In the beginning... (how's that for an opening line...) the first recorded use of a measuring device was by the Romans who used marked strips of leather, but this was actually more of a ruler than a tape measure.
The first US patent on a tape measure was issued on December 6, 1864 (patent #45,372) to William H. Bangs, and it consisted of a wind-able tape held in a case with a spring return.
Shown below is an improved tape measure from 1917, but note that a curved blade had not yet been invented.
The first notable improvement after Bangs, wasn't until January 3, 1922, when Hiram A. Farrand received patent (#1,402,589) for his concave-convex tape, which was the real game changer. That's when carpenters shifted form using yard sticks, and folding rulers to the retractable tape measure.
Small but important improvements followed like the floating hook, which compensates for the thickness of the hook itself, so you get the same measurement when pushing the hook against a surface as you do when hooking it onto an edge.
My old friend Jack Evans, invented the three-rivet tape hook, with a metal backing plate back in 1967, when he worked for Starrett, and it's still the gold standard today, in my opinion. An interesting note is that Stanley filed their own three rivet tape hook patent years later, by removing the steel backing plate, and replaced it with an industrial clear tape, which they call "Blade Armor".
The next big change to measuring tapes was blade standout, and this innovation started an all out war between tape manufactures, which Stanley won hands down with the FatMax, by patenting the 1.25" wide blade combined with the brilliant geometry of the curve of the blade as shown here in John C. Murray's 2001 patent.
If you look the end view of the blade image above, you'll see it's not just a simple curve, but a carefully engineered design for maximum strength of the blade. I've taken many Stanley tapes apart, and I'm really impressed with the small improvements and the attention to smart engineering on the inside of their tapes.
Cooper tools was also early to recognize that the blade geometry was the key to blade standout, but Stanley was the first to truly perfect it, seize the day, and raise awareness by promoting the hell out of it with their FatMax brand shown below:
The top players in the tape market are Stanley (which includes DeWalt) Milwaukee, Komelon, QuickDraw, Lufkin, E-Tape, Tajima, Swanson, and Starrett.
The next real game changer occurred in 2015 with the QuickDraw self-marking tape, but prior to that, there were 60+ attempts dating back to 1953, as shown here:
I know this improvement well because I have nine patents on marking tape measures. When I first had the idea in 2001, I thought, BAM, this is an automatic home run, but it took me another 13 years to really perfect it.
Many of the designs attempted before me, consisted of a pencil or other marking material stuck to the side of the tape case (see below.)
It might seem ok until you try to use it, and the pencil breaks, or needs sharpening, and how's it going to be accurate? Flash forward to 2003, when my patent on the NEXT tape, issued, which used a glass cutting wheel to mark (see below.)
A glass cutting wheel can mark a lot of different materials, but the mark can be hard to see in certain light, and it's not erasable. I sold that technology to Newell/Rubbermaid's IRWIW Tools division, and they shelved it.
Later, Stanley/Black and Decker bought IRWIN Tools and that would have been that, except, for the fact that Irwin had failed to make the minimum royalty payments to me, and that caused the technology come back to me.
After a good deal of prototyping, I developed the QuickDraw Pro Marking tape measure, and the rest is history!