It’s all in how you measure it [UPDATED]Published 10:24am Thursday, April 4, 2013 Updated 12:27pm Thursday, April 4, 2013
For some reason, my memories of my father, who was a farmer his whole life, saying that fence is 40 rods long popped into my consciousness lately. Other than that it was a unit of measurement, I never had a clue what he was talking about.
It turns out that the rod as a unit was abandoned in and about the time that country schools were discontinued. Hence our general lack of knowledge regarding it. Perhaps units of measurement and where they came from aren’t of interest to you; in that case, you’ve been warned.
Let’s start with the mile, which, in Roman empire days, was the distance which centurions (elite soldiers) precisely covered in 1,000 paces, each pace, two steps, being exactly five feet; hence, 5,000 feet per mile. This held up to around the year 1,000 in Europe, at which point a mile was changed to 5,280 feet, for reasons soon to come.
The inch was, for that first 1,000 years or so, based on a couple of different things: One, it was the distance of three barley grains laid end-to-end; Or two, it was the breadth, width of a man’s thumb. The foot came for obvious reasons a man’s foot. These measurements were all over the place, up to about the year 1,200, when France and England began to attach fixed distances to them.
Here’s a unit we no longer use, the furlong unless you’re in horse racing. It came from two words: Furrow, and long, and is historically of interest here as we work our way through this. It originally referred to the length of the furrow in one acre. Early medieval communal fields were divided into long strips, due to the fact that turning a team of oxen pulling a plow was extremely difficult. It also had to do with the fact that oxen got tired in about that distance, and needed a break. An acre became one furlong long, this is important–, and one chain wide, and speculation has it, about all one family could farm.
When England established the foot’s final length, one furlong and one chain gave way to 40 rods and 4 rods. Where the rod’s actual length came from isn’t clear, and like other measurements, for years it was all over the place. It became sixteen and one-half units before feet were even standardized as units. For example, one guy whose opinion counted, for whatever reason took 16 adults as they left church one day and measured the average of their feet as that areas standard rod.
Other literature suggests that it may well have been the length of the stick with which farmers tried to steer their oxen. Yet another source says that that length was about the longest stick which could be found to be straight for that length. Whatever. It became, around the year 1,200, set as 16.5 feet.
Now, however, with the English mile (from Anglo-Saxon precedent) established and accepted by custom as 8 of the furlongs, the 5,000-ft mile didn’t work out, because it wasn’t evenly divisible by the rod’s 16.5 feet, so an order of the King made the new mile 5,280 feet. (16.5 ft. per rod x 40 rods per furlong x 8 furlongs per mile =5,280)
Back to the rod. (How my dad kept this straight suggests that country school was a lot tougher than we thought.) A furlong — 40 rods long —and this long strip, which was 4 rods wide, became known as an acre. Forty rods, or 660 feet, times 4 rods, or 66 feet, equals 43,560 square feet. No matter now the shape of an acre, long and skinny, or short and wide, 43,560 square feet is now an acre.
We skipped chain up above. A chain is 4 rods long, or 66 feet. Surveyors used to use the chain, but for how long, I don’t know.
So. Divide 5,280 by 16.5 and you get 320 rods in a mile. It all comes out even now. There are 640 acres in a square mile, which is called a section. In case you’re curious which you must be to have gotten this far — a township is 36 sections, 6 miles by 6 miles.
Out here in the country, one of my tax statements says: W1/2 of NW1/4 of SE1/4. Beginning at the right side of this equation, º of 640 acres = 160 acres. º of that = 40 acres. And of 40 = 20 acres. The west, northwest, and southeast are easy. The final fence? 80 rods by 40 rods. Now, you do the math.
That fence is 40 rods long, dad used to say, looking out at it. (He knew it was 20 acres.)
I’m still confused.
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