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What Is a Foot?

Learn why we use feet to measure length and more!

Why do we use inches and feet to measure length and distance? Why don’t we use the metric system? It’s a lot to unpack, but stick around and we will do the best we can to answer all your measurement questions.

What is a foot?kid

A foot is a unit of measurement in the United States’ customary units system (USCS) of measurement. Beyond that, it is defined as .3046 meters. A foot is also 12 inches. Or 16 digits. Is this making sense? So far we’ve talked about a foot in relation to the metric system. Or the obvious 12 inches and the obscure 16 digits. None of those explain much do they? No.

A foot started out as the measurement of a person’s foot. Going all the way back to the Greeks, people would simply walk out a distance placing heel to toe. Throughout time different kings changed the accepted size of a foot to match the size of their own foot.

An inch?

An inch might seem simple. It is one-twelfth of a foot. Well, it is now. But at one point it was the width of a thumb or three barleycorns. It was later changed to a set size since barleycorns and thumbs aren’t all the same.

If you’re confused, stay with us. A foot is .3046 of a meter. An inch is 25.4 millimeters. But all of this is based on the meter. So what is a meter?

A meter!

The meter is the base of the metric system. So why is it used to define a foot or an inch? The metric system was developed in France during the French Revolution. They took the opportunity to reform all the measurements into a simplified, logical system.

Everything in the metric system is base 10. A meter is one. Break that down to decimeters and you have ten of those to one meter. Break down a decimeter into ten centimeters. So a meter is 100 centimeters. Each unit is ten of the previous unit. The scale goes up too, so ten meters is a decameter, ten decameters is one hectometer, and ten hectometers is a kilometer, or 1,000 meters.

Metric is so precise and easy to translate that every country on Earth has adopted it. Well, all but the United States, (except in our science and large soft drink bottle sizes).


Part of the reason the metric system makes sense quickly is that it matches with how we think of money. Standard foot and inch measurements are based on fractions. The metric system is based on decimals, just like money. So $10.50 makes sense just like 10 meters 50 centimeters makes sense.

Measurements don’t always make sense. But when you know which one to use at the right time, you can make quick work of the job at hand.

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