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Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy Hardcover – November 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

American democracy was less a product of revolutionary war and constitutional ferment than it was of a particular way of measuring land, argues British historian Linklater in his delightful new study. Private ownership of land was a new concept in England in the 17th century, one that was grounded (so to speak) in the developing science of surveying, in particular, Edmund Gunter's simple new surveying system of squares and grids. But the idea that land could "be owned as a house or a bed or a pig was owned" was central to the new United States. Thomas Jefferson and others contended that property belonged to those who could purchase it and labor upon it. Thus, when the land west of the Ohio River was purchased by the United States, a new wave of settlers headed there with the intention of owning their own patch of land. Before the land could be sold, however, it had to be measured in roughly equal plots, and the surveyors used Gunter's method of drawing the boundaries of land in square miles. Linklater's detailed chronicle of the physical development of early America demonstrates the ways that the desire to own private property grew out of the individualism of the frontier and shaped the peculiarly American notion that the individual's right to property is both a foundation and a guarantee of democracy. 35 b&w illus.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Why do we use gallons, feet, and dollars and cents? How were these measurements created? Why do we not use the metric system, and why do so many cities and states have grids visible from the ground and the air? To answer those questions and more, British historian Linklater brings to life the creator of the system we use today, a rector named Edmund Gunter, along with a host of major personalities (Washington and Jefferson) and unknown or forgotten players (geographer Thomas Hutchins and geodesist Ferdinand Hassler). These figures play out against Linklater's elegantly drawn backdrops-national and international history, politics, economics, and business-to reveal how we came to measure as we do. Linklater also shows how as the United States expanded from the original Colonies to the West Coast over its first 100 years, our choice of measurement became part of the American psyche and legal system and also affected society. This expertly written and eminently enjoyable chronicle is highly recommended for history and history of science collections.
Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 310 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books; First Edition edition (November 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802713963
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802713964
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #760,015 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on October 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Linklater's book is a very easy read but is obviously done, not by a historian, but a journalist interested in history. Many historical inaccuracies appear in the book that would not have appeared if there had been anyone checking for accuracy. Linklater states that there were three original signers of the Declaration of Independence (there were 5), a major mistake that should have been caught. Another is the fact that he doesn't know one Native Indian tribe from the other and misquotes his sources, when he bothers to note them. Writing a book on both history and science requires that the individual writing such a book should at least have someone double checking his or her accuracy. There is no or little documentation of where he gets his sources. His sources are mentioned by page number at the end of the book and you have to guess which quote or information is being referenced. No end notes or footnotes exist. As a historian, I have no idea whether or not the scientific end of this book is just as flawed or not, but does make it slightly suspect.

However, Linklater gives an excellent representation of the times, the people involved and the places in surveying and laying out the Trans-Appalachian West. His character portraits are interesting to read, giving people like Washington, Jefferson, and less known persons such as Masseneh Cutler and Ferdinand Hassler a human look to the reader. The writing is in narrative format and not difficult. In fact, it's probably the only book that will actually have the non-scientific reader understanding what all the various confusing measurements mean! Linklater is a good author, he just needs to have someone go over his facts a bit more strenously and get a better format for his research and his book.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Andro Linklater is a Scottish journalist who fell in love with America when he was flying over it, looking out the window at "the spectacular grid of city blocks, the squared-off American Gothic farms, and the long, straight section roads that caught the imagination of Kerouac." Now he has written a fascinating book to tell us just how we got so square. _Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy_ (Walker) shows that geometry and land acquisition and speculation drove the development of the nation.
The importance of simply measuring the land has reinforced for Americans the value of land ownership. Native Americans did not enclose or measure land, and thus they could not convincingly demonstrate (to those who wanted to take it from them) that they owned it. This pattern was true not just in America, but in, for example, South Africa and Australia. Patterns of demarcation even influenced regional character. In the South, the legislatures were dominated by landowners who relied upon local surveyors who did not use chains and theodolites, but instead relied on marked trees and memory. Such a system caused violent struggles, but it also meant that doubts over actual ownership inhibited speculation and transfer of land. In the North, farmers would settle, improve the land, sell, and move to another measured plat; in the south, owners kept the property for generations, and Linklater refers to the effect on southern literature of such patterns of survey and ownership as being good material for future scholarly research. The squares laid out in the 19th century did not help efficient farming, but they helped the financier, who could easily track the value of the squares; settlement was based on speculation.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By D. Olander on May 31, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book was quite interesting for me, a Surveyor, to read. It explored the sociology of measurement, as well as the history of the standardation of measurements in the world, particularly the US. It had a heavy focus on land division, and how the US public lands system was formed. I have recommended it to every Surveyor that I know who is interested in history.
If I recall, the author got his inspiration from flying over the mid-west and wondering why everything was squared off.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By John Wood on January 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The new United States ran up a huge debt during the War for Independence. In the days before income taxes, the government turned to selling off federal lands to pay it down. But until lands were surveyed, they couldn't be sold. The need for funds was urgent, so surveys had to be completed quickly. The expedient solution was to use grids based on the 66-foot Gunter's Chain, ignoring natural features such as mountains and rivers. Today, the layouts of Cleveland, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Portland, Oregon--in fact most cities west of the Ohio River--owe the orientation and spacing of their street grids to an army of surveyors dragging their standardized chains behind them. The social impacts of this process are unexpected: Rampant land speculation and manipulation for one; Social isolation of Midwestern farming families for another.
Along the way, we learn about the struggle to resolve confusion over measures: In 18th-Century England, bushels could be of eight different sizes, each filled in either of two ways--heaped up or struck off level. Standardization was needed, but the opportunity to decimalize was missed, leaving the United States as the only non-metric country today. The default surveyors' standard used was the chain--because of tradition, not by conscious choice. Our 640-acre sections and our quarter-acre suburban lots are all based on this 400-year-old measure.
This wonderfully detailed book is about much more than measurement. It explains the novel idea that property can be bought and sold--a concept that came to Europe much later. It demonstrates how much of the vitality of the young United States came from opportunities provided to its citizens through acquiring land.
Informative, interesting, very readable and highly recommended.
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