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This page gives Imperial units of length. Square lengths, such as acres, are on the area page, cubic lengths are on the volume page and speed and acceleration are on the other units page. There is a quick convertor below which gives an answer rounded to 2 decimal places. The metric equivalents on this page are also all to 2 decimal places. There are more advanced conversions on the tables page.Wellknown units  inch, foot, yard, mile 
Land measurement  furlong, chain, link, rod, pole, perch, Ramsden's chain 
Nautical units  fathom, shackle, cable, nautical mile 
The human body  foot, hand, palm, nail, finger 
Old units  span, cubit, ell, bolt, clothyard, league, megalithic yard 
Small units  line, thou, barleycorn, poppy seed 
Abbrev.  Metric  Table  Information  

inch  in or "  2.54 cm  12 inches = 1 foot  The inch was originally the width of a thumb.
The name comes from uncia which is Latin for 'twelfth part' (see foot). An inch is considered to be the width of a thumb (my thumb is 3/4 inch wide). Click here for some foreign units called 'thumbs'.
In England, the inch has been in use since medieval times. In 1324, Edward II decreed that the inch was the length of 3 barley corns placed endtoend. The inch is the basis of the Imperial measures of length, and is now legally defined as exactly 2.54 centimetres. This means that the Imperial units of length are based on the metric system! If you want a quick conversion, then 2 inches is roughly 5 centimetres. To inch forwards means to move slowly forwards. An inch worm is a small caterpillar which moves forwards by bending its body into a loop, then straightening, looking as if it's measuring something. "Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds.." 
foot  ft or '  30.48 cm  12 inches = 1 foot 3 feet = 1 yard 
There was a Roman unit called a pes (plural pedes) which means a foot, and was 29.59cm, which is nearly the size of the modern foot. There were twelve uncia to a pes as well (see inch).
The foot has been used in England for over a thousand years. The foot, a length of the human foot, was anything from 9 3/4 to 19 inches (my foot is 11 inches). It was not until 1844 that there was anything resembling a real standard. In that year the British government created a standard master yard in a length of bronze, marked off in feet and inches. Click here for a photo of a similar one in Trafalgar Square. School rulers in Britain are usually a foot long (30 cm). The ruler below is 6 inches or half a foot. Click here for an oldfashioned wooden ruler. A light year is the distance that light travels in a year. The nearest stars are a few light years away. A foot is approximately a light nanosecond! (A nanosecond is a billionth of a second, or 1/1,000,000,000 secs.) Beware something called a metric foot, used by DIY stores. It is 30 centimetres long, which is less than a foot, and you don't get a whole number of them to a metre. So it is useless for both imperial and metric measurement, a typical British compromise! 
yard  yd  91.44 cm  3 feet = 1 yard 1760 yards = 1 mile 
A yard is a single stride (my stride is 2 feet). The word yard comes from the Old English gyrd, meaning a rod or measure. Henry I (11001135) decreed the lawful yard to be the distance between the tip of his nose and the end
of his thumb. It was within a tenth of an inch of the modern yard. A yard is nearly a metre. The picture below shows the end of a yard rule.

mile  mi or m  1.61 km  1760 yards = 1 mile  A mile is derived from mille, Latin for thousand, since a Roman mile was mille passuum, a thousand Roman paces or double strides, from left foot to left foot. A passus was 5 pedes (see foot), which would make 5000 feet to the mile. The modern mile is 5280 feet or 1760 yards. In the past every part of England had its own mile, up to 2880 yards. In Ireland, the mile was 2240 yards well into the 20C.
At school, we had to learn that half a mile was 880 yards, and quarter of a mile was 440 yards. People still say "about a hundred yards" to mean a short walking distance. Note that 'm' is the abbreviation for both a mile and a metre! But 'mi' means mile as well. Still, road signs in the United Kingdom continue to use 'm' as the abbreviation for mile. The conversion rate between a kilometre and a mile is very approximately the Golden Ratio (about 1.6). The Golden Ratio is a mathematical constant  the limit of the ratio of successive Fibonacci numbers. It also occurs in pleasant proportions in art and architecture. This is entirely coincidence and doesn't mean anything, but it might help some mathematicians with the conversion! Statutory Instrument 1995 No. 1804 allows the use of the mile, yard, foot or inch for road traffic signs, distance and speed measurement in Britain. 
Metric  Table  Information  

furlong  201.17 m  8 furlongs = 1 mile 10 chains = 1 furlong 220 yards = 1 furlong 
A furlong is a 'furrow long' or length of a medieval field (see acre). The furlong was also known as flatt,
furshott, or sheth. The length varied depending on the type of soil. It was usual for horses to take a short breather at the end of the furrow before turning in to the next furrow. The heavier the soil, the harder the
horses had to work, and so the less time between breathers. This led to shorter furrows or furlongs between the ends, and therefore local variations in furlong length. These variations were not removed until the railways
required a universal standard measurement.
Furlongs are used for the lengths of some horse races. They used to be the measurement for human races as well. 
chain  20.12 m  10 chains = 1 furlong 100 links = 1 chain 22 yards = 1 chain 
A chain is the length of a cricket pitch. It has been used since 1620. Its correct name is a Gunter's chain or surveyor's chain, since it was invented by the Rev. Edmund Gunter (15811626), a professor of astronomy at Gresham College, London. There is a different chain called the Ramsden's chain.
A correspondent says "The whole of the United States was measured and mapped using the Gunters Chain and his chain still applies to all title plans in use today. For this reason all city blocks, roads and avenues are multiples of the chain. Towns were laid out at 6 miles square or 36 sq miles. Early farms were sold to wouldbe farmers as lots of 640 acres or 1 sq mile. Interestingly enough the Geodetic coastal survey and ordnance surveys of the entire US are metric." Another correspondent says "Many of the older people in Jamaica use chains as a measure of distance. 'The shop is about 5 chains down the road' for example. The only other useage I have ever encountered is on railways, where the radius of curvature of a line used to be measured in chains." 
link  20.12 cm  100 links = 1 chain 7.92 inches = 1 link 
Links and chains are socalled as distances were measure with real links, made of metal. In the story Kim, written by Rudyard Kipling, there are several references to links and chains:
So far as Kim could gather, he was to be diligent and enter the Survey of India as a chainman... Colonel Creighton Sahib  this was unfair  sent Kim a written examinationpaper that concerned itself solely with rods and chains and links and angles... Since Mohammedan horseboys and pipetenders are not expected to drag Surveychains round the capital of an independent Native State, Kim was forced to pace all his distances by means of a bead rosary. 
rod, pole or perch  5.03 m  40 poles = 1 furlong 4 poles = 1 chain 5.5 yards = 1 pole 1 rod = 1 pole = 1 perch 
Rods, poles and perches are different names for the same unit. Medieval ploughing was done with oxen, up to 4 pairs at a time. The ploughman handled the plough. His boy controlled the oxen using a stick, which had to be long enough to reach all the oxen. This was the rod, pole or perch. It was an obvious implement to measure the fields, such as 4 poles to the chain. A BBC webpage about allotments says that "an allotment plot is 10 poles" and claims that "A pole is measured as the length from the back of the plough to the nose of the ox". I suppose that if you wanted to control the front ox, you needed a pole long enough to reach! The perch was used in the reign of Henry II (11541189), the pole since the 16C, and the rod since 1450. In the 16th century the lawful rod was decreed to be the combined length of the left feet of 16 men as they left church on a Sunday morning. In North Devon there is a tradition that fencing, that is to say the cutting and laying
of a hedge, would be done at so much a land yard, which seemed to be about 5 paces or 5.5 yards, which would equate to a rod, pole or perch. An earlier name for a rod was a gyrd which is the derivation of a yard. A correspondent told me: "In the early 1960s my mother had come into possession of a small cottage in Bwlch y Cibau (mid Wales). She wanted the hedge round the garden laid and made stock proof. A local man (in his late 50s I think) quoted her as three and six a rod." See money for what "three and six" means  it's 17.5 pence in modern money! 
Ramsden's chain  30.48 m  100 feet = 1 Ramsden's chain  The Ramsden's chain or engineer's chain is 100 feet long, where each link is one foot long (see below). I've had a suggestion that this chain was called after Ramsden was Jesse Ramsden (17351800), an English astronomical and scientific instrument maker. A correspondent writes: "From my own experience using this chain, it was used for geographically surveying land. On longer stretches, two people, one at each end of the chain, would 'flip flop' end for end. One person would remain stationary while the other walked past the first until the chain reached its tether producing a count of unit measure and then usually an iron peg placed at the desired length to be marked off. These are called surveyors' stakes." See also Gunter's chain. 
A correspondent suggests: "You might care to add to your bit about measuring chains that these expanded or contracted with heat. When George Everest and his minions surveyed India with chains they had to measure the air temperature all the time and calculate the changing length of the chain. I think I read in a biography of the man that India was mapped within a two inch tolerance! And they demolished whole buildings and cut down trees in order to keep triangulation lines dead straight. Everest, apparently, got very uptight when people didn't pronounce his name as Everest: so he must be spinning in his grave every time someone talks of Mount Everest! There's karma for being a cantankerous old fogey."
Metric  Table  Information  

fathom  1.83 m  6 feet = 1 fathom 15 fathom = 1 shackle 
Fathoms measure depth of water. They have been in use in England since before 1600, and may be derived from faethm, the Anglo Saxon word for 'to embrace' (because it is roughly the distance from one hand to the other if your arms are outstretched). There was a similar unit in Scandinavia and Germany.
Shakespeare writes in The Tempest: Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made: Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade, But does suffer a seachange Into something rich and strange. Fathoms were also used to measure the depth of coal seams and Cornish mines. Dolcoath Mine in Camborne was one of the deepest with a level at 420 fathoms or 2520 feet vertical drop. There is a local saying about a person who keeps him or herself to themselves as being "as deep as Dolcoath". To fathom something means to throroughly understand it or get to the bottom of it. This could come from taking a sounding from a ship, which would be measured in fathoms. 
shackle  27.43 m  15 fathom = 1 shackle 30 yards = 1 shackle 
Shackles were a measure of the length of cable. According to a 19th Century Seamanship Manual, ships were usually equipped with 12 shackles of bower cable where each shackle was a 12.5 fathom length. These 12.5 fathom lengths were joined by shackles (hence the name) and by swivel links to overcome twisting. When paying out the anchor cable, counting the number of shackles passing gave a measure of the length used. In 1949, the Royal Navy switched from 12.5 fathom shackles to 15 fathom shackles. Modern heavy mooring chain is usually sold in 15 fathom lengths or 'shots' (an American term). The specification sheets quote the number of links per shot. Here is a formula for calculating the amount of anchor chain to put out in your ship: Twice the square root of the depth of water in fathoms = the number of shackles of cable. 
cable  185.32 m  608 feet = 1 cable 10 cables = 1 nautical mile 
The cable is a tenth of a nautical mile. Since the nautical mile has altered, so has the cable. The metric equivalent (left) is based on the old Imperial length of 608 feet. The cable seems to be a measure of length along the surface, rather than a measure of depth, or even the length of an anchor cable. An anchor cable will always be an integral number of shackles long, but the unit cable is 6.76 shackles. In 1970, the RN Hydrographic Charts Dept. switched their nautical mile from 6080 feet to 1852 metres (the International NM). At the same time, their cable became a tenth of the International Nautical Mile. 
nautical mile  1.85 km  6080 feet = 1 nautical mile 10 cables = 1 nautical mile 
Nautical miles measure distance. 1 nautical mile is the angular distance of 1 minute of arc on the earth's surface. As these differ slightly (6108' at pole and 6046' at equator) 6080 was adopted (this being its approximate value in the English Channel). The International nautical mile is 1852 metres, so is very slightly different from the UK nautical mile (1853.18 metres). The metric equivalent on the left is in kilometres to 2 decimal places, which ducks the whole problem. Now the International nautical mile is used throughout the UK, except in the Statutory Instrument 1995 No. 1804 which defines it as 1853 metres.
If you want an irrelevant fact, one minute of arc on Mars is close to a kilometre (.987 km to be more accurate). Perhaps the French who defined the kilometre were really Martians! The kilometre, like the nautical mile, was also defined as one minute of arc on a great circle on the earth. However, it was one minute of arc in the new French revolutionary decimal system, in which a circle was made up of 400 degrees, each of 100 minutes. Thus the conversion from kilometres to nautical miles was k=M*(400*100)/(360*60). Of course disputes over the standard size of a great circle on the earth meant it wasn't absolutely exact, but it's exceedingly close! NASA describes the International Space Station as orbiting at an altitude of 211 nautical miles. A knot is a nautical mile per hour. 
Metric  Table  Information  

foot  30.48 cm  12 inches = 1 foot  see above 
hand  10.16 cm  4 inches = 1 hand 3 hands = 1 foot 
Hands are used to measure horses. You measure from the ground to the withers of the horse (its shoulder) since it won't keep its head still. 3 hands is 1 foot (which sounds slightly odd). 
palm  11.43 cm  3 inches = 1 palm 4 palms = 1 foot 
A palm was 3 inches. A hand is an inch bigger. Possibly the idea was that a hand was the width of the hand including the thumb, and a palm was the width excluding the thumb. 
nail  5.72 cm  16 nails = 1 yard  A nail was 2 and a quarter inches. It was a cloth measure. Thinking about it, this can't be a human nail as it's too large. It must be a small metal nail. 
finger  11.43 cm  8 fingers = 1 yard  A finger was 4 and a half inches. Another cloth measure. 
Metric  Table  Information  

span  22.86 cm  9 inches = 1 span 4 spans = 1 yard 
A span was originally the length from your little finger to your thumb if you stretch your fingers. It later became 9 inches or a quarter of a yard. 
cubit  45.72 cm  18 inches = 1 cubit 2 cubits = 1 yard 
The cubit is the earliest unit of length, used in Egypt in the 3rd Dynasty (28002300 BC). It is the length of the arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. The English cubit is 18 inches long, but the Romans, Egyptians and Hebrews all had different lengths. Cubits are used in the Bible. The ark was 300 cubits long. See Scripture measures in the "Multum in Parvo" Table Book. 
clothyard  93.98 cm  37 inches = 1 yard  A clothyard was used to measure cloth. It is an inch longer than an ordinary yard. A natural way to measure cloth is to hold one end in one hand, and measure along the edge to the nose, then repeat, and these would be clothyards. I measure thread for making lace in the same way. A clothyard shaft was an arrow a clothyard long. 
ell  114.3 cm  45 inches = 1 ell 5 spans = 1 ell 32 ells = 1 bolt 
An ell is derived from 'elbow'. It started off similar to the cubit (see above), but the English ell was 45 inches or a yard and a quarter. It could have been measured from elbow to elbow. Other countries had different lengths for their ell. There was an old saying "Give him an inch and he'll take an ell". As the ell fell out of common use, the saying got changed to "Give him an inch and he'll take a mile" (which makes less sense). 
bolt  36.58 m  32 ells = 1 bolt 40 yards = 1 bolt 
Another measure of cloth. Cloth is stored in rolls, which are still called bolts. 
league  4.83 km  3 miles = 1 league  A league is another measure that varies by country. In England, it is taken to be 3 miles. It was originally the distance that you could walk in an hour. Tennyson wrote of the Charge of the Light Brigade
Half a league, half a league, half a league onwards Into the valley of death rode the six hundred. In fairy tales, there were seven league boots, which would carry you seven leagues (21 miles) in one stride. Jules Verne wrote a book about a submarine, called "20,000 Leagues under the Sea". This refers to how far they travelled, not how deep they were. 
megalithic yard  82.91 cm  2.72 feet = 1 megalithic yard  Some archaeologists have deduced a megalithic yard from the statistical study of prehistoric stone circles, which they estimate to be 2.72 feet. I can't see why prehistoric man had a consistent, formal unit, when in the more recent past the mile was different lengths in different parts of England. I think they just measured out their circles with paces which tend to be that length. If you are interested in the megalithic yard, see this website. I don't agree with it myself! 
Metric  Table  Information  

line  2.12 mm  12 lines = 1 inch  A line has been used since the 17C. It is used by botanists to describe the size of plants. It is not common (in fact, I had never heard of it until I started researching this site!) 
pica  4.23 mm  12 points = 1 pica 6 picas = 1 inch 
Used in printing. See font size. 
point  0.35 mm  72 points = 1 inch 12 points = 1 pica 
Used in printing. See font size. 
thou  25.4 microns  1000 thou = 1 inch  A thou is a colloquial term for a thousandth of an inch. It was introduced in 1844. It is generally credited to Joseph Whitworth who demonstrated that as little as 1/1000" was the difference between clearance and intereference. A thou is 0.0254 mm. Another name for 'thou' is the 'mil' (a 'milliinch'), but 'mil' is also used an a measure of angle. 
barleycorn  8.47 mm  3 barleycorns = 1 inch  This is mentioned in this Tudor set of measures. 
poppy seed  2.12 mm  4 poppy seeds = 1 barleycorn 12 poppy seeds = 1 inch 
I was informed of this by a correspondent. 
Finally, I can't resist adding this (halfinched from Twitter).
They've left out 22 yards to a chain (Gunter's)! Everyone knows that! (We learned it at school.) How else would you know how long a cricket wicket is? (By the way, 'half inch' is rhyming slang. It means pinched,or stolen.)
© Jo Edkins 2009  Return to units index