Dutch Feet Contained 11 Inches. Chaos Ensued
The foot, says the old legend, is a unit of measurement based on length of the king's foot—meaning, his body part, the thing with the toes. Courtiers would regularly measure the foot of King Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, and all of England would have to use that length when planning out buildings or cutting up bolts of cloth. The problem was that Henry was ticklish, and he secretly suspected some of these courtiers were a little too into his feet, so he ordered that the country standardize exactly what a "foot" meant and leave him out of it.
That legend isn't true. For thousands of years, however, people worldwide did use a unit called the foot that varied considerably in length, depending on whom you asked. The English foot was based on ancient Roman statues' feet (larger than actual people's feet), but different surveyors used different statues. Ancient Rome used a different unit called a foot, which was around 10 inches—except for some Romans, who used a different longer foot.
Feet pretty much always had subunits, and these too varied. They used to be called "digits," not inches, and each was roughly modeled after the width of a finger. Some cultures divided a foot into 16 digits. Some divided it into 12.
Let's jump now to 17th-century Sweden. Kind Gustavus Adolphus ordered the construction of the world's greatest warship, to aid the nation in battling those cursed Poles. The Vasa boasted hundreds of soldiers and dozens of cannons. It set sail on August 10, 1628. It made it only a hundred yards before it sank. The water was so shallow here that some of the ship still peeked above the surface afterward, giving many aboard a spot to perch on, but more than a dozen still died.
At the time, Sweden tried and failed to investigate what went wrong. Centuries later, archeologists found in the wreck two types of rulers (two types of measuring sticks, not two types of kings). The Swedish rulers split each foot into 12 inches. The Dutch rulers split each foot into 11 inches. As a result, two halves of the ship were built using different units, the whole thing wound up lopsided, and it tipped over as soon as it saw open water.
Luckily, today, the entire world uses just one unit of length, the standard foot. All countries use it, particularly all scientists. And everyone uses pounds, miles, Fahrenheit, and bushels; this is only logical.
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For more measurement woes, check out:
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