How the ‘foot, yard, and inch’ came to be

Pre-metric measurements had some interesting, if inexact, origins. Though they have been standardized in countries that use them, they are still difficult for the rest of the world to understand, and even more difficult to explain. For example:

The Foot. This unit of measurement was determined by the length of King Charlemagne’s foot and modified in 1305 to be 36 barleycorns laid end to end. (No measurement for the barleycorn is given.)

The Inch. The width of King Edgar’s thumb was officially designated as an inch. It was three barleycorns across.

The Yard. The distance from King Henry I’s nose to his fingertips. The distance is also twice as long as a cubit.

The Mile. In the Roman legionary, the mile was the distance covered by 1,000 double steps. Queen Elizabeth added more feet so the mile would equal eight furlongs.

The Furlong. The length of a furrow a team of oxen could plow before resting.

The Acre. The amount of land a yoke of oxen could plow in one day.

The Fathom. The span of a seaman’s outstretched arms; 880 fathoms make a mile.

The National Geographic News Service, which collected this information, says the metric system has a more scientific origin, though the common person may think it almost as difficult to understand.

The Metric System. Based on the meter, which is defined precisely as 1,650,763.73 wave lengths of orange-red light emitted by the krypton-86 atom, or originally one-ten-millionth of the length of the longitude from the North Pole to the equator. The meter is exactly 39.37 inches. Or it measures about 118 barleycorns, however you choose to think about it that way.


  1. You guys from the US, chaps from UK, kiwis from Australia, really need to embrace the metric system. It’s easier, it’s a measure “rounded off”, a round number of 100 cm for a metre, 1000 metres for a km. Easier to conceive and picture in your mind, easy to divide by multiples of 10…. The rest of the planet has had to learn English, your native language, all in the sake of global understanding. Couldn’t you Anglos do the same at least with measuring? Please, stop being stubborn and embrace the metric system. The metric system is your friend, the metric system brings you clarity, accuracy and precision.

    Greetings from Madrid, Spain.

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