Chain (unit)

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   imperial/US units    22 yd
   metric (SI) units    20.1168 m

A chain is a unit of length. It measures 66 feet, or 22 yards, or 100 links,[1] or 4 rods (20.1168 m). There are 10 chains in a furlong, and 80 chains in one statute mile. An acre is the area of 10 square chains (that is, an area of one chain by one furlong). The chain has been used for several centuries in Britain and in some other countries influenced by British practice.

By extension, chainage (running distance) is the distance along a curved or straight survey line from a fixed commencing point, as given by an odometer.


The chain was commonly used with the mile to indicate land distances and in particular in surveying land for legal and commercial purposes. Starting in the 19th century, the chain was used as a subdivision with the mile to show distances between railway stations, tunnels and bridges. In medieval times, local measures were commonly used, and many units were adopted that gave manageable units; for example the distance from London to York could be quoted in inches, but the resulting huge number would be unmemorable. The locally used units were often inconsistent from place to place.

In countries influenced by English practice, land plans prepared before about 1960 associated with the sale of land usually have lengths marked in chains and links, and the areas of land parcels are indicated in acres. A rectangle of land one furlong in length and one chain in width has an area of one acre.


In 1620, the clergyman Edmund Gunter developed a method of surveying land accurately with low technology equipment, using what became known as Gunter's chain; this was 66 feet long and from the practice of using his chain, the word transferred to the actual measured unit. His chain had 100 links, and the link is used as a subdivision of the chain as a unit of length.

Ramsden's chain[edit]

American surveyors sometimes used a longer chain of 100 feet (30.48 m), also of 100 links, known as the engineer's chain or Ramsden's chain.[2] The first such was constructed by Jesse Ramsden for the measurement of the Hounslow baseline at the start of the Anglo-French Survey (1784–1790). The term chain in this case usually refers to the measuring instrument rather than a unit of length; the distances measured with such an instrument are normally measured in feet (and usually decimal fractions of a foot, not inches).

Other instruments[edit]

Also in North America a modern variant of the chain as a tool is used in forestry for traverse surveys. This modern chain is a static cord (thin rope), 50 metres long, marked with a small tag at each metre, and also marked in the first metre every decimetre. When working in dense bush, a short axe or hatchet is commonly tied to the end of the chain, and thrown through the bush in the direction of the traverse, to ease working in dense forest.

Another version used extensively in forestry and surveying is the hip-chain. A hip-chain is a small box containing a string meter, worn on the hip. The user simply ties the spooled string off to a stake or tree and the meter counts distance as the user walks away in a straight line. These instruments are available in both feet and meters.

Contemporary use[edit]

Location designator painted on a British railway bridge, showing 112 miles and 63 chains; photograph taken August 2007

In Britain, the chain is no longer used for practical survey work.[3] However it survives on the railways of the United Kingdom as a location identifier. When railways were designed, the location of features such as bridges and stations was indicated by a cumulative longitudinal "mileage", using miles and chains, from a zero point at the origin or headquarters of the railway, or the originating junction of a new branch line. Since railways are entirely linear in topology, the "mileage" or "chainage" is sufficient to identify a place uniquely on any given route. Thus a certain bridge location may be indicated as 112 miles and 63 chains (181.51 km) from the origin. In the case of the photograph the bridge is near Keynsham, that distance from London Paddington station. The indication "MLN" after the mileage is the engineers' line reference describing the route as the Great Western Main Line, so that visiting engineers can uniquely describe the bridge they are inspecting, as there may be bridges at 112 miles 63 chains on other routes.

On new railway lines built in the United Kingdom such as High Speed 1, the position along the alignment is still referred as a "chainage" although the value is now defined in metres.[4]

The chain is no longer taught in British schools, but has survived for these reasons:

  • Railways need to keep permanent records of as-built drawings of structures, and of the topography of routes and junctions;
  • Chains and links are in many survey and real estate records;
  • Miles and chains remain values familiar to many people.

Cricket pitches[edit]

The chain also survives as the length of a cricket pitch, being the distance between the stumps.

Texas chain[edit]

In Texas and elsewhere in the Southwestern United States, the vara chain of 20 varas (16.93 m, or 55 12 ft) was used in surveying Spanish land grants.

Australian and New Zealand use[edit]

In Australia and New Zealand, most building lots in the past were a quarter of an acre, measuring one chain by two and a half chains, and other lots would be multiples or fractions of a chain.[5] The street frontages of many houses in these countries are one chain wide—roads were almost always 1 chain (20.1 m) wide in urban areas,[5] sometimes 1.5 chains (30.2 m) or 2.5 chains (50.3 m). Laneways would be half a chain (10.1 m). In rural areas the roads were wider, up to 10 chains (201.2 m) where a stock route was required. 5 chains (100.6 m) roads were surveyed as major roads or highways between larger towns, 3 chains (60.4 m) roads between smaller localities,[6] and 2 chains (40.2 m) roads were local roads in farming communities. Roads named Three Chain Road etc. persist today. An acre is nominally the area within a rectangle 1 chain by 10 chains.

The "Queen's Chain" is a concept that has long existed in New Zealand, of a strip of public land, usually 20 metres (or one chain in pre-metric measure) wide from the high water mark, that has been set aside for public use along the coast, around many lakes, and along all or part of many rivers.[7][8] These strips exist in various forms (including road reserves, esplanade reserves, esplanade strips, marginal strips and reserves of various types) but not as extensively and consistently as is often assumed.[9]

North America[edit]

In North America the chain is still used in agriculture: measuring wheels with a circumference of 0.1 chain (diameter ≈ 2.1 ft or 64 cm) are still common and readily available in the United States and Canada. For a rectangular tract, multiplying the number of turns of one of these wheels for each of two adjacent sides and dividing by 1000 gives the area in acres.

Also in the United States the chain is normally used as the measure of the rate of spread of wildfires (chains per hour), both in the predictive National Fire Danger Rating System as well as in after-action reports. The term chain is used by wildland firefighters in day-to-day operations as a unit of distance.[10] Under the U.S. Public Land Survey System, parcels of land are often described in terms of the section (640 acres or 259 hectares), quarter-section (160 acres or 64.7 hectares), and quarter-quarter-section (40 acres or 16.19 hectares). Respectively, these square divisions of land are approximately 80 chains (one mile or 1.6 km), 40 chains (half a mile or 800 m), and 20 chains (a quarter mile or 400 m) on a side. The use of chains and links is also commonly encountered in older metes and bounds legal descriptions.

The use of the chain was once very common in laying out townships and mapping the U.S. along the train routes in the 19th century. In the U.S. a federal law was passed in 1785 (the Public Land Survey Ordinance) that all official government surveys must be done with a Gunter's chain, also referred to as the "surveyor's chain". Distances on township plat maps made by the U.S. General Land Office are shown in chains. In Canada, road allowances were originally 1 chain wide and are now 20 metres.[11]

Railroads in the United States have long since used decimal fractions of a mile, though some operations such as the New York City Subway and the Washington Metro continue to use a chaining system using the 100-foot engineer's chain.


  1. ^ The Cassell English Dictionary, London 1990, p. 214, ISBN 0-304-34003-0
  2. ^ Picture of Ramsden's chain
  3. ^ Plane and Geodetic Surveying, A.L. Johnson (SPON)
  4. ^ HS2 proposed alignment with chainages expressed in metres
  5. ^ a b George Seddon (28 September 1998). Landprints: Reflections on Place and Landscape. Cambridge University Press. pp. 151–. ISBN 978-0-521-65999-4. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 
  6. ^ Lay, M. G. (July 2008). "Roads". emelbourne the city past and present. School of Historical Studies Department of History, The University of Melbourne. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 
  7. ^ "Queen's Chain". Oxford Dictionaries – Retrieved 4 July 2017. 
  8. ^ "Truth behind the Queen's Chain". NZ Herald. 12 August 2003. Retrieved 4 July 2017. 
  9. ^ "Te Ara, Encyclopaedia of New Zealand". 
  10. ^ Documents
  11. ^ Lakey, Jack (21 June 2017). "Turns out there is a standard to determine where a homeowner's property ends: The Fixer". Toronto Star. Retrieved 22 June 2017. 

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