One of the things that set humans apart from other living creatures is their ability to measure things. From distances and weight to time and temperature, there are universal ways to know the exact measurements. These techniques have been in development for thousands of years by ancient and modern civilizations.

Scientists and mathematicians have honed measuring systems so that they are as accurate as possible. However, whilst most countries use the same units for measurement, there are some variations around the world. Some countries have continued using certain methods whilst others have adjusted their techniques to abide by the same universal methods.

Many units of measurement are based on the human body, but others were developed upon more complex systems of measuring. Although not all methods can be traced back to their origins, there are clear examples throughout history of the human need and desire to know the exact measurements in the world around them.

In this article, we'll take a look at the history of measurement and how we have come to use the units and techniques of the modern era.

People have been measuring things for thousands of years. However, there wasn't always a universal measuring system to refer to, which meant that people from all over the world had to try and develop their own way of measuring the size, length and amount of something. Many of the first measurement techniques were based on the human body. For example, a foot was based on the average length of a grown man's foot, whilst a cubit was based on the average man's forearm.

However, these abstract ways of measuring things caused some confusion, especially as most professions had their own measurement systems. During the development and expansion of industries and trade, it became necessary to have a standardized way of measuring so that trade was made easier amongst various countries and industries.

Continue reading to find out how different techniques have been developed over time to measure various physical objects and concepts.

Length and Distance

There are many reasons to measure length. It can help to know exactly how long a section of wood is when constructing a building, or how long a seamstress needs to make a skirt.

A cubit was the length of a man's forearm, from his elbow to the end of his middle finger. This is often considered to be one of the first measuring systems, as it can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. The Bible describes Noah's Ark using cubits and this measurement unit was also used to build the pyramids in Egypt.

An inch was originally based on the width of a man's thumb and was then developed to roughly measure three grains of barley that were next to one another.

During the universalization of length measurements, bars and rods were positioned in public places so that individuals could refer to them.

In modern times, rulers and tape measures are two common ways to measure the length of something relatively small, such as paper, fabric, or furniture. They usually feature both metric and imperial units, such as centimeters, millimeters, and inches. This is because people across the world still use a mixture of the two, although imperial measurements are more common in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries such as Canada.

Tape measure

The United States of America uses its own customary system, which makes it the only industrialized country in the world to not adopt the metric system. Two other countries — Liberia and Myanmar — also officially use the imperial system, whilst the United Kingdom uses a mixture of both systems.

The most common method used to measure lengths in the 21st Century is the metric system. Centimeters (cm) and millimeters (mm) measure smaller lengths whilst meters (m) and kilometers (km) are used to measure greater lengths. 1inch = 2.54cm

A mile is used in the United States' customary system and the British imperial system. It is said to have originated from the Roman era and measures 1,000 paces of a Roman soldier. The term comes from the Latin 'mille', which means a thousand. An acre is also used in both measurement systems and was originally measured by the distance that a team of oxen could plow in a single day.

Measuring distances can help to track how far places are from one another, which can give an idea of how long it will take to travel. Distance measurements can help individuals to explore different places through the use of maps, which are based on scaled measurements.

The imperial and metric conversion rates are listed below:

10mm = 1cm

100cm = 1m

1,000m =1km

The conversion rate between metric and imperial measurements are listed below:

0.39 inches = 1cm

39.4 inches = 1m

1 yard = 0.92m

1 mile = 1,609.344m


Measuring the weight of objects has always been an important part of trade. Customers want to trust that they are receiving the correct amount of something so that they're not over or underpaying for items.

One of the most common methods of weighing items in ancient times was to compare them to bags of grain and wheat. Most grains have a standard size and weight, which meant that it was a good basis to work from. However, whilst scales provided a good structure for measuring systems, the grain, metal, or stones used to weigh the items could be manipulated by adding or removing them. This meant that the method of weighing through scales wasn't always accurate or trustworthy.

Scales were used in Ancient Egypt, Iraq, and Italy. This method used in the ancient world is similar to the method that is still used in modern times, although most modern scales are electric or use dials.

Person weighing themselves on digital scales

Nowadays, people weigh just about everything including themselves, materials, and jewelry. The imperial and customary weighing measurements use units such as pounds (lb), ounces (oz), and stone (st). The metric system uses units such as grams (g), kilograms (kg), and tonnes (t). The only major difference between the US customary measuring system and the imperial system is how volume is measured. Americans use cups, pints (p), quarts (qt), and gallons (gal) when measuring liquids, which are smaller than the imperial equivalent system.

The measurement for pounds uses the abbreviation 'lb', which originates from the Latin word 'Libra' which means 'balance'. The word 'ounce' comes from the Latin for 'one-twelfth'.


Measuring time wasn't as strict in the ancient world as it is now. Most people began their day when the sun rose and went to bed when it set. It was fairly easy to base the measurement of a month on the phases of the moon, which is what civilizations did across the world.

It is believed that sundials were the earliest tool to be used to tell time and were likely used in Ancient Egypt and Iraq. The sun casts shadows upon the dial as it moves through the sky, which can be used to track time. However, it isn't the most accurate tool as the sun's journey through the sky will depend on the seasons. Winter days are shorter with less sunlight, whilst summer days are longer.

Sundial near cliff edge

Another tool that was used by the Ancient Greeks was the water clock. It was an attempt to tell time-based on the drips of water into a bowl or basin. This was another inaccurate method as water isn't stable and therefore cannot give an accurate reading on time.

The mechanical clock was invented during the Middle Ages around the 13th century, which was far superior to sundials and other previous attempts to tell time. From this point on, people strived to find a more accurate way to tell time, which provided the foundation for seconds, minutes, and hours. This period also revealed the spring and autumn equinox, when the 12 hours during the day are the same length as the 12 hours at night.

Other means of measuring time include hourglasses, which track time using sand, as well as candle clocks, which measured time as the flame burned through the wax.


Measuring temperature is a fairly recent discovery, often attributed to the Renaissance era. Robert Hooke, an English scientist, is credited with proposing zero as the freezing point of water in 1664. Over 20 years earlier, the grand duke of Tuscany invented the first sealed thermometer, which featured degree marks and used alcohol.

Thermometer showing celsius and fahrenheit

It wasn't until 1724 that a German scientist by the name of Gabriel Fahrenheit started using mercury to measure temperature. However, he used seawater in his experiments which has a lower freezing point than normal water. This meant that Fahrenheit named 30 as his freezing point and 96 as the temperature inside a healthy person's mouth. He then listed the boiling point of water as 212 and adjusted the freezing point of water to 32.

Following these developments, the centigrade scale was created around 20 years later by Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius. This adjusted the 180-degree temperature scale so that there were 100-degrees between the point of water freezing and boiling. Lord Kelvin, a British engineer, created a new measurement system for temperature that focused on absolute zero — the lowest possible temperature in the universe — which is measured as -273.16C. Kelvin uses the same scale as Celsius, but where 0C is the freezing point of water, 0K is absolute zero.

The Celsius scale was adopted as the international system for measuring temperature in 1948, although Fahrenheit is still commonly used in the US.

Humans have nearly always felt the need to measure things to make their lives easier. Although ancient civilizations weren't as refined with their measurement systems, scientists often used the same principle of techniques used thousands of years ago to develop more precise measurement systems.

The metric system is the most common measuring technique around the world in the modern age, although several countries use the imperial system or a mixture of the two. The United States has even developed its own customary scientific measurement based on the imperial system.

Uniform systems for measuring have made trading across the globe easy and accessible as each trader and customer knows the basic unit for what they are buying and how much it is worth. They also mean that craftsmen and engineers can accurately build and make objects and buildings as the parts can be cut and shaped accordingly before they are put together.

Measuring abstract concepts such as time also means that individuals can plan their everyday lives accordingly, whilst scientists can also track the evolution of the world around us.