Cutting Edge Insights
with Dr. Lee

The Dumb End of the Tape

A tape measure is a very useful tool for measuring distance. It is much more accurate than any time I try to approximate the distance between two points.

According to the Smithsonian, the first U.S. patient for a tape measure was granted on 7/14/1868. I found the article “How Hoop Skirts Led to Tape Measures” very amusing. See references below.

If you’re curious about all the other features and functions of a typical, modern steel tape measure, U.S. tape does a good job summarizing them. Again, see below.

You may also have heard the old colloquialism, “the dumb end of the tape.”  I heard it quite a bit when I was growing up, when my dad would have me help him measure something. The idea is that the zero point end or origin is the dumb end implies that the discernment of measurement comes from the other end and from the person holding the other end and obtaining the reading of the other end.

I had an experience recently that taught me otherwise.

I was straddling a foundation wall 13 feet in the air, and Brian, my structural engineer, was on another foundation wall on the other side of the structure. He had wanted to obtain exact foundation measurements before the floor trusses were fabricated, so that we would be able to provide exact measurements.

Brian had his wife’s tape measure with him that day. She’s a civil engineer, and sometimes the tape measures that civil engineers use are different. Typically, they’re not steel because they are longer – 100 feet or more.

Brian had said to me that it looked like the marks between inches were done in 10ths of an inch rather than the typical 1/16th or 1/32nd of an inch designation.

None of this mattered to me, because as I had said, “I was holding the dumb end of the tape and wouldn’t be subject to generating any measurement error.”

During the course of obtaining these measurements, there were several instances where he felt the walls were off a little bit.

There was never any large discrepancy, but enough for us to want to communicate our actual measurements to the truss company prior to fabrication.

So, in the end, we were glad we took the time to measure.

Then Monday rolled around. Brian called me, laughing.

“Hey, the walls are all fine and within ⅛ inch of the specs on the prints,” he said. “I didn’t realize that not only were the inches on the tape in 10ths, THE ENTIRE TAPE WAS MEASURING in 10THS BELOW THE FEET READING!”

For example, a measurement that we had thought was 29 feet, 9.1 inches was really 29.91 feet or 29 feet, 10.92 inches, or 1.82 inches larger than what we thought we were measuring.

Another example was if we thought we were reading 5.0 inches, we were really reading 0.5 feet, or 6 inches. Similarly, 1.9 inches was 0.19 feet, or 2.28 inches.

As you can see, we were always off in the “narrower than expected” direction because of the expected base-12 when reality was base-10.

We both had a good laugh about that. But I realized that this didn’t need to be the end of the story.

As I thought about it, I concluded that there really are life lessons within this story (usually, if you ruminate long enough about an experience, you will discover some life lessons):

  1. Even though I was holding the “dumb” end of the tape, I had (and missed) an opportunity to learn the actual construction of the tape measure because my mind was wired closed that Brian was obtaining the measurements, not me.
  2. Even the person holding the “dumb” end of the tape has important responsibilities, including holding it exactly on the point from which the desired measurement will commence. As well as holding it straight, level, and plumb. Therefore, it isn’t any lower-level task.
  3. In life, there will be situations where we will think that we are holding the proverbial “dumb end of the tape.”  We can muddle through complacently, or we can remain engaged and seek out opportunities for learning and growth. We should continue to be mindful that any and all observations we can make may in fact be beneficial to the bigger picture of the project we are working on.

I don’t like heights very much, but if sitting 13 feet in the air provides the basis for reflection, it’s better than sitting at a desk, I suppose.

Until next time,

Dr. Lee Newton

How A Doctor Learned To Develop Real Estate


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