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

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Measuring America is the fascinating, provocative, and eye-opening story of why America has ended up with its unique system of weights and measures—the American Customary System, unlike any other in the world—and how this has profoundly shaped our country and culture. In the process, Measuring America reveals the colossal power contained inside the acres and miles, ounces and pounds, that we use every day without ever realizing their significance.

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Overview

Measuring America is the fascinating, provocative, and eye-opening story of why America has ended up with its unique system of weights and measures—the American Customary System, unlike any other in the world—and how this has profoundly shaped our country and culture. In the process, Measuring America reveals the colossal power contained inside the acres and miles, ounces and pounds, that we use every day without ever realizing their significance.

The most urgent problem facing the newly independent United States was how to pay for the war that won the country its freedom; America’s debt was enormous. Its greatest asset was the land west of the Ohio River, but for this huge territory to be sold, it had first to be surveyed—that is, measured out and mapped. And before that could be done, a uniform set of measurements had to be chosen for the new republic. English, Scottish, German, Dutch, Scandinavian, and other settlers had all brought their own systems with them (more than 100,000 different units are reckoned to have been in daily use), and in his first address to Congress, George Washington put the establishment of a single system of weights and measures immediately after a national defense and a currency as the United States’ most urgent priority.

The debate on this vital measure took place at a critical moment in the history of ideas, when the traditional, subjective view of the world was being increasingly challenged by objective, scientific reasoning. Thomas Jefferson—supported by Washington, Adams, Madison, Monroe, even Hamilton—championed the new idea of a scientific 10-based system derived from some universal constant such as time or the size of the earth. Such an alliance should have ensured a decimal America, but ranged against them was the invisible genius of Edmund Gunter, the seventeenth-century English mathematician whose twenty-two-yard surveying chain, introduced in 1607, had revolutionized land ownership in Britain and was still used by every surveyor in America—including Thomas Hutchins and his successors in charge of the land survey on the Ohio frontier.

How we ultimately gained the American Customary System—the last traditional system in the world—and how Gunter’s chain indelibly imprinted its dimensions on the land, on cities, and on our culture from coast to coast is both an exciting human and intellectual drama and one of the great untold stories in American history. At a time when the metric system may finally be unstoppable, Andro Linklater has captured the essential nature of measurement just as the Founding Fathers understood it. Sagely argued and beautifully written, Measuring America offers readers nothing less than the opportunity to see America’s history—and our democracy—in a brilliant new light.

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Editorial Reviews

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On September 30, 1785, Thomas Hutchins (1730–89) began a project that would transform the American frontier. On that day, the man designated as "the geographer of the United States" began a survey of the infant nation's public lands. Beginning in the Seven Ranges district of present-day Ohio, Hutchins set a grid that would eventually extend to Pacific Ocean, although he did not live to see its completion. This project was, however, much more than a feat of labor. The survey of public lands and their subsequent sale created a structure of land ownership unique in history. In Measuring America, Andro Linklater explains how Hutchins's survey reconfigured our country.
Margaret Wertheim
remarkable—The Los Angeles Times
The New Yorker
In 1785, Thomas Hutchins, the first Geographer of the United States, began the improbable task of literally measuring the expanding new nation, yard by yard. Inching west from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, and equipped with Gunter's chain -- a handy surveying device stretching exactly twenty-two yards long -- Hutchins' crew chopped the tangled frontier into Enlightenment-friendly six-mile-by-six-mile townships, the effect of which can still be seen from any airplane window. Measuring America, by the British journalist Andro Linklater, tells the eye-opening story of how this "immaculate" grid gave birth to the radical notion of fixed measures (the variable cooms, kilderkins, and rundlets quickly went out the window), the uniquely American idea of land ownership (yeomen farmers were drawn westward to such would-be new states as Assenisipia and Polypotamia), and our continuing anachronistic fealty to yards, acres, and miles (Thomas Jefferson proposed using a decimal system, only to be trumped by Gunter's chain).

"The grid was to the rationalization of nature what the Declaration of Independence was to freedom," writes Case Western professor Ted Steinberg in Down to Earth, a meditation on the overlooked role of nature in American history. For Steinberg, American history began 180 million years ago, when the giant landmass Pangaea broke apart, and continues through such major events as the Laramide Orogeny (which created the Great Plains), Millard Fillmore's 1850 State of the Union address (which lamented the high price of imported Peruvian guano), and the proliferation of the boll weevil (which may have spurred the exodus of black Americans to the North).

(Mark Rozzo)
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. (Nov.) Forecast: Fans of Dava Sobel's Longitude (also published by Walker) and other books that examine systems of measurement as a foundation for the history of ideas will love Linklater's book. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sturdy prose conveys the remarkable, still inspiring story of the struggle to standardize measurements and to apply them from sea to shining sea. Linklater (The Code of Love, 2001) begins on September 30, 1785, near Liverpool, Ohio, where Thomas Hutchins began surveying the public lands of the US. "He was Robinson Crusoe," the author writes, "landed in an uncharted wilderness, and his purpose was to measure it so that it could be sold." (We learn later he was also incompetent.) The narrative then circles back to early-16th-century England and to the nascent and novel notion of land ownership. Linklater guides us confidently through Henry VIII's sale of monastery properties to Edmund Gunter's creation of the 22-yard-long surveyors' chain. He provides a primer in surveying and then recounts the long effort to standardize weights and measures. Twenty pages later, we are back in the New World where, by the mid-18th century, land had become a hot commodity. The author notes wryly that the land's previous occupants surrendered their territory after potent doses of treaty and terrorism. Linklater sometimes tells us more than we want to know (e.g., the French systems of measurement), but we learn new stories about Washington and Jefferson (especially the latter), and we struggle along with the early surveyors who crossed swamps, forests, fields, streams, rivers, and purple mountains majestic as they unrolled chains, plotted townships and states, and established the stunning grids still visible today by cross-country air passengers. Linklater emphasizes the connections between measurement and commerce (measure it first, then sell it), and although he sprinkles a few dangling participles on thelandscape of his prose, he writes with a firm command of detail and an ample measure of wit: Fanny Trollope, he observes, was "a Tory to the tip of her parasol." Immeasurably informative and lots of fun. (30 b&w illustrations, 5 maps, not seen)
From the Publisher
"This expertly written and eminently enjoyable chronicle is highly recommended for history and history of science collections."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802713964
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Andro Linklater was born in Scotland and educated at Oxford University where he studied history. For several years he lived in the United States, working variously in politics and and the art, but returned to Britain to teach in Scotland and London. For the past twenty years he has been a full-time writer and journalist.

Andro has written extensively for a wide range of magazines and newspapers, including The Spectator, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Reader's Digest and Daily Mail. Assignments have taken him to many parts of the world including Patagonia, the South Pacific and the Arctic Circle. He has written frequently on science and technology, notably a major report on Chernobyl for the Telegraph Magazine, and an early investigation of genetic engineering for the Reader's Digest. His book reviews have appeared regularly in The Spectator, The Sunday Times and The Guardian.

Of Measuring America, he says “Like most visitors to the United States, it was the shape of the place I first fell in love with — the spectacular grid of city blocks, the squared-off, American Gothic farms, and the long, straight, section roads that caught the imagination of Kerouac and every drive-movie director you can think of. During the time I lived there, I never questioned why this should be so, it simply seemed American. Since then, however, I have returned frequently as a visitor and each time I came back, it always struck me as utterly astonishing that such a coherent pattern could have occurred across a 3000 mile-wide continent. How did it happen? Who shaped this gigantic land? Measuring America is my attempt to answer those questions.”

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2004

    American History Teachers Take Notice

    What struck me most about this book was how it induced me to consider the details of just how we came to measure America and establish boundaries. In History classes, we often focus on westward expansion and vast land purchases, and scarcely consider how this great land was measured and subdivided into saleable plots. This could have been a rather dry book, but the author brings the topic alive by introducing us to the movers and shakers of the surveying world in the 19th century. A delightful read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2002

    Well written, well structured, fun!

    This fun book is both intellectually interesting yet easy to read. Chapters about the origin of the Gunter's chain, provide a background the the problem of settling the west and overall, measuring townships and states. The book continues with a historical review of the birth of the Nation, and the shape of towns, states and cities in this country. Mapping, surveying and measurement issues (including weights) are explained. Overall: fun reading.

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