That’s right. Books, and everything that’s been made to imitate them, owes its specific size to exactly how much skin you can get off a sheep.
I know, this sounds like some weird expansion pack for Settlers of Catan, but allow us to explain.
Before Western Europe figured out how to make cheap, durable paper (and lets face it, with the literacy rates of the time, there wasn’t much demand), everybody who needed to write something down used parchment, which was made out of sheepskin. You couldn’t exactly knit the stuff together like fabrics, so book sizes were limited by the size of the sheep.
Wired expands on the idea:
All of today’s book sizes (and by proxy, most of our gadget sizes) were established in the Middle Ages, and printers and paper makers carried them over. Booksellers and publishers still use these terms today.
Fold your sheep in half, and you’ve got a folio, about newspaper size (fold it in quarters and you’ve got a comic book, but that’s a whole different why-things-are-as-big-as-they-are-story). Fold it in half again, that’s a quarto, good for making dictionaries. Do it again, it’s an octavo, the size of the good old hardcover novel and the Kindle. No coincidence there. Fold that once more, and you’ve got a trade-paperback or an iPad. Fold it in a couple other ways and you can get a mass-market paperback or a smart phone.
So what is the size of an iPad? About 1/16th the size of a sheep.
At least that’s what we got out of all this.
Read Wired’s full article with gallery of pictures here.