Does someone know the historical reason behind the difference in physical units between nautical and terrestrial miles?

  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nautical_mile and howstuffworks.com/question79.htm have some information, but neither explain the difference $\endgroup$
    – ChrisF
    Mar 23 '13 at 12:18
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Maybe you want to read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mile to see that there have been tons of different miles. The word "mile" comes from a Latin word for one thousand - it was one thousand paces, really, but the statute (land) mile was defined to be slightly less, for pretty random reasons. There's nothing special about these two miles except that they survived to the present. There have been dozens of different miles with somewhat different values in both directions. This messy history shows how it's sometimes a good idea to try to be conservative in conventions. ;-) $\endgroup$ Mar 23 '13 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ This seems like a primo question for the History of science and mathematics site proposal on Area51. $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Sep 10 '14 at 0:13

A nautical mile is the length of one minute of arc (1/60 deg) along any meridian

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If you are navigating by measuring the angles of the sun and stars then it's a simple and obvious unit to use since it avoids a lot of calculation and it's close enough to a normal mile to be understood.

It's also been an internation standard for quite a long time - unlike all the other historical definitions of a mile from different countries.

  • $\begingroup$ Maybe one should also add the definition of the statute (land) mile: The statute mile was so-named because it was defined by an English Act of Parliament in 1593, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The statute states: "A Mile ſhall contain eight Furlongs, every Furlong forty Poles, and every Pole ſixteen Foot and a half." (35 Eliz. cap. 6.)[45] It was thus 1760 yards (5280 feet, about 1609 metres). - Pretty contrived definition with bizarre numbers, but that's what they did to match the common-person understanding of the vaguely defined units. $\endgroup$ Mar 24 '13 at 9:28

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