Have you ever wondered why we use inches and feet in the United States or where it came from when the metric system seems to make so much more sense. I mean, really, 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard. How is this easier than 100 centimeters in a meter? Additionally, the centimeter being smaller than the inch, the metric system, without even addressing millimeters, allows for greater precision. More precision, simpler extrapolation from one unit to the other, where in the world did inches and feet come from?
Well, the inch, according to some, was originally the width of a man’s thumb. Therefore, as he was working he could simply measure out three thumb widths, or four, or five, or whatever length he desired, and he would have consistency in his measurements – within some measure of variance. The important thing to remember is that HE would have consistency in HIS measurements. If another man measured out the same three thumb widths, the actual length, width or height would vary. But, since every item created in the days of yore was a one-off item, this was not a real problem for many craftsmen.
Eventually, around the 14th century, the inch was defined as three corns of barley placed end-to-end. Of course, whether you use the human body or a plant member to define measurement, you are going to end up with inconsistency.
The yard was originally the length of a man’s belt or his girth, according to some sources. Again, depending on your dietary practices, your measurement would be different from another man’s. And your measurement would differ throughout life – at least mine would.
Interestingly, over the years, consistency was developed not for a pure desire for standardization, but out of governmental desire for more taxes. According to The Weights and Measures of England, by R. D. Connor, standardizing on yards and inches (instead of yards and handfuls) was implemented to prevent cloth merchants from avoiding taxes. We can always count on the greed of rulers to provide a standard if nothing else will do.
Thankfully, the modern world is moving more and more to the metric system (in fact, most of the world outside the U.S. these days) and we can get away from what is now a consistent but confusing system and use a consistent and simple system. No longer will I have to teach my small children or grandchildren creative techniques for remembering 12 inches make a foot and 3 feet make a yard.
Now we just have to get rid of miles so we don’t have to talk about 5280 feet in a mile anymore. 1000 meters in a kilometer is so much easier, don’t you think?