Unusual Units of Measurement

Unusual Units of Measurement

As early as kindergarten, we are taught to measure things here in the U.S. using inches, feet, and centimeters. Later we are taught that volume is measured in cubic meters (m^3), and that time is measured in hours or minutes in a day.

Have you heard that there’s such thing as a measurement of “cow’s grass”? Or how about a “shake” of time? Discover some unusual measurements of length, area, volume, and time below!




A diagram measuring the distance between earth and a                                           nearby star.

The siriometer is a rarely used astronomical measurement. It is equivalent to 1 million astronomical units — which is equivalent to 1 million times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. This distance measures to about 15.8 light years, or 4.8 parsecs, and is roughly twice the distance from Earth to the star Sirius.


A smiling horse.

Horses are used to measure distances in horse racing. A “horse” length is equivalent to 8 feet (or 2.4 meters). When measuring shorter distancing, they are measured in fractions of “horses”, and other common measurements are that of a full or fraction of a “head”, “neck”, or a “nose”.



Cow’s grass
A lovely cow in a luscious, green field.
Before the 19th century in Ireland, a “cow’s grass” was a measurement used by farmers to specify the size of their fields. It was equivalent to the amount of land that contains enough grass for a cow to sustainably munch on.


A red barn.

No, not that kind of barn! One barn is equivalent to 10−28 square meters, which is roughly the size of the cross-sectional area of a uranium nucleus; definitely much smaller than a barn pictured above. The name “barn” for this measurement likely comes from early neutron-deflection experiments, when the uranium nucleus was described as being “big as a barn” and the phrase “hit a barn door” were used. Barn measurements are typically used for cross sections in particle and nuclear physics.



Cord and rick
A cord of wood.

The cord is a unit of measurement used in the US and Canada for dry volume to measure things such as pulpwood and firewood. A cord is equivalent to such an amount of wood that when the arranged to be aligned, parallel, and touching and compact, has a volume of 128 cubic feet. Correspondingly, this yields a well-stacked woodpile that is 4 feet deep by 4 feet high by 8 feet wide. A “rick” is an even more unusual measurement for firewood, and it is stacked 16 inches deep by 4 feet high by 8 feet wide — which is typically 1/3 of a cord.



A delicious-looking                shake!

Wait, not that kind of shake! In term of measurements, the shake is used in astrophysics and nuclear engineering. It is defined as 10 nanoseconds. Call that a shake in time!


Mmmm, peanut butter..

Sorry, we are not talking about peanut butter in this case! The “jiffy” is used in computing, and is the duration of one tick of the system timer interrupt. This is usually equivalent to 0.01 seconds.


I hope you enjoyed learning about those abnormal units of measurement. There are plenty others that are used, such as dog years! Hmmm.. Which makes me wonder, is there such thing as cat years?




Devi is an undergraduate at Georgia Tech studying computer science. In her free time, she enjoys jogging, cooking and baking new things, jamming to vinyls and music, and gazing at the stars. Devi also loves cats!! (meow)