by Henry Aldinger
Rule collecting is a very interesting and satisfying part of tool collecting. Every craft and profession used and uses rules and measures of some sort. Many were very specialized and are the most fun to find.
Modern day standards are the result of hundreds of years of use of widely varying measures. Standards varied from country to country, state to state and even between cities. These conditions prevailed into the latter half of the 19th century.
Ancient measures found in scripture were:
These designations of measure were also used by the Hebrews, Egyptians and Greeks. The Greeks also used a foot. The Romans too, used a foot. It was composed of 12 inches, each of .967" English Measure, for a total of 11.604". The length of the inch varied greatly. It has often been said that the length of the inch was the length of the first joint of the thumb of the person in power at the time.
The modern system of English Measure derives from the 14th century. King Edward I, decreed that an inch would be the length of three barleycorns, plump and dry, laid end to end. The barleycorn was divided by four, for a total of 12 lines per inch. This division of the inch and designation of a line was used in both England and France. The line was sometimes divided by six and designated a point. These lines should not be confused with button lines which are 40 to the inch. Buttons were only made in even sizes though. Why not just 20 lines per inch?
The scientific community was the first to divide the inch by 10 and 100. At about this same time the trades started dividing the inch by eights and sixteenths. By the beginning of the 19th century, the line was about obsolete. However the 12th of an inch remained as a supplemental division on many rules and squares well into modern times.
The barleycorn was used for show sizes into the last quarter of the 19th century. If you have an old shoe stick, No.1 is 4 1/8" and each succeeding size is 1/3", or one barleycorn more.
The next longer measure was the yard or three feet. As the yard began to supplement the ell for cloth measure, the reverse side was divided 1/16, 1/8 and quarters.
The ell, or cloth measure was:
Each quarter of course, is 9", and an ell is 45". The number of quarters in an ell varied, from country to country. From 2 1/2 quarters Hamburg to 6 quarters French. The common use of the ell died out in the 19th century.
The U.S. was first authorized to use the metric system by act of Congress on July 28, 1866. We would probably be enjoying a much better position in wordly trade if we had done so at that time. Rule collecting would not be near as much fun though.. Metric rules are a sterile lot. All clones.
Materials for rules varied, considering cost and use. Top of the line was Ivory, followed by boxwood, which was the nearest to an ideal wood for rules. Satinwood was used for No 2 for smaller rules and for No 1 for larger pieces such as gauging rods etc. Maple was used as a substitute for all rules. Hickory was used almost exclusively for lumbering rules as it would with stand the rough usage that this industry demanded. Brass was widely used for precision rules and instruments, with nickel silver as a premium material. Steel of course was and still is the choice of the machinist.
Almost every country, even states and cities at one time or another had their own measures. However most are now quite rare. Probably due to most proclamations of new standards containing an order that all old measures be destroyed, with a penalty for continued use.
From the two foot rule to the ten foot pole of the carpenter, the pin wheel log caliper of the East, to the long log stick of the West, the stenographer's rule, the saddler's rule, the plotting scale to the surveyor's chain, the variety is seemingly endless.
Have fun, by Henry Aldinger