The earliest caliper has been found in the Greek Giglio wreck near the Italian coast. The ship find dates to the 6th century BC. The wooden piece already featured a fixed and a movable jaw. Although rare finds, caliper remained in use by the Greeks and Romans.

By the Han Dynasty (202 BC 220 AD), the Chinese also used the sliding caliper, which they made of bronze and manufactured each tool with an inscription of the day, month, and year it was made (according to Chinese era names and their lunar calendar).

The modern vernier caliper, reading to thousandths of an inch, was invented by American Joseph R. Brown in 1851. His Brown and Sharpe company inaugurated true precision manufacture in the United States. It was the first practical tool for exact measurements that could be sold at a price within the reach of ordinary machinists.