Thomson, Baron Kelvin.
The joule measures energy and was named after James Prescott Joule.
The watt, which measures power, was named after James Watt.
The pascal, which measures pressure, was named after Blaise Pascal.
The Tesla was named after Nikola Tesla and measures magnetic flux density.

A carat is the mass of a gemstone, especially a diamond. It’s equal to 200 milligrams. According to legend, it gets its name because gemstones used to be weighed by carob seeds, which were all supposed to be the same size and weight. This isn’t true, but the 200 mg carat was standardized in 1877.

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