Five FAQ About the History of Measurement

Five FAQ About the History of Measurement

Measurement has been an essential element in human life since the dawn of civilization, and indispensable to many common tasks such as building homes, trade, and sewing clothing - tasks that required some way to communicate size or dimensional expectations. This need lead to a great variety of weight and measurement systems, from simple to extremely complex systems that include units of various types of measurements.

1) What units of length were used to measure in ancient times?

The human body was commonly used as a standard for measuring length, the forearm, thumb, finger and hand span were common measurements used in ancient times. In fact, many of the measurements still in use were originally based on body measurements, and in some cases other common items.

The inch was originally considered as approximately the width of a man's thumb until the 14th century when King Edward II ruled that 1 inch equaled the length of 3 grains of barley lined up, end to end. A foot was originally considered the average length of a man's foot, and a yard was the length of a man's belt, while a cubit was the distance between a man's elbow and fingertips.

Of course, this system left a lot to be desired, as the size could vary considerably from person to person. This led to the need for a unified system of weights and measures, were variations depending on the individual wouldn't be the norm.

2) How was weight measured?

When it came to weight, seeds, grains or stones were the common standard of measure on a simple scale. This naturally leads to some variation in actual quantity, as not all stones, seeds or grains have the same weight. This system was eventually replaced by the Babylonians, who introduced shekels, mina, and talents as units with which to measure weight - this system was also followed by the Israelite's who changed the Mina to the litra, a loan word from the Latin libra - which translates as pound.

Despite the uniform name, the weight of the unit varied greatly over the centuries, with a mina from the Babylonian period weight 640 grams (23 oz), while the in another period or area the same mina weighed in at 978 grams (34 oz). Despite discrepancies the minah was the basic standard of weight in biblical times.

As recently as the 1800's units of weights and measures varied from area to area, with individual mining camps adopting their own weight and measurement laws during the gold rush. When California became a state, in 1850, one of the first laws passed was to establish a weights and measures standards.

3) What about measuring volume?

Early civilizations used standard measuring pottery to measure volume. For instance, the city of Herclea Pontica, special amphorae for measuring grains and liquids were found. The amphorae were used as units of volume in all Greek territories. They came in various forms and sizes, from 2 to 26 liters.

The ancient Greeks had a wide variety of containers for measuring volume, and they differed from each other depending on their intended use. The Hydria, for example, was used exclusively to measure water, while a phial was a metallic or ceramic container for measuring wine. Large measures were also available, for example the wine was commonly measured by Old Dutch measures - the largest one being the akshoofd, a 232-liter barrel.

4) What was the earliest unified system of measurement?

The Earliest Unified System of Weights and Measures, The Harappan System, was developed some time in the 2rd and 4th millennia BC. and is attributed to The Indus Valley Civilization. The amazingly accurate system was very detailed for the time, utilizing 0.05, .1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500, making it one of the only ancient systems that didn't rely on subdivisions of 12. One ivory scale found in the city of Lothal showed their smallest unit of measure to be approximately 1.704 mm, the smallest division recorded on a Bronze Age scale.

The system accurately measured weight, time, and distance on a uniform scale. Their weight chart, similar to the ounce, was built on units each weight about 28 grams, with their smallest measure being .05 of a unit, up to 500 units.

5) How was time measured before the modern calendar and clock?

Time was measured by the angle, or degree of the sun in the sky. The sundial is one of the most common ancient forms of measuring time, allowing for marking the passage of hours by the shadow cast on the dial. Of course, the downside to a timekeeping device that relied on the sun was that during the night there was no way to know the time.

Other inventions soon surfaced to fill the void, candle clocks - candles with marks to show the hour - were used for telling the time in china and were marked to tell the hour as they melted. The ancient Egyptians boasted one of the most precise devices in the ancient world for measuring time. The water clock, or Clepsydra, could be used to measure the hours, even at night, but required manual upkeep to refill, and replenish the water flow. The first mechanical clocks were invented by Chinese engineers in the 11th century.

Ancient calendars looked very different from the modern calendar, most of them being lunar or lunisolar - dependent on the lunar phases to mark the months, with a new moon marking the new month. The modern calendar used in most countries isn't reliant on external phenomena, but simply follows a set pattern.


Measurement has been evolving since the dawn of civilization, with new societies creating their own standards with which to measure, explain, or define the world around them. Accurate systems of measurement are crucial to many aspects of modern life, from trade to construction, fashion to engineering, precise and accurate measurements are the backbone of a successful transaction or project. Modern systems of measurement have sought to standardize units, providing a clear and concise way to measure the world around us.

This is a guest article written by Jonathan Leger. Jonathan Leger is a freelance writer and small business owner.