Smithsonian - National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Physical Sciences Collection - Surveying and Geodesy

Browse Makers | Browse Instruments | Index

Browse by Instrument

Altitude and Azimuth Instrument
Chain, Tape and Base Bar
Compass, Pocket
Compass, Railroad
Compass, Solar
Compass, Surveyor's
Cross, Surveyor's
Electromagnetic Distance Measurement (EDM)
Holland Circle
Range Finder
Repeating Circle
Transit and Equal Altitude
Transit, Geodetic
Universal Instrument
Vertical Circle
Zenith Telescope


Chain, Tape, and Base Bar

Chains and tapes have been used to measure horizontal distances since the early 17th century, if not before. In England in 1616, Aaron Rathborne mentioned "the making and use of the Decimal Chayne, used only by myself." This chain had ten links and measured 1 pole (16.5 feet) overall. In 1620, Edmund Gunter introduced a chain with 100 links that measured 66 feet (4 poles) overall. For convenience, surveyors sometimes used a Gunter’s chain with only 50 links, that measured 33 feet (2 poles) overall. In 1664, Vincent Wing introduced a chain with 80 links, that measured 66 feet overall; shorter versions with only 40 links were also known; in the late 19th century, a Wing chain was sometimes known as a Pennsylvania chain. An engineer’s chain has 50 or 100 links, and measures 50 or 100 feet overall; this form came into use in the 19th century. A vara chain has 50 or 100 links, and measures 10 or 20 varas. A metric chain has 50 or 100 links, and measures 10 or 20 meters.

James Chesterman of Sheffield, England, patented a cloth tape reinforced with fine wire in 1843. He began making steel tapes in 1853. Tapes of steel alloys with a very low coefficients of expansion were introduced around the turn of the century.

Base bars were used for precise geodetic work.

Ref: David Krehbiel, "Chain, Surveyor’s" in Robert Bud and Deborah Warner, eds., Instruments of Science (New York and London, 1998), pp. 97–98.


Chain (engineer)
Chain (Grumman)
Chain (Gunter)
Chain (metric)
Chain (vara)
Chain (Wing)
Tape (Chesterman)
Tape (Lingke)
Tape (metric)
Tape (Paine)