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US to Drop Old Definition of Foot Measurement

2019-12-28

The U.S. government plans to drop a very old way of measuring a foot over large distances.

Land surveyors in the United States currently have two choices for measuring the 12-inch measurement known as a foot. Some use what is known as the U.S. survey foot. Others use a more widely accepted definition of the measurement, known as the international foot.

Philip N. Brooks, right, a New York State surveyor, takes a look through his transit on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation near Niagara Falls, N.Y., while Tuscarora Chief Elton Black Cloud Greene looks back at him, April 18, 1958. (AP Photo)
Philip N. Brooks, right, a New York State surveyor, takes a look through his transit on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation near Niagara Falls, N.Y., while Tuscarora Chief Elton Black Cloud Greene looks back at him, April 18, 1958. (AP Photo)

The international foot measurements are based on the meter. The U.S. survey foot is a bit longer, about 0.01 foot per mile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, reports on its website.

The difference is so small that it cannot be seen by looking at a traditional 12-inch ruler. But when measuring large distances, that small amount matters. It sometimes leads to errors and misunderstandings.

The U.S. government officially accepted the international foot as the nationwide standard in 1959. But it permitted surveyors to keep the old U.S. survey foot in a decision that was meant to be temporary.

Today, surveyors in 40 American states and territories still use the larger U.S. foot. But the government says it will officially cancel the survey foot in 2022 and replace it with the international foot.

NOAA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology announced the change earlier this year.

Michael Dennis is a project manager for NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey. The agency studies geodesy, a science that seeks to measure the size and shape of the earth and identify exact positions on its surface.

Dennis told The Associated Press that the two standards have caused “chaos” for surveying and mapping operations.

He said the difference in foot measurements caused problems during planning for a high-speed rail project in California. It also created difficulties for a major bridge project linking Oregon, which uses the international foot, to Washington, which uses the U.S. one, Dennis added.

Dennis also gave an example that he heard about a state airport project. He said there were misunderstandings between the builders and planners of the project because they were in two states that used different foot standards. The problems led to building delays, extra costs and the redesign of one building to be one floor shorter, Dennis added.

“It’s embarrassing that we even had this going on for 60 years,” he said.

Still, Dennis admits that some surveyors might find it hard to accept the international foot after so many years. The U.S. foot “sounds very patriotic, very American,” Dennis said in an internet video presentation explaining the change.

However, he said he thinks it makes sense for people in the United States to be using the same measuring standard as the rest of the world.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported on this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

surveyor n. someone who measures and records details about an area of land

standard n. an idea or thing used as a measure, norm or model for comparative purposes

chaos n. a situation in which there is no order

embarrass v. make someone feel ashamed or shy

patriotic adj. showing love and pride in one’s country