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


"This expertly written and eminently enjoyable chronicle is highly recommended for history and history of science collections." —Library Journal

"Make room on the library shelf for the never-before-told saga of the survey that converted the vast wilderness west of the Ohio River into a commodity marked out for government sale." —Booklist, Starred Review

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 ...

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"This expertly written and eminently enjoyable chronicle is highly recommended for history and history of science collections." —Library Journal

"Make room on the library shelf for the never-before-told saga of the survey that converted the vast wilderness west of the Ohio River into a commodity marked out for government sale." —Booklist, Starred Review

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. 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

From Barnes & Noble
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: 9781400100903
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/28/2003
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 10 CDs, 11 hrs. 33 min.
  • Product dimensions: 5.46 (w) x 7.06 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Andro Linklater was born in Scotland and educated at Oxford University where he studied history.

Alan Sklar is the winner of several AudioFile Earphones Awards and a multiple finalist for the APA's prestigious Audie Award. Named a Best Voice of 2009 by AudioFile magazine, his work has twice earned him a Booklist Editors' Choice Award, a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award, and Audiobook of the Year by ForeWord magazine.

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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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