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How Were Spirit Levels Invented?

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Post Spirit Levels, Past and Present

Spirit levels are essential tools for many tasks today and they also have a long history dating back to the Roman Empire. While modern levels differ from the original designs, the purpose remains unchanged. Here’s a review of the spirit level’s history and information about the versions available today.

Spirit Level, Bubble Level or Hand Level?

Spirit levels are known by several names, including bubble level and hand level. In basic terms, a spirit level is a ruler-shaped tool of varying lengths that holds one or more transparent vials containing liquid and an air bubble. The air bubble position helps determine whether surfaces are even and straight. Levels can be used horizontally to ensure a surface is flat or vertically to ensure a plumb line.

When Was the Spirit Level Invented?

It is not clear exactly when bubble levels were invented. The Romans were thought to use water in cisterns as leveling devices during construction projects. The ancient builders used the appearance of the water line as a visual indicator of the evenness of a structure. This may be evidence of early use of a level-like device. During the 17th century a more modern hand level was developed by Melchisedech Thévenot, a French inventor. It is believed that the tool may have been utilized locally following its initial development and that its use did not extend beyond France until the 1800s.

infographic spirit level



What Type of Liquid Was Used in the Vials?

Level systems from the ancient world and from Thévenot’s time used water or alcohol as the liquid of choice. Currently, levels often use oil or alcohol due to their more favorable properties compared to water. The freezing point, viscosity and surface tension of water can make it a more difficult option to use. Today, there are alternative liquids available such as mineral spirits and ethanol.

What About Today’s Levels?

In modern times, hand levels are made using a variety of substances and come in various shapes and sizes. The levels themselves may be made from material such as aluminum, plastic, brass, wood or bamboo. Vials are often constructed from impact-resistant materials such as acrylic.  Some spirit levels include advanced features such as lasers, mirrors, lights, magnets and digital displays. These elements can help provide accurate results and can allow for convenience and ease of use. There is a spirit level available for any application. Check out the spirit levels in the product catalog from Engineer Supply or call 1-800-591-8907 for more information. We are ready to answer your questions and help you find the right level for the job.
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