This is a brief overview of the history of length measurement in the United Kingdom, outlining some of the more important and interesting aspects. Measurement has been important ever since man settled from his nomadic lifestyle and started using building materials; occupying land and trading with his neighbours. As society has become more technologically orientated much higher accuracies of measurement are required in an increasingly diverse set of fields, from micro-electronics to interplanetary ranging.
"It is remembered that the Iron Ulna of our Lord the King contains three feet and no more; and the foot must contain twelve inches, measured by the correct measure of this kind of ulna; that is to say, one thirty-sixth part [of] the said ulna makes one inch, neither more nor less... It is ordained that three grains of barley, dry and round make an inch, twelve inches make a foot; three feet make an ulna; five and a half ulna makes a perch (rod); and forty perches in length and four perches in breadth make an acre."
The perch or rod, as it was also known, was a traditional Saxon land measure and survives in twentieth century. It had originally been defined as the total length of the left feet of the first sixteen men to leave church on Sunday morning.
It is thought that Henry VII (1485-1509) went back 350 years to obtain his standard, and it is likely that it may have been a direct copy of the old standard of Edgar, 'the yardstick', one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon standards.
In fact this yard had a very short official life (9 years and 198 days) as in 1834 it was damaged in a fire that burned down both Houses of Parliament. A new standard was eventually legalised in 1855 and was based on unofficial standards that had been compared to the Imperial Yard before it was damaged.
The new yard became the first imperial standard and was actually a standard that had been commissioned by the Royal Society in 1742, which in turn had been based on an earlier Elizabethan standard.
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