Origins of Measurements

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

In ancient times, the body ruled when it came to measuring. The length of a foot, the width of a finger, and the distance of a step were all accepted measurements.

Inch: At first an inch was the width of a man's thumb. In the 14th century, King Edward II of England ruled that 1 inch equalled 3 grains of barley placed end to end lengthwise.

Hand: A hand was approximately 5 inches or 5 digits (fingers) across. Today, a hand is 4 inches and is used to measure horses (from the ground to the horse's withers, or shoulder).

Span: A span was the length of the hand stretched out, about 9 inches.

Foot: In ancient times, the foot was 111/42 inches. Today it is 12 inches, the length of the average man's foot.

Yard: A yard was originally the length of a man's belt or girdle, as it was called. In the 12th century, King Henry I of England fixed the yard as the distance from his nose to the thumb of his out-stretched arm. Today it is 36 inches.

Cubit: In ancient Egypt, a cubit was the distance from the elbow to the fingertips. Today a cubit is about 18 inches.

Lick: A Lick was used by the Greeks to measure the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the index finger.

Pace: The ancient Roman soldiers marched in paces, which were the length of a double step, about 5 feet; 1,000 paces was a mile. Today, a pace is the length of one step, 21/2 to 3 feet.


  • Inch = 0.083 feet
  • Foot = 12 inches
  • Yard = 3 feet or 36 inches
  • Mile = 5,280 feet or 1,760 yards

Near and Far

  • Around the earth (at the equator): 24,901 miles
  • Across the continental U.S.: 3,000 miles
  • From the earth to the moon: 238,854 miles
  • From the earth to the sun: 93,000,000 miles
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