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The history of surveying America

Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy - Andro Linklater

This is a book for anyone who wondered about the lines on the maps of the United States. In it Andro Linklater, a British writer and journalist, provides a history of the surveying of America. This is necessarily a two-part task, as not only does he describe the development and importance of surveying in shaping America, but it also requires him to explain the simultaneous development of uniform measurement in the Western world. For while people were familiar with units of measurement, those units themselves were not standardized, as lengths, along with weights and volume differed from place to place during the colonial period.

 

Yet the colonists already had access to the first standard measurement, the 22-foot-long chain introduced by the 17th century mathematician Edmund Gunter.  His chain was the first element of precision that made the surveying – and through that, the selling – of the vast American territories England claimed in North America.  Linklater describes this tandem development well, conveying both the importance of surveying and measurement in shaping the history of the country, as well as the numerous frustrations involved in getting it right.  What began as an often haphazard assessment gradually became a more professional, systematic approach by the mid-19th century, creating the checkerboard pattern and straight lines visible from the skies overhead today.

 

Linklater’s book is a readable history of a mundane yet critical aspect of American history.  With a scope spanning from Tudor England to a land office in modern-day Sacramento he conveys something of the long process of development that brought us to where we are now.  Yet his examination of surveying rests in a bed of outdated interpretations about American history.  These are minor and do little to effect the author’s argument, yet they are a weakness that diminishes from the overall value of the book.  All of this makes Linklater’s book a useful look at a long overlooked element shaping American history, yet one that is strongest when focusing on its main subject and not when discussing American history more broadly.