History of Measurement

Length, Weight, & Capacity

The cubit was determined as early as 3000 B.C. in Egypt. As early as the 10th century, definite measurements have been documented in order to withhold a standard. It is said that the Saxon King Edgar kept a “yardstick” in his home in order to have a standard length for measurement in the kingdom. Henry I made a decree in the 11th century that a yard would be the distance from the tip of his nose to the thumb with his arm completely extended.

Under the reign on Richard the Lionheart, the Assize of Measures (1196) stated that there would be a consistent iron yardstick throughout the kingdom. However, it wasn't until Edward I’s reign until the yard was specifically defined. He divided the yard into three parts, calling each of these parts one foot. Because three grains of wheat would equal one inch, it would take twelve of these to equal one foot. They also multiplied the yard in order to define a perch and an acre.

Some of the Contributors

Elizabeth the First

From 1588-1824, the standard yard implemented by Elizabeth I was determined by an iron bar with a square cross section, the yard being the distance from end to end. This bar can still be found in the Science Museum in London and only .01 of an inch short of the standard yard we use today. In 1791, the French National Assembly decided to create a standard based on the earth’s circumference. One ten-millionth of one fourth of the earth’s circumference would come to be known as one meter. This became the world’s new master standard, and is used in all but three countries in the world today.


Although weight cannot be as reliable as length in referring to the human body, people did use similar methods in setting standard weights. Like iron poles were kept in the temple to set a standard length, a lump of metal could also be used to act as a standard. Because grains remained fairly the same weight, the lump of metal would equal a certain number of grains. This piece of metal could be used in a balance to compare its weight to the weight of other objects. To compare weights, people created a balance scale. This dates back to 2000 B.C., where those living on the Indus River used two plates and a center pole to weight objects and set them to equilibrium if desired. This method of weighing lasted through the late 18th century, until Richard Salter created the spring scale in 1770.


Capacity oftentimes relied on weight when exact amounts needed to be determined. Approximate consistent sizes of baskets and jars could be made in order to store things for many everyday transactions. The terms that we currently associate with capacity, such as liter and gallon, actually arrive from weights. People would relate the weight of a liquid to a certain number and call it a gallon. In the U.S., we know that a gallon weighs 8.34 pounds when at room temperature. This same idea is how people from as early as 200 identified amounts of liquid. Although this method has been used for centuries, it wasn't until the late 20th century in which the Standard Imperial Gallon was created in order to provide a world-wide standard, which stated that the weight of one gallon equals 8.6 pounds. This is a part of the metric system.

These rough estimations can be used in our classrooms today. For example, in ancient times, people used the length of their foot as a standard of one foot. Under the study of perimeter and area, a teacher can design a project in which students will measure the length and width of a certain space using their feet as instruments. Each student will be able to find the appropriate perimeter and area of the zone they are measuring based upon their own foot. For higher order thinking questions, the teacher can have the students find the actual perimeter and area using the appropriate tools and compare them to the numbers they came up with using their own foot. Other activities like this one can be created in order to estimate in inches, using the width of the thumb, or yards, using the distance of nose tip to thumb tip with an extended arm. Whereas this one may be a little more difficult and may require marking the beginning and end on a large piece of paper in order to make appropriate measurements, the students will really enjoy this measurement. Any of the body measurements would be engaging to students because it involves the students getting active in the activity and using their physical bodies to complete the assignment. Students study perimeter, area, and volume in the sixth grade, according to the Common Core Standards.