Measuring Instruments & The Weird World Of Measurement

If you thought measurement and measuring instruments were rather lackluster topics, we implore you to think again. The world of measurement has been anything but dull through the centuries, and there are some interesting facts about measurement that might make you appreciate all the work that goes into creating a simple tool such as a ruler.

1. A Huge Measurement Shift Has Begun

The science of measurement is known as metrology, and while you might have thought something so quantified and mathematical would be an exact science, measurement units actually change from time to time.

In 2018, for instance, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, updated the definition of one kilogram. You see, way back in 1889, a cylinder of platinum known as Le Grand K was created and used as the basis for the weight of the kilogram. So the kilogram was what is known as an object-based standard of measurement.

This cylinder actually is kept under lock and key in France. But, while well protected, this cylinder has lost tiny amounts of mass over the years, and if Le Grand K is the standard for the kilogram, this means that the standard has altered.

Rather than use Le Grand K, or another object that might lose particles or mass, the scientists at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures decided to use a physical constant to define the kilogram. A physical constant is basically something with a universal value that is unchanged over time. Metrologists used Planck’s constant to redefine the measurement of one kilogram.

Believe or not, a group of 60 individuals (from countries across the globe) had to come together and vote in order to approve this change. It might not seem like a huge change, but moving away from object-based measurement to constant-based measurement has been talked about for more than a century, and it wasn’t until last year that the world made the bold move forward with constant-based measurements.

What’s changing next? Well, we are glad you asked. Scientists now are hard at work, redefining units of measurement such as Kelvin, Ampere, Candela and, gasp, the Second. If you love measurement, this is truly an exciting time to be alive.

2. The Ancient Tools Lacked Precision, But Not As Much As You Might Think

The need for standards of measurement dates back to ancient times. After all, if you needed to survey a property, create bricks to build a home, or perhaps weigh a food item, it was crucial to have some sort of standard in place.

These days, of course, we have extremely precise global measurement standards. Without these exacting standards, a kilogram in India could differ from a kilogram in Canada or a meter in Madagascar could differ from a meter in Peru. But even early people in Greece, India and China developed measurement standards and measuring instruments that were fairly precise given their scientific limitations.

For instance, in Ancient Rome, a foot was equal to the size of an average man’s foot, and the standard was very close to the standard of 12 inches that we use today. Roman statuary often features men with feet that equaled (or came very close to) the length of the standard Roman foot measurement.

3. Forget The Boring Inch, Foot & Centimeter

Seriously, the inch is downright dull when compared to some of the more unique units of measurement. For instance, did you know that there is a unit of measurement to describe each step of a nuclear chain reaction?

While it’s not technically an official unit of measurement, physicists do use this term and it’s called a shake, and it’s equal to about 10 nanoseconds. What’s most amusing about the term “shake” is that it literally comes from the expression “two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” Those scientists working on the Manhattan Project apparently had a sense of humor.

Additionally, we know that you’ve probably heard someone state that they’ll be “back in a jiffy.” This is another term that actually is used as a unit of measurement. Within the science of physics, a jiffy refers to the time it takes light to travel just one centimeter. Jiffy also is used as a unit of measurement in computer science and electronics.

Then, of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the smoot. This unit was named in honor of Oliver Smoot, a former chairman of the American National Standards Institute. You probably did not know that the Harvard Bridge that links Boston to Cambridge measures 364.4 smoots.

This was based on the height of Oliver Smoot way back in 1958. Smoot was then a student at MIT, and the shortest member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity so for some reason they decide to use his height to measure the length of the bridge. So the next time you meet someone who is 5 feet, 7 inches in height, you can tell them that they are equal to precisely one smoot.

And Now Back To Measuring Instruments . . .

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with our selection of quality measuring instruments. Well, to be fair, not a whole lot, but as alignment experts and manufacturers of precision tools, we have a deep love for metrology in all its forms, whether it be the new kilogram or the smoot. At Warren Knight, we sell a myriad of high-quality precise measuring instruments, including clinometers, theodolites, three-arm protractors, surveyor’s compasses, alignment telescopes, collimators and much more. If you don’t see precisely what you need, we may be able to provide you with a custom design, so give us a call or shoot us an email at any time.

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