A ruler, or rule, is an instrument used in geometry, technical drawing and engineering/building to measure distances and/or to rule straight lines. Strictly speaking, the ruler is essentially a straightedge used to rule lines and the calibrated instrument used for determining measurement is called a 'measure'. However, common usage is that a ruler is a calibrated straightedge that can be used for making measurements.


A Rule has the measurements start from the end, whereas a ruler has a gap between the end and the measurements. Rulers have long been made of wood in a wide range of sizes. Plastics have been used since they were invented; they can be moulded with length markings instead of being scribed. Metal is used for more durable rulers for use in the workshop; sometimes a metal edge is embedded into a wooden desk ruler to preserve the edge when used for straight-line cutting. 12 inches or 30cm in length is useful for a ruler to be kept on a desk to help in drawing. Shorter rulers are convenient for keeping in a pocket. Longer rulers, e.g., 18 inches (45cm) are necessary in some cases. Rigid wooden or plastic yardsticks, 1 yard long and metre sticks, 1 metre long, are also used.

Desk rulers are used for three main purposes: to measure, to aid in drawing straight lines and as a straight guide for cutting and scoring with a blade. Practical rulers have distance markings along their edges.

Measuring instruments similar in function to rulers are made portable by folding (carpenter's folding rule) or retracting into a coil (metal tape measure) when not in use. When extended for use they are straight, like a ruler. The illustrations on this page show a 2 metre carpenter's rule which folds down to a length of 24 centimeters to easily fit in a pocket, and a 5 meter long tape which retracts into a small housing. A flexible length measuring instrument which is not necessarily straight in use is the tailor's fabric tape measure, a length of tape calibrated in inches and centimetres. It is used to measure around a solid body, e.g., a person's waist measurement, as well as linear measurement, e.g., inside leg. It is rolled up when not in use, taking up little space.

Ruler applications in geometry

In geometry, a ruler usually refers to an unmarked ruler (a straightedge), only used for drawing straight lines between points, not measuring.

A ruler and compass construction refers to constructions using an unmarked ruler and a compass. It is possible to bisect and angle into 2 equal parts with ruler and compass. It can be proved, though, that it is impossible to divide an angle into 3 equal parts using only a compass and straightedge—the problem of angle trisection. However, should a single mark be allowed on the ruler, the problem becomes solvable..

In heraldry

  • The ruler (calibrated, though numbers are not shown) appears as a charge in heraldry, notably in the arms of Odouze.
  • The Freemasons are identified by a compass and square device, the latter another type of ruler. Together, the tools represent judgement and discernment.


Rulers made from Ivory were in use by the Indus Valley Civilization period prior to 1500 BCE. Excavations at Lothal (2400 BCE) have yielded one such ruler calibrated to about 1/16 of an inch—less than 2 millimeters. Ian Whitelaw (2007) holds that 'The Mohenjo-Daro ruler is divided into units corresponding to 1.32 inches (33.5 mm) and these are marked out in decimal subdivisions with amazing accuracy—to within 0.005 of an inch. Ancient bricks found throughout the region have dimensions that correspond to these units.'



  • Whitelaw, Ian (2007). A Measure of All Things: The Story of Man and Measurement. Macmillan. ISBN 0312370261.

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