[NTG-context] OT world history: other measuring systems?

Aditya Mahajan adityam at umich.edu
Tue Jan 25 18:27:38 CET 2022


On Tue, 25 Jan 2022, Henning Hraban Ramm via ntg-context wrote:

> Hi all,
> just out of curiosity and since some of you are knowledgable in many 
> fields: Were there widely accepted measuring systems in Asia before the 
> introduction of the imperial or metric system? In Europe there was a 
> mess of local miles, feet, cubits, inches etc.; why didn’t "we" stick to 
> the Roman system?

All you need to do is look at the definitions of roman imperial units to understand why we didn't stick to that:

An inch was the width of the base of the thumb, a foot, well length of a foot, a fathom was the width of outstretched arms, yard was the length of the man's belt, mile was 1000 paces of marching roman soldiers, and so on. 

In India, from what I am aware, the pre-imperial units of measurements had similar origins as imperial. Length was based on width of fingers, cubit (also used in other civilizations of the time), person-height and so on. As with the imperial units, these definitions were not uniform and went through a uniformization process in the middle ages. However, India moved to imperial units with colonization, and adopted metric system after Independence. 

Some of the units, particularly for measurement of land area, are still in use as they are effectively codified in the land records. Wikipedia has some summary of the ancient and medieval systems in India.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_units_of_measurement

But it got more complicated than that (particularly for time). See, for example:
https://sites.google.com/site/mathematicsmiscellany/time-measurement-in-ancient-india

There is also this fascinating book which covers the non-European history of mathematics (a lot of which in ancient times was to do with units and measurements but more importantly, calculations):

https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691135267/the-crest-of-the-peacock

Aditya


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