#TBT The History of the Measuring Tape
On July 14, 1868, the design of a spring measuring tape in a circular case was patented by a man named, Alvin J. Fellows of New Haven, Connecticut. Although this was the first United States patent for a spring tape measure, Fellows’ patent was actually an improvement to an earlier design. The invention was originally patented in Sheffield, England by a man named James Chesterman in 1829.
Chesterman was in the business of making “flat wire” for the fashion industry. Dressmakers used loops of it to hold the shape of the crinoline hoop skirts that were trending at the time. A fluffed-out, layered hoop skirt could use as much as 180 feet of the wire.
Chesterman had developed a heat-treating process that made the flat wire stronger and easier to produce in continuous, unbroken lengths. But as fashion trends change, the hoop skirts were soon out of style, which left the Chesterman with a large surplus of metal tape.
Chesterman decided to put graduated marks on very long steel tapes so he could market them to surveyors as a lightweight “Steel Band Measuring Chain.” In contrast to heavy, bulky surveyors’ chains, he said that his product “has equal strength, greater correctness, is easier to clean, and to coil and uncoil, and is very much lighter and more compact.” Lightweight or not, Chesterman’s tapes had a hefty price. They sold in the United States for $17 — about $300 in today’s money.
Fellows’ improvement to it was a new way to attach the spring clip, allowing the tape to be locked in any position until the clip was released. Because it was expensive, this type of measuring tape did not immediately replace folding wooden rulers but it was the basis for the locking steel tape measures used today.