MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why There Are 5,280 Feet In A Mile (And Why A Nautical Mile Is Different)

As you probably learned in grade school, there are 5,280 feet in a mile. But, as we usually love to ask…why? Who decided that arbitrary number should be the length of a mile? Not only that, but why are nautical miles different from the miles we use on land?

The basic concept of the mile originated with the Romans, who used a distance unit called the “mille passum”, which translates to “a thousand paces”. Each pace was considered to be five Roman feet, which were actually a tad shorter than our feet nowadays, so the mile originally ended up being 5,000 Roman feet, or around 4,850 feet today.

So, if the mile began as 5,000 Roman feet, how did we get to where we are now, with a 5,280-foot mile? Well, we have the British “furlong” to thank (or blame) for that. Not always an arcane measurement that horse-racing fans talk about, the furlong was actually once significant as being the length of the furrow in a field that a team of oxen could plow in a single day, or 660 feet. It was in 1592 that Britain’s Parliament set out to determine the precise length of a mile. And, they ultimately decided that each mile should be made up of eight furlongs. So, since a furlong was 660 feet, we ended up with the 5,280-foot mile we know today.

Think all miles are the same? Not quite. Because a nautical mile is definitely not the same…it’s actually longer! But, here again we ask…why? Well, you’d need to pull out your high school geometry skills for this one. So, each nautical mile originally referred to one minute of arc along a meridian around the Earth. Each meridian around the Earth is made up of 360 degrees, and each of those degrees is comprised of 60 minutes of arc. So, with each of those minutes of arc being 1/21,600th of the distance around the earth, by that formula a nautical mile comes out to 6,076 feet.

If you’re anything like me, then you’re sufficiently confused enough right now to seriously be considering switching over to the metric system!

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