See also: Ramden’s chain and the Rathborn chain.
Various units of length used for surveying in the English-speaking world, all consisting of 100 links. The surveyor’s chain of 100 links is identified with Edmund Gunter, who introduced such a chain in 1620, although chains divided decimally had existed earlier. The convenience of this decimal division was the cause of the chain's success; among other advantages, an area 1 chain by 10 chains was an acre.
The abbreviation is “ch”.
When “Gunter's chain” is used without qualification, and always in the United States, the unit is (17ᵗʰ century – present), = 1⁄10 furlong = 4 perches= 22 yards = 66 feet = 20.1168 meters. In the United States these units are based upon the survey foot, not the international foot. A square chain = 4,356 square feet (approximately 404.686 square meters). One link = 7.92 inches, a hundredth of a chain.
The square link is a unit of area, = 62.75 square inches (404.686 square centimeters).
Knowing the negligence of surveyors in checking their chains, I borrowed one that had been tried about a year before in this office, and which had been used for that period in the service of a civil engineer. Upon trying it with my standard, I found it thirteen inches too long. The person who used it said he knew twenty other chains then in use that must be just as bad. The effect of this error would be this; if I possess a square mile of land, or 640 acres, this surveyor, with the chain in question, would report the content to be 619½ acres, so that selling my land at say 30£ an acre, I should lose 615£.
In the colonies this evil is very serious; for in setting out county and parish lines by chains of different lengths, the discordance and confusion among the details is endless, and will at some time cause dissatisfaction. In 1820, the Solicitor-General to a colony, and the agent of a nobleman who had possessions there, informed me that the discrepancies in the admeasurements were enormous.
The chain to which I have alluded was one of the best kind. The error was chiefly caused by the stretching of the wire itself, not one of the links or rings having opened; there was nothing in its appearance to indicate that it was incorrect, except that it was a little worn, and the surveyor would have continued to use it in that state as long as it would have held together. He had never been instructed that during a survey a chain should be frequently checked and adjusted by a standard.
Strange as this may appear, I believe it to be a common case. Surveyors in general have no proper standards by which to check their chains and measures; and as regards actual practice, it will be found that most measures can be traced to no better authority than to carpenters' rules, no two of which agree. The standards offered to the public are usually brass scales at the price of about eight guineas, but, owing to their delicate nature and high price, they are little used.
Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Consider the Steps to be Taken for Restoration of the Standards of Weight and Measure.
London: Printed by W. Clowes and Sons for Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1841.
Information from Samuel B. Howlett, “Chief Draftsman in the Royal Engineer Department; in Report to the Inspector General of Fortifications.”
THE CHAIN-- There are two kinds of chain in common use, the Surveyor’s (or Gunter’s) Chain, and the Engineer’s Chain. Gunter’s chain is 66 feet long, and its use is confined chiefly to land surveying on account of its simple relation to the acre and to the mile.
1 Gunter's Chain = 4 Rods = 100 Links
1 Mile = 80 Chains
1 Acre = 10 Square Chains
Evidently each link is 66/100 of a foot (or 7.92 inches) long. The inch, however, is never used in surveying fieldwork.
The engineer’s chain is 100 feet long and is divided into one hundred links of one foot each. Each end link is provided with a handle, the outside of which is the zero point, or end, of the chain. In these chains, every tenth link counting from either end is marked by a brass tag having one, two three, or four points corresponding to the number of tens which it marks. The middle of the chain is marked by a round tag. In the engineer's chain then the 10-ft. and 90-ft. points, the 20-ft. and 80-ft points, etc., are marked alike; hence it is necessary to observe on which side of the 50-ft. point a measurement falls in order to read the distance correctly. Distances measured with the surveyor’s chain are recorded as chains and links, (or in chains and decimals); while those measured with the engineer's chain are recorded as feet and decimals.
On account of the large number of wearing surfaces and the consequent lengthening with use, the chain should be frequently compared with a standard of length ... It may be adjusted to agree with the standard, by means of a nut at the handle, which allows the length of the chain to be altered by lengthening or shortening the end link.
Charles B. Breed and George L. Hosmer.
The Principles and Practice of Surveying. Vol 1. 3rd edition.
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1908.
The simplest of these [types of survey] is the "Chain Survey," but this is only suitable for moderately small areas. The chief appliances used are the chain, tape, arrows, ranging rods, offset staff, and occasionally a cross staff, optical square, box-sextant, or prismatic compass. The Chain is generally divided into 100 links, sometimes into 50— but there are several varieties and lengths in ordinary use. The links are composed of lengths of iron or steel wire, and—except at the centre of the chain, and at the 25th link from each end, where swivel joints (S, Fig. 2) are provided—these are connected at their extremities by three small oval rings, preferably welded. At every 10th link from each end of the chain a brass tag or teller is fastened to the small central connecting ring. The teller which has only one point indicates ten links from either end of the chain—i.e. the 10th or the 90th link measuring in the same direction; that with two points marks the 20th or the 80th link ; three points indicate the 30th or the 70th link; four points the 40th or the 60th link; and a circular tag the centre of the chain. The brass tellers are sometimes designed to be inserted in the length of the chain, but though less liable to catch in hedges, etc., they are perhaps hardly as distinctive as the usual type. The ends of the chain are furnished with brass handles attached by means of swivel joints, and the length of 100 links is measured from the outside of one handle to the outside of the other.
The Gunter’s chain—so named after its inventor—is generally used by the Land Surveyor. It is 66 ft. in length, each link measuring 7.92", and is very convenient when it is required to calculate areas in acres and decimals of an acre, since 10 sq. chains = 1 acre : also when linear dimensions are required in miles and furlongs, since 10 chains = 1 furlong and 80 chains =. 1 mile. When the term “chain” or “link” is used in a general sense, without reference to any particular unit of measurement, the Gunter's chain is inferred.
The Engineer's chain is 100 ft. long, each link being 1 ft. in length. It is heavier than the Gunter's chain, but being longer does not need to be laid down so frequently in the measurement of a definite distance; for this reason there is less liability to error from the inaccurate marking of the ends of the chain. Again, as the levelling staff is usually graduated in feet and decimal parts of a foot, this chain is more convenient than the 66 ft. chain when used in connection with levelling or tacheometric operations. In municipal work, too, the 100 ft. chain is employed, as, in this case, dimensions are required to be expressed in yards, feet, and inches.
Metre chains are also in use, the commonest lengths being 10, 20, and 25 metres. They are subdivided into one-fifth parts of a metre and tallied at every two metres from each end.
W. Norman Thomas.
London: Edward Arnold, 1920.
There is another measure, unknown to the law, which has set the commissioners at defiance, by the universality of its use. It has gained its footing by the conveniences which it offers, and those conveniences are a consequence of its connexion with decimal division. We refer to the chain, Gunter's chain, as it is called, used in measurement of land. It is 22 yards, the tenth part of a furlong, in length; and, as the commissioners justly remark, is, in theory, the greatest anomaly in our system. But ten square chains make an acre, and the chain is divided into one hundred links, which makes the use of it so easy, that a surveyor would look upon any attempt to alter it as an infringement of the fundamental compact. All measurements of land, and all the multifarious arrangements arising out of them, have been based upon this land chain, which is therefore unalterable. On this there is but one opinion, whether of witnesses or commissioners. They would rather give up the foot or the yard than the chain. This is not a little singular: few of our readers, perhaps, know of such a measure as a chain. If they have seen such a thing used in surveying, they have probably imagined that it merely represented a certain number of feet or yards. So if does, undoubtedly; but it is not as such that the surveyor uses it, but as a chain—a unit of measure—independent of all other measures; except the acre. On this point the commissioners have made a recommendation which somewhat surprises us. They do not, of course, recommend alteration either in the acre or the chain; but seeing that a mile expressed in yards or feet introduces inconvenient numbers (1760 and 5280), they propose to introduce, concurrently with the mile, a measure of 2000 or 1000 yards, with a name to be fixed on by act of parliament. By an enactment that roads, railways, canals, &c. shall have their distances described in thousands of yards, and by giving this measure a name, they think that the convenience of the number 1000 will "remove the temptation to use the land-chain for measures purely linear." They would propose a chain of twenty yards, distinct from the land-chain of twenty-two yards, to measure lengths which are not wanted as the data for areas. Now, before a surveyor, who likes to be cumbered with as little of apparatus as possible, provides himself with two chains, he will naturally ask how much trouble the second chain will save him. If he uses the 1and-chain, 80 make a mile; if he uses the commissioners' chain, 60 make the new measure of 1000 yards. Now which of the two will prevail? Will the second chain prevent the introduction of the thousand yards, or the introduction of the thousand yards bring in the commissioners' chain? Will the prospect of having two new things tend to facilitate the introduction of both, or to make each of service in keeping out the other? Again-even supposing that results are required by act of parliament to be in thousands of yards, which will a surveyor prefer?—to carry about a second chain for occasional use, or to make the simple conversion of chains into thousands of yards?
Augustus de Morgan.
ART. VII.-Report of the Commissioners appointed to consider the steps to be taken for Restoration of the Standards of Weight and Measure. (Presented to both Houses of Parliament, by command of Her Majesty.) Dated December 21, 1841.
[A review of the above report]
Dublin Review, vol 12, no. 24 (May 1842).
In Scotland, Gunter's chain, still of 100 links, was 4 falls long = 74 feet (= 22.5552 meters). The link was 8.88 inches.
Through a misdefining in the mathematical literature of the Scots ell and consequently of the fall, beginning with Colin McLaurin’s comments in an edition of 1745 of David Gregory’s Treatise of Practical Geometry, the Scots chain came to be described in print as 74.4 feet long. It is not known if this length was actually used by surveyors. The matter is discussed in Connor and Simpson.
In Ireland, a link of Gunter’s chain, again of 100 links, was 10.08 inches. This value adapted it to the Irish acre.
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Last revised: 8 February 2017.