Sunday, September 23, 2012


While driving I-35 through the Kansas Flint Hills yesterday, I got to thinking about numbers. More specifically, I guess, I was thinking about how we measure distance. Highways are measured in straight lines even though we don't travel that way. It is really a combination of curves, rises and falls. No one travels as the crow flies, but still we measure that way.

Off of I-35. near Garnett, Kansas, a straight road

For the most part, the highway is measured in miles and feet. Inches are left to shorter items that we hold in our hand. But, miles and feet are not a universal measurement. In Europe and most of the world the kilometer and meter are used. This is because meters are a more precise form of measurement when it comes to computers and calculators. Kilometers and meters are based on the numbering system of ten. You can thank Napoleon for this revolutionary change. But remember the Greeks and Romans were counting in units of ten long before Napoleon resurrected their system.

But what are miles and feet based on?

Back in the Merry England of the Middle Ages, and Europe for that matter, no one kept rulers in their pocket. If you had to measure something, then the measuring stick was a body part. The foot is an easy one, for it is the length of a man's foot, give or take. The inch was the width of a thumb.

How about the mile?

The mile is a left-over of the Roman Empire's rule over Britain. The Romans had a measurement known as mille passuum, or a thousand paces. A pace (don't be confused, today a pace is generally considered as one step) was two strides, the distance from when the heel of one foot was lifted off the ground until it was placed back on the ground. This was about five Roman feet. The Roman soldier, like contemporary ones on parade, would count off until reaching a thousand paces. The Latin word for a thousand is mille, which becomes mile.

Hui! Or Latin for wow!

The Romans left mile markers throughout the Empire, so that they would always know where they were. Next time you are breezing down the highway look to the side and you will see highway markers in miles. Bridges have a similar mile marking. This way the Highway Patrol can note where you are if a break-down occurs.

But wait, why 5,280 feet?

The British farmer was not going to count up to 5,000. He would get lost in counting along the was. Instead, a shorter measurement was needed. One that aided one in getting to the magic mile. If you have ever counted the cards in a deck of 52, then you know it is sometimes best to stack them in piles of ten, so as to not mess up your count. The Chinese abacus has counters of five an ten that help the counter to add to higher numbers.

The Old Man is tired of plowing, Credit: © Bob Langrish.

Now, back to the ancient British farmer. This measurement was the furlong. The furlong was the distance a plow horse could plow a straight line on a farmers field before getting tired. This distance was agreed by all sensible people to be 660 feet. That number is convenient because it has as common factors the numbers 3, 4, 5, 10, and 12. It was easy from this distance to jump to a mile consisting of eight furlongs, or 5,280 feet. Today, the furlong has for the most part disappeared except on the race track where the measurement is still used.

Other body parts have been used by ancient civilizations for measurement. The Hebrews, Greeks and Egyptians used the cubit or length of the forearm. Noah's ark was measured at 300 cubits long, 50 wide, and 30 high. The cubit is similar to the yard, the distance from nose to extended arm, which was a useful way for merchants to measure rope or cloth. Finally, there is the hand which was the width of the hand or about four thumbs wide. Full-grown horses often measure about fifteen or sixteen hands, but it is hard to imagine that a horse would stand still while the farmer placed his hands along the horse that many times.

Hope this helps.

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