The Long & The Short Of Historic
A Scottish ell was mounted at the corner of a building, to used as a standard.
Where did some of the measurements we use today come from?
Many of them came from early England. In the 14th century, King Edward the Second decreed that the inch was the length of three barley corns, taken from the center of the ear and laid end to end.
Even earlier than that, the yard was used as a measurement. It was used for measuring cloth, the most important trade product in Britain around a thousand years ago. It consisted of the length from the middle of the body to the end of an outstretched arm. However, you’d want to buy your cloth, or “yardage,” from a long-armed merchant. You’d get more that way.
King Henry the First settled the question of the length of a yard, however, in the 12th century - at least for as long as his reign lasted. He decreed that the lawful yard was the distance from the point of his nose to the end of his thumb when his arm was extended.
How long is a rod? Today, we say it’s 5.5 yards, or 16.5 feet. But in the 16th century, the lawful rod was the length of the left foot of 16 men lined up as they left church on Sunday morning.
Many villages adopted their own measurements. In use of some Scottish towns was the ell, which was adopted in 1661 and by today’s standards measured 37 inches. Town market places had an official ell mounted in the town square, against which merchants tested their own measuring ell sticks. Ells were used until 1824, when a British act of Parliament imposed the British standards and the ell drifted in to obscurity.
The Roman “foot” of 12 inches became part of the yard when the yard was standardized as the length of three feet. A bronze yard bar, measuring the lawful yard, was kept in England as the Standard of Reference in the King’s Exchequer.
Eventually, as the Industrial Age emerged in the 19th century, other units had to be standardized. They were completed in England in 1855. The yard was one of the first, and copies of the British yard were presented to the United States where they were accepted by the Office of Weights and Measures as the standard of the United States.
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