Palm (unit)

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The hand (2) and palm (3) measurements shown, among others, on a human hand

The palm may be either one of two obsolete non-SI units of measurement of length.

In English usage the palm, or small palm, also called handbreadth or handsbreadth, was originally based on the breadth of a human hand without the thumb, and has origins in ancient Egypt. It is distinct from the hand, the breadth of the hand with the thumb, and from the fist, the height of a clenched fist.[1] It is usually taken to be equal to four digits or fingers, or to three inches, which, following the adoption of the international inch in 1959, equals exactly 7.62 centimetres. It is today used only in the field of biblical exegesis, where opinions may vary as to its precise historic length.

In other areas, such as parts of continental Europe, the palm (French: palme, Italian: palmo) related to the length of the hand, and derived from the Roman great palm, the Latin: palmus major.


Ancient Egypt[edit]

Detail of the cubit rod in the Museo Egizio of Turin, showing digit, palm, hand and fist lengths

On surviving Ancient Egyptian cubit-rods, the royal cubit is divided into seven palms of four digits each. Five digits are equal to a hand, with thumb; and six to a closed fist.[2] The royal cubit measured approximately 525 mm,[3] so the length of the ancient Egyptian palm was about 75 mm.

Ancient Egyptian units of length[2]
Name   Egyptian name    Equivalent Egyptian values   Metric equivalent 
Royal cubit   
M23 t
meh niswt   
7 palms or 28 digits 525 mm     
Fist 6 digits 108 mm     
Hand 5 digits 94 mm     
4 digits 75 mm     
1/4 palm 19 mm     

Ancient Greece[edit]

Ancient Rome[edit]

The ancient Roman system of linear measurement was based on the pes or standard Roman foot,[4] which was divided into 16 digits or, in later times into 12 uncia or pollex, Roman inches.[5] According to the Encyclopédie, there were two types of palm in ancient Rome: "the great palm was the length of the hand and contained twelve digits or nine inches; and the small palm, across the hand, was of four digits or three inches".[6] Smith gives this table of equivalence between the smaller Roman units of length, to which approximate modern metric equivalents are added:[5]

Ancient Roman units of length
Name Latin name     Equivalent Roman value      Metric equivalent 
Digit Inch Palm Foot
Digit digitus 1 34 14 116 18.5 mm     
Inch  uncia or pollex  113 1 13 112 24.6 mm     
Palm  palmus minor  4 3 1 14 74 mm     
Great palm palmus major 12 9 3 34 222 mm     
Foot pes 16 12 4 1 296 mm     
Foot + palm   palmipes 20 15 5 114 370 mm     
Cubit cubitus 24 18 6 1 12 444 mm     
Metric equivalents are based on the estimated value 1 pes = 296 mm[4]

The English palm, the width of the hand[edit]

In English usage, the palm or handsbreadth is generally taken to be three inches. Some confusion between the various types of hand measurement, and particularly between the hand and the handsbreadth, appears to have persisted in Britain for several centuries after the hand was standardised at four inches by a statute of King Henry VIII in 1541.[7] Phillips's dictionary of 1706 gives four inches for the length of the handful or hand, but three inches for the handsbreadth;[8] Mortimer gives the same, three inches for the Hand's-breadth, and four for the "Handful, or simply, Hand",[7] but adds

"The hand among horse-dealers, &c. is four-fingers' breadth, being the fist clenched, whereby the height of a horse is measured"

thus equating "hand" with both the palm and the fist. Similarly, Wright's 1831 translation of Buffon mentions "A hand breadth (palmus), the breadth of the four fingers of the hand, or three inches",[9] but the Encyclopædia Perthensis of 1816 gives under Palm (4): "A hand, or measure of lengths comprising three inches".[10]

In English measurements, the handsbreadth has mostly fallen out of use.

The Continental palm, the length of the hand[edit]

In various parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, the palm was based on the length of the hand rather than the width. Greaves in 1647 gives equivalents for three kinds of palm, the Roman palmo di Architetti or architect's palm, the Roman palmo del braccio di mercantia or commercial palm, and the Genoa palm.[11] In 1795 (and again in 1815) these values were reported by Charles Hutton:[12][13]

Length of a palm in Mediterranean cities after Hutton
City  Inches   Metric equivalent 
Rome      8724 211 mm  
Naples, as reported by Riccioli      8 203 mm  
Naples, as reported by others      8712 218 mm  
Genoa      934 248 mm  
Morocco and Fez      716 182 mm  
Languedoc and some other parts of France      934   248 mm  
Metric equivalents are approximate, and do not take account of possible regional variations in the inch

Palaiseau gave metric equivalents for the palme or palmo in 1816,[14] and Rose provided English equivalents in 1900:

Length of a palm in European cities
City  Lignes   Metric equivalent   Inches [15]
Florence (for silk, Palaiseau p.146)      131.63 [297] mm  
Florence (for wool, Palaiseau p.146)      128.38 289.6 mm  
Genoa (cloth measure, Palaiseau p.148)      106.9 241.1 mm  
Genoa (linear measure, Palaiseau p.91)      107.43 242.3 mm  
Genoa (Rose) 247 mm   9.72 
Livorno (for silk, Palaiseau p.157)      128.41 289.7 mm  
Livorno (for wool, Palaiseau p.157)      130.08 293.4 mm  
Malta (cloth measure, Palaiseau p.160)      114.49 258.3 mm  
Malta (linear measure, Palaiseau p.98)      115.28 260.0 mm  
Naples (Rose) 263.6 mm   10.38 
Palermo (cloth measure, Palaiseau p.168)           107.16 241.7 mm   9.53 
Portugal (Palaiseau p.109)        96.36 217.4 mm   8.64 
Rome (cloth measure, Palaiseau p.173)      109.52 247.1 mm  
Rome (linear measure, Palaiseau p.111)        99 [223] mm  
Sardinia (Rose) 248 mm   9.78 
Spain (Rose) 219 mm   8.64 
Metric equivalents from Palaiseau here rounded to 0.1 mm
Sign giving the metric equivalents of the units in use in the 17th century in the covered market of Pernes-les-Fontaines in the Vaucluse

According to a sign displayed in Pernes-les-Fontaines, Vaucluse, France, a palme or palm of 246.1 mm was in use there in the 17th century, and was one-eighth of a canne. The same proportion applied in Malta, at Rome and at Palermo.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Good, J.M., O. Gregory, N. Bosworth (1813). Pantologia: A new cyclopaedia, comprehending a complete series of essays, treatises, and systems, alphabetically arranged; with a general dictionary of arts, sciences and words, the whole presenting a distinct survey of human genius, learning and industry; illustrated with engravings, those on history being from original drawings by Edwards and others. London: Kearsley.  "Hand (2)"
  2. ^ a b Clagett, Marshall (1999). Ancient Egyptian Science, A Source Book. Volume 3: Ancient Egyptian Mathematics. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 978-0-87169-232-0. 
  3. ^ Lepsius, Richard (1865). Die altaegyptische Elle und ihre Eintheilung (in German). Berlin: Dümmler. 
  4. ^ a b Hosch, William L. (ed.) (2010) The Britannica Guide to Numbers and Measurement New York, NY: Britannica Educational Publications, 1st edition. ISBN 978-1-61530-108-9, p.206
  5. ^ a b Smith, Sir William; Charles Anthon (1851) A new classical dictionary of Greek and Roman biography, mythology, and geography partly based upon the Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology New York: Harper & Bros. Table II, page 1025
  6. ^ Diderot, Denis; Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (eds.) (1765) Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (in French) Neufchastel: chez Samuel Faulche Volume XI, N – PARI p.793
  7. ^ a b Mortimer, Thomas (1810). A general dictionary of commerce, trade, and manufactures: exhibiting their present state in every part of the world; and carefully comp. from the latest and best authorities. London: R. Phillips. 
  8. ^ Phillips, Edward (1706). Kersey, John, ed. The new world of words: or, Universal English dictionary. Containing an account of the original or proper sense, and various significations of all hard words derived from other languages. Together with a brief and plain explication of all terms relating to any of the arts and sciences; to which is added, the interpretation of proper names (The sixth edition, revised ... With the addition of near twenty thousand words ... ed.). Retrieved July 2011.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  9. ^ Le Clerc, George Louis, Comte de Buffon (1831). A natural history of the globe: of man, of beasts, birds, fishes, reptiles, insects and plants Volume 5. John Wright (trans.). Boston; Philadelphia: Gray and Bowen; Thomas Desilver, Jr. 
  10. ^ [n.a.] (1816). Encyclopædia Perthensis; or Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, Literature, etc., intended to supersede the use of other books of reference, Volume 16. 
  11. ^ Greaves, John (1647) A discourse of the Romane foot and denarius; from whence, as from two principles, the measures and weights used by the ancients may be deduced London: William Lee
  12. ^ Hutton, Charles (1795) A philosophical and mathematical dictionary, containing an explanation of the terms, and an account of the several subjects, comprised under the heads mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy both natural and experimental; with an historical account of the rise, progress and present state of these sciences; also memoirs of the lives and writings of the most eminent authors, both ancient and modern, who by their discoveries or improvements have contributed to the advancement of them 1st ed. London: for J. Johnson Volume 2 p.187
  13. ^ Hutton, Charles (1815) A philosophical and mathematical dictionary, containing an explanation of the terms, and an account of the several subjects, comprised under the heads mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy both natural and experimental; with an historical account of the rise, progress and present state of these sciences; also memoirs of the lives and writings of the most eminent authors, both ancient and modern, who by their discoveries or improvements have contributed to the advancement of them 2nd ed. London: the author Volume 2 p.146
  14. ^ a b Palaiseau, Jean-François-Gaspard (1816) Métrologie universelle, ancienne et moderne: ou rapport des poids et mesures des empires, royaumes, duchés et prinicipautés des quatre parties du monde, présenté en tableaux par ordre alphabétique de pays ou ville, et leur position géographique avec les anciens et nouveau poids et mesures du royaume de France, et l'inverse, avec la méthode pour opérer toutes les conversions par des nombres fixes, etc. ... (in French) Bordeaux: Lavigne jeune p.160
  15. ^ Rose, Joshua (1900). Pattern Makers Assistant (9th ed.). New York: D. van Nostrand Co. p. 264.