Development of the Pocket Tape Measure

Pocket tape measures are found in many homes yet are a fairly recent development.


| August 2016



Antique Tape Measure

The Farrand tape measure, with a concave-convex blade, was first manufactured in 1926. Note the curve in the partially extended blade.

Photo by George Wanamaker

Hammer, level, screwdriver, pliers and tape measure: Hand tools remain as essential on the farm today as they have been for decades. As much as farming has changed in the last 150 years, the use of these tools has not.

Tape measures have been used to measure land for fields, pens and lots; lay out structures kinds; measure construction materials, depth of post holes and length and diameter of bolts and rods. They’ve even been used to measure the girth of livestock to determine live weight.

Fairly Recent Development

Despite widespread use, the tape measure is a relatively new tool. It was unheard of before the 1830s. The first written mention of a cased tape measure was in 1838, in England when one Charles White was sentenced to the penal colony in Australia for the theft of a measuring tape wound in a metal case. 

Ancient Romans measured with a marked strip of leather. But when we think of a tape measure today, we think of a metal or cloth ribbon marked in increments — inches and feet or metric centimeters and meters — wound up in its own storage case. To measure, the tape is pulled out of the case. A spring or a hand crank rolls the tape back into the case, ready for the next use. What we know as a tape measure today — case, metal or cloth tape, and spring or crank return — was invented between 1830 and 1880.

Two types of tape measures were produced: long measures and pocket measures. Long tape measures were divided into two types. Tape measures of 25, 50, 75 or 100 feet in length were referred to as engineer’s tape measures, used in building bridges, dams and buildings. Tape measures of 16-1/2, 33 and 66 feet in length were known as surveyor’s tape measures and were used in land measurement. The rod, 16-1/2 feet in length, was used in measuring land. Thus, 16-1/2 feet, or increments of that number, set the length of the surveyor’s tape. 

Product Launched by a Surveyor

The inventor of the first successful cased, long tape measure in the U.S. was William H. Paine, a Sheboygan, Wisconsin, surveyor. In 1860, he was granted the first two patents for tape measures. The first (patent no. 29,096) covered the case; the second (patent no. 29,504) covered the measuring tape. These tapes were manufactured by George M. Eddy Co., Brooklyn, New York, and were made in both surveyor and engineer lengths.