Origin of Standard Page sizes
Ever wondered why sometimes your printed documents look unbalanced on the page—only to find the printer settings on your software defaults to Letter? Well, that’s probably because your software was designed in, and primarily for, the American market. However, in Australia—and almost every other country outside the Americas—the standard page size is A4.
But why does a standard page have different dimensions in different countries? And why would there be a difference anyway?
A-Series (including A4)
The A-series, or ISO 216 series, has a couple of nifty quirks. Firstly, the base size—A0—is 1189 mm x 891 mm, which is pretty close to 1 m2 in size. These dimensions seem pretty arbitrary. However, the aspect ratio of this is extremely close to 1:√2 or 1:414. ‘Okay, interesting,’ I hear you say, ‘but so what?’ Well, one of the interesting things about this ratio is that if you fold a page with a ratio of 1:√2 along the long edge, you will end up with a page with a ratio of…wait for it…1:√2. So by continually cutting an A0 page in half along the long edge, we end up with the full series A0 through to A8. And because each page has the same aspect ratio, enlarging or reducing the page size, and using similar margins in the new copy, means squares stay square and circles remain circles. How cool is that?
You may occasionally hear about Foolscap Folio (8” x 13”)—not to be confused with Foolscap (17” x 27”) or Foolscap Quarto (8½” x 13½”)—which was the imperial UK standard format before introduction of the IOS series. However, with most countries “going metric”, it’s very rarely used today and more likely to be seen in old records.
The standard size of this page is 8½” x 11” and is part of the American National Standard Institute, which along with Tabloid (11” x 17”) are the two most common sizes in North America. Legal pages are different again (8½” x 14”). It is interesting to note that the length of the US Letter size was not made official until the 1980s—government departments used pages that were 10½” long, while everyone else used 11”. It’s also from the US Letter page that we work out why one line is equal to 65 characters.
Where the standard width of 8½” inches originated no one is quite sure. One theory harks back to the era when paper was made by hand, rather than by machine. A mould with mesh at the bottom was used to scoop out pulp suspended in a vat of water, jiggled a bit to distribute the pulp evenly over the mesh and then left to dry. Several factors were then taken into account, like the average length of vatman’s arm stretch (44”), coupled with his experience, and the need to have watermarks and laid lines running in a certain direction; to maximise the number of pages that could be created at any one time, the moulds that were dipped into the vat of pulp were 17” back to front. The sheet of paper that was generated could then be trimmed and quartered to make pages of 8½” x 11”.
It’s easy enough to prevent your printed documents from looking skewiff in the future: simply change your printer settings to print on the appropriate-sized paper, and save it as the default. You can always temporarily revert if you need to.