9/8/2019 2:41 PM

A Brief History of Metrology

A Brief History of Metrology

With the prevalence of increasing sophisticated, quality metrology instruments for almost every measurement need imaginable around today, it’s easy to forget the humble origins of metrology. Whilst precision measurement is the quality foundation for a wide variety of industries, and heavily replied upon for accuracy in the 21st Century, the need for measurement goes back much farther than you might think.

The Oldest Science

Metrology is, in fact, the oldest science, with the earliest recorded systems of weights and measures originating in the 3rd or 4th millennium BC. Measurement was needed for the formulation of society itself; when people began to trade goods with each other, they understandably wanted to ensure that they got exactly what they paid for, hence the need for accurate weights and measures.

The very first measurements were based around the human body. For example, almost every civilization had a “foot” as a measurement of length, and the “Cubit”, derived from the Latin ‘cubitis’ was used to refer to the distance from the elbow to the very tip of the middle finger.


Measurement References in Historical Texts

The Cubit is mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible in Chapters 6-9 of Genesis, where God gives Noah instructions in Cubits for making the ark. Measurement is also referenced in the Bible in Leviticus 35-37: “You shall do no wrong in judgement, in measures of length or weight or quantity. 36 You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. 37 And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the Lord.”

For reference, an ephah was thought to be about 3/5 of a bushel or 22 litres; a hin was about 4 quarts or 3.5 litres. There is also reference to measurement in the Koran: “Unequal measures are an abomination of God.”

Cubits and the Ancient Egyptians

The Ancient Egyptians also used the cubit as the standard measurement to build the pyramids. Workers were given wooden cubit lengths as a guide to follow when constructing the pyramids, and calibration control was extremely strict. Every month, at the full moon, workers were required to have their cubit lengths calibrated to ensure accuracy and consistency. If they didn't, it was punishable by death. Bear in mind that the pyramids were built 2630–2610 BC, and they're 0.05% accurate. Not bad!

Image courtesy of MSC, Advancement in Measurement Technology

Weights, Measurement and the Magna Carta

In more recent history, references to measurements and weights can be found in the Magna Carta. Magna Carta Libertatum, whgich is Medieval Latin for "the Great Charter of the Liberties", is a charter of rights agreed to by Kind John of England on 15th June 1215. Clause 35 of the Magna Carta demands standard weights and measures for grain, wine, beer and cloth.

measurement-illustrationAlthough the terminology is archaic, (‘russet’, ‘haberject’, ‘ells’) the clause is significant because of what it represents. England in 1215 was an economically buoyant land where new towns and markets proliferated, driven by the continental demand for English wool. For trade to flourish, commercial confidence was essential, and to secure this, the buyer and seller had to work according to universally agreed measures.

Of all the principles enunciated in Magna Carta, besides those concerning justice and due process, it is this idea that weights and measures be fixed that was most eagerly adopted in the constitutions of the newly fledged colonies of North America.

Royalty and the US Constitution

Measurement is also heavily connected to Royalty, with the Queen of England typically holding the Sceptre and Orb; the cross representing Christ’s dominion over the orb of the world, literally held in the hand of an earthly ruler.

A sceptre is a symbolic ornamental staff or wand held in the hand by a ruling monarch as an item of royal or imperial insignia. Figuratively, it means royal or imperial authority or sovereignty. Traditionally, measurements are set and upheld by the monarchy, so it’s no coincidence that the word ‘ruler’ came to be used in this way.

Similarly, measurement is mentioned in the United States Constitution, Article 1 Section 8, where Congress shall have power "To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures".

Image courtesy of Kilogram: The Past Woodcut ca. 1800, illustrating new standards. From left to right: the liter, the gram and the meter.