Historical Development of The Units of Measurements

You will get acquainted with the history of measurements and the development of systems of measurement.

People have measured mass, length, and time for thousands of years. Over centuries, systems of measurements have been devised and improved. Tools have been upgraded to achieve a high level of precision.

We have often asked questions such as: “How big?”"How far?” “How heavy?” “How hot?”. We need to measure in order to answer each of these questions.

Measurement is essential in science and in life. Scientific experiments depend on measurements and scientific measurements can only be as exact as the measuring instruments.

English: Four metric measuring devices – a tape measure, a thermometer, a one kilogram weight and an electrical multimeter. These instruments were selected to show some of the units of measure that are “metric units” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians were the first to devise units of measurements. Have you ever tried measuring things with your stretched thumb and little finger? If so, then you measured as the Egyptians measured objects.

Egyptians use ropes to measure their cornfield before harvest to estimate the size of yield. Today, surveyors use steel tape and other electronic instruments to measure the size of a lot. The landowner usually had a staff which is the symbol of his position.  In ancient times, people measured things with parts of their body instead of using ruler, a tape measure, or a stick. Some of the measuring units we use today developed out of body measurements. An example is the foot. At first, it was any man’s foot, but later it became the length of scientific foot, such as chief’s (ruler or leader of the group), because the people’s feet vary in length. A mile was a thousand strides as defined by ancient Romans. A stride was about five Roman feet. Therefore, a mile is about five thousand Roman feet.

Another unit of measure the ancient Egyptians used was the cubit. One cubit was the distance from a man’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger. Cubit came from the Latin word for elbow. We no longer use cubits but yards.  One yard is equivalent to two cubits. The inch is defined as the length of three barleycorns.

Today, we use clocks and watches to measure time. Long before clocks were invented, however, people used the sun, the moon, and the stars to mark the passage of time. An hourglass was also used to measure time.

The Egyptians used a balance similar to what we use today in measuring weights. They placed the object to be weighed on a pan and put the known standard weight on the other pan located at the other side of the balance. They keep on adding weights until the two pans balance.

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