Hassler’s Foot

"It is ordained that three grains of barley, dry and round, make an inch, twelve inches make a foot, three feet make an Ulna, five and a half Ulna make a rod, and forty rods in length and four in breadth make an acre." With these words Edward I of England (reigned 1272-1307) in 1305 proclaimed what was supposed to be a standard of the realm. The good king was not the first who tried to bring order out of chaos, and if he had expected to be the last he missed his bet by five hundred years. When a new country was born in 1776 with high hopes for a new beginning the word "foot" applied to 282 different units of length worldwide.

In Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution it states that: "Congress shall have the power to…fix the standard of weights and measures;" So when you stretch out your calibrated tape, electronic or otherwise, and lay down the U.S. survey foot as our antepasados have done for more than two hundred years, you can be sure that you measure if not by an old English standard but at least by a standard picked by Congress?

You may be surprised to learn that you aren’t, because the foot of which there are 3.2808333… in a meter, and known since 1959 as the U.S. survey foot, is the private and unauthorized construction of a Swiss immigrant by the name of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler.

Hassler was born in Aarau in 1770 the son of a well to do watch maker. He studied mathematics and geodesy at the university of Bern, and practiced for a while in his native Switzerland as a geodetic surveyor. In 1805 he immigrated with his wife and children to the United States, also bringing with him scientific instruments and a library of several thousand volumes. Within two years in 1807 he was appointed acting professor of mathematics at the Military Academy at West Point, and two years later professor of mathematics at Union College.

To aid navigators and to provide scientific data for future mapping President Jefferson had proposed a survey of the Atlantic coast, which survey was authorized by Congress on February 10, 1807 and initially placed under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department. In response Hassler, who had planned the first scientific survey of his native Switzerland, submitted a proposal to the Secretary of the Treasury. At the request of the Secretary he went to London in 1811 to purchase instruments needed for starting the United States Coast Survey (later the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey). The war of 1812 intervened and Hassler got stuck in Europe. When he was finally able to return to the U.S. in 1815 he brought with him, in addition to the instruments for the Coast Survey, a brass bar 82 inches in length and subdivided into inches. It had been made by leading English instrument maker Edward Troughton (1753-1835), but had never been calibrated against the Parliamentary Yard, the English standard. In years to come Hassler would make good use of this bar.

In 1816 he was appointed superintendent of the Coast Survey but had to resign in 1818 when it was decided that only naval and military officers could be employed in the work. This led to a virtual suspension of the survey. More seriously, despite numerous requests by six presidents and repeated urging by the states Congress had failed to exercise its power under the Constitution to provide the United States with a standard unit of length (or, for that matter, any other standard of measure except coinage). This failure to act was felt especially painful in the customhouses, where each port taxed to suit their local idea of weights and measures. No two agreed, and taxes varied accordingly. Finally in 1830, reacting to mounting complaints, Congress asked the Secretary of the Treasury to investigate what was going on in the customs houses. As part of the investigation Hassler, who spent the 1820s farming in New York State, was appointed by President Jackson superintendent of Weights and Measures.

In 1832 Hassler was reappointed superintendent of the Coast Survey, a position he held until his death in 1843. During the intervening years he had witnessed political game playing that resulted in shuffling the Coast Survey back and forth several times between the Treasury and the Navy, with very little practical surveying being accomplished. Also, apparently Congress failed to understand that in order to accurately survey one must have a well-defined standard of length.

To proceed with the survey Hassler could not and would not wait for Congress to stir itself to action. On his own initiative and without legal authority to do so, he set up shop in a nearby arsenal and dusted off his Troughton bar. He proceeded to measure carefully the intervals between the inch marks and compared them with each other. After many measurements he chose the interval between inch marks 27 and 63 as his (and our) standard of length. To make his new official standard more difficult to repeal he immediately manufactured copies of his bar and distributed two of each to state governments, where they were eagerly received and put to use. Hassler knew that the Troughton bar had never been compared with the English standard and he had intended to do so and perhaps make necessary corrections, but before this could be done the Parliamentary Yard was destroyed by fire, Great Britain had produced a new and different standard and the issue became moot.

If the legislators knew of Hassler’s activities or understood them, they did not interfere, yet in 1836 Congress passed a curious resolution. It directed the Secretary of the Treasury to supply the states with sets of standard weights and measures. What standards? There weren’t any except what Hassler had made and had already distributed on his own initiative (he had also manufactured standard weights, but that is another story). And so, by default, the Hassler foot became the standard of the country. Only in 1901, 125 years after the founding of the Republic, did Congress get around to establishing a National Bureau of Standards.

In 1866 Congress defined Hassler’s foot in terms of the international meter (1 meter = 37.39 inches exactly), the first time that this body legally adopted a standard of length. Only in 1959 was a new foot-meter relationship agreed upon: 1 foot = 0.3048 meters exactly, making it two parts in a million shorter than Hassler’s foot. This let to legislation by the states adopting one or the other for surveying purposes, New Mexico holding to the old definition. For most surveys it does not matter but do we really need two different standards?

Perhaps it would be less confusing if we were to rename the U.S. survey foot after the man who initially defined it: Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
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