Here, Rx is the resistance we want to measure; R1, R2 and R3 are known resistors of known resistance; furthermore, the resistance of R2 is adjustable. If the ratio of the two resistances in the known leg (R2/R1) is equal to the ratio of the two in the unknown leg (Rx/R3), then the voltage between the two midpoints will be zero and no current will flow between the midpoints. R2 is varied until this condition is reached. The current direction indicates if R2 is too high or too low.
Detecting zero current can be done to extremely high accuracy (see Galvanometer). Therefore, if R1, R2 and R3 are known to high precision, then Rx can be measured to high precision. Very small changes in Rx disrupt the balance and are readily detected.
Alternatively, if R1, R2, and R3 are known, but R2 is not adjustable, the voltage or current flow through the meter can be used to calculate the value of Rx. This setup is frequently used in strain gauge measurements, as it is usually faster to read a voltage level off a meter than to adjust a resistance to zero the voltage.
The Wheatstone bridge illustrates the concept of a difference measurement, which can be extremely accurate. Variations on the Wheatstone bridge can be used to measure capacitance, inductance, impedance and other quantities.