The Logic of the Mile

Ever wonder why it is that a mile is 5,280 feet?  Given the entire world has gone metric, using an awkward measure like the mile seems out of place.  The truth behind the system that Americans get harangued over is actually founded in some very solid and reasonable logic.  And in England.

Originally, the measurements for anything you did were eyeballed.  You would measure an object with the only thing you had: your own body and whatever you could grab that seemed to hold a similar size at all times.  Because of that, Egyptians were known to use the “cubit” (distance from elbow to the end of the arm) to measure things because everybody had a relatively similar cubit to use.  The English took that idea and drew it out to a massive system where things could be measured in nails, digits, palms, hands, links, spans, lines and of course, inches.  The great thing is that old English measurements of an inch considered it to be “equal to the length of three barleycorn”.  How large was a barleycorn?  Why, exactly the length of 4 Poppyseeds.  The barleycorn and poppyseed were used as the very base line of measurement in the English unit, meaning a man with a muffin could measure the world.  Around 1150, King David I of Scotland declared an inch to be the breadth of a man’s thumb from the base of the nail.  Accounting for the differences of sizes, he took the measurements of a large man’s thumb, a small man’s thumb and a medium man’s thumb and averaged them.  Another legend was that Henry I declared that the yard was equal to the length from his nose to his thumb around that same time.  It wasn’t until the 1300s that the inch was “standardized” to be the size of three average grains of barley stacked lengthwise under the reign of Edward II.  Even with the added standardization, the English measurement system was in shambles.  The rod (5.5 yards) was the length of “the left feet of sixteen men standing  heel to toe while entering the church” while the yard was the distance around a man’s waist (because Saxon kings of yore wore belts that could be used to measure things, leading to the yard being named after “gird” or the Saxon word for the circumference of a man’s waist).

When Roman measurements began to intrude on the English system, action was taken to ease the usage.  The Roman mile was equal to 1,000 paces done by a soldier, and each pace was equal to two steps, so roughly equated to 5 feet.  In the 1500s, Elizabeth I declared that a mile be equal to 8 furlong to ease the distribution of land and acreage measurements.  In an agrarian society, the furlong was an essential measurement; it was the length of a furrow in a field that oxen plowed, roughly 40 rods, or 220 yards.  Acres were a furlong by a chain in length and width, if that helps with the visual.  While the Roman mile was 5,000 feet in length, the new English mile was 8 furlongs, or 5,280 feet.  The mile was extended to simplify the acre measurements in England to better fit the size of fields.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that the English actually took on the metric system.  They were using their system of barleycorn and churchgoers for much longer than Americans have been.  Keep that in mind the next time anybody bothers you for counting things in miles or inches.  Like most things in history these days, it’s the British’s fault.  Also, just as food for thought, your US and UK shoe sizes are in barleycorn; each size up is roughly 1/3 of an inch, meaning even in this the 21st century, we still measure things by grains of food.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, at the very least you now know how tall you are in poppyseeds.

Citations, a list at least 14 barleycorn long:


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