The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor

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Overview

John Randel Jr. (1787–1865) was an eccentric and flamboyant surveyor. Renowned for his inventiveness as well as his bombast and irascibility, Randel created surveying devices, designed an early elevated subway, and laid out a controversial alternative route for the Erie Canal—winning him admirers and enemies. In The Measure of Manhattan, Marguerite Holloway explores the science and symbolism of surveying, a craft that begat a surprising number of modern technologies. Tasked with “gridding” what was then an ...

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The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor

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Overview

John Randel Jr. (1787–1865) was an eccentric and flamboyant surveyor. Renowned for his inventiveness as well as his bombast and irascibility, Randel created surveying devices, designed an early elevated subway, and laid out a controversial alternative route for the Erie Canal—winning him admirers and enemies. In The Measure of Manhattan, Marguerite Holloway explores the science and symbolism of surveying, a craft that begat a surprising number of modern technologies. Tasked with “gridding” what was then an undeveloped, hilly island, Randel recorded the contours of Manhattan down to the rocks on its shores. In his precision he sought to tame the land; Holloway explores this philosophy as well as contemporary efforts to envision Manhattan as a wild island again. Illustrated throughout with historical images and antique maps, The Measure of Manhattan is about the ways we envision and inhabit the world, and is also an eye-opening biography of a man who was central to Manhattan’s development yet died in financial ruin.

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  • Marguerite Holloway
    Marguerite Holloway  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Between 1808 and 1865, John Randel Jr. altered the landscape of New York City by proposing, surveying, and establishing the current grid system of the modern city; during the same years, the inveterate and peripatetic genius also surveyed and divided portions of upstate New York, “trudged hundreds of miles, laying out turnpikes and surveying routes for several of the country’s earliest railroads,” and “sounded the Hudson River south of Albany” in order to determine how ships might navigate the waters more easily. In this fascinating biography of a figure mostly eclipsed by the city’s other sculptor, Robert Moses, Holloway traces Randel’s life and career from his work mapping the grid of “Mannahatta” to his plans for an elevated rail line and his constant efforts to improve the tools of his trade. Randel invented a number of devices—including a water level, a theodolite, and various measuring rods—for use in surveying parcels of land. The figure that emerges from Holloway’s admiring portrait is a man who obsessed over precision, “hoped his ideas would improve the world,” “loved finding solutions” to problems, and who strove to see how best to move from the present into the future. 63 illus. Agent: Elaine Markson, Markson Thoma Literary Agency. (Feb.)
BLDGBLOG
This outstanding history of the Manhattan grid offers us a strange archaeology: part spatial adventure, part technical expedition into the heart of measurement itself, starring teams of 19th-century gentlemen striding across the island’s eroded mountains and wild streams, implementing a grid that would soon enough sprout skyscrapers and flatirons, Central Park and 5th Avenue. Marguerite Holloway’s engaging survey takes us step by step through the challenges of obsolete land laws and outdated maps of an earlier metropolis, looking for—and finding—the future shape of this immeasurable city.— Geoff Manaugh
Edward Dolnick
“As elegant as the maps it celebrates, Marguerite Holloway’s lively biography tells the story of the man who pinned a grid to Manhattan.”
Andro Linklater
“Marguerite Holloway has created an enchanting web of biography and science, as magical as the grid that John Randel devised to give birth to modern Manhattan.”
BLDGBLOG - Geoff Manaugh
“This outstanding history of the Manhattan grid offers us a strange archaeology: part spatial adventure, part technical expedition into the heart of measurement itself, starring teams of 19th-century gentlemen striding across the island’s eroded mountains and wild streams, implementing a grid that would soon enough sprout skyscrapers and flatirons, Central Park and Fifth Avenue. Marguerite Holloway’s engaging survey takes us step by step through the challenges of obsolete land laws and outdated maps of an earlier metropolis, looking for—and finding—the future shape of this immeasurable city.”
The Daily Beast - Kevin Canfield
“In gracefully efficient prose, Marguerite Holloway, who heads Columbia University’s Science and Environmental Journalism program, gives the reader a vivid sense of the challenges facing Randel, the social context that informed his epic undertaking, and the will and ingenuity that he brought to the task…an enlightening ode to a man who made sense of a budding metropolis.”
Library Journal
Holloway (science & environmental journalism, Columbia Univ.) here sheds light on a lesser-known but significant figure of American history. Randel (1787–1865) was a surveyor and cartographer whose fame rests largely on his 1811 establishment of a grid plan that resulted in the streets and property lines that profoundly transformed New York City and its growth, enabling it to logically expand into the great cosmopolis it is today. Holloway also highlights Randel's other engineering endeavors, such as the building of canals and railroads in the young country, and inventing tools that revolutionized both surveying and mapmaking. But, like many visionaries, Randel found his efforts not fully appreciated during his lifetime; he was often distracted by bitter professional rivalries as well as by lawsuits he waged against those he felt were cheating him. Despite his prolific and successful career, he died almost penniless and forgotten. VERDICT While Holloway's thorough coverage of Randel's efforts in Manhattan makes for a compelling narrative, much of her coverage seems patchy, an unfortunate result, given her exhaustive research to resurrect her subject's life. Nonetheless, she is to be commended for reminding us of the undeniable significance, to this day, of Randel's work not only for New York, but for infrastructure development across the United States. Recommended for anyone interested in American civil engineering, urban planning, or New York biographies.—Richard Drezen, Jersey City, NJ
Kirkus Reviews
Sturdy biography of an important, long-overlooked figure in the early development of the United States. "His was the era of laying lines of the land--lines for communication, for transportation and goods; lines for establishing nationhood, statehood, and individual ownership." So writes Holloway (Science and Environmental Journalism/Columbia Univ.) of John Randel (1787–1865), a master surveyor who improved on the tools of his trade while taking on some of the toughest surveying challenges of his time, the most important of them being the imposition of a grid system on the then-rugged topography of Manhattan. Frederick Law Olmsted is better known for his contributions to the making of Central Park, but Randel figures there with a surveyor's bolt set in rock; he also figures across the island for leveling hills and filling earth, among the earliest efforts at terraforming. A lover of math and data, Randel went on to work in the nascent railroad industry and to lay out canals between the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay, though for various reasons his work was less successful than on Manhattan. Holloway serves up a suitably vigorous life of the man, who was always on the go, and she does not assume that readers will share his interests and knowledge--she provides useful little lessons in geometry, in how geosynchronous positioning works, and the like. There is much to like in this book and its now-restored subject. A solid contribution to the history of the early republic.
Elizabeth Kolbert
“The Measure of Manhattan offers a fascinating look at a forgotten episode in American history. Marguerite Holloway brings to life the man who in a very real way made New York what it is today.”
Robert Sullivan
“With the grid he laid down, John Randel Jr. transformed an island of 18th Century villages into the modern linear city—a mind-boggling achievement in ferociously meticulous surveying that reads, in The Measure of Manhattan, like a wilderness adventure, angry farmers standing in for the wild animals already hunted away. Marguerite Holloway’s portrait of the surveyor’s surveyor in his cartography-obsessed time shows us how much the physical city has changed and, most importantly, how much it hasn’t.”
Geoff Manaugh - BLDGBLOG
“This outstanding history of the Manhattan grid offers us a strange archaeology: part spatial adventure, part technical expedition into the heart of measurement itself. . . . . Marguerite Holloway’s engaging survey takes us step by step through the challenges of obsolete land laws and outdated maps of an earlier metropolis, looking for—and finding—the future shape of this immeasurable city.”
Kevin Canfield - The Daily Beast
“In gracefully efficient prose, Marguerite Holloway, who heads Columbia University’s Science and Environmental Journalism program, gives the reader a vivid sense of the challenges facing Randel, the social context that informed his epic undertaking, and the will and ingenuity that he brought to the task…an enlightening ode to a man who made sense of a budding metropolis.”
Simon Winchester
“This intelligent and entirely riveting account of the brave young man who squared and sculpted Manhattan, and made famous its present street geometry, is every bit as groundbreaking a success as was his own work, two centuries before. Marguerite Holloway has uncovered in the life of John Randel Jr., a quite marvelous tale, and has told it just magnificently.”
New York Times
““[Holloway] deftly weaves surviving fragments of Randel’s life . . . with a 21st century scavenger hunt by modern geographers to find the physical markers of his work.”
Village Voice
“A far more intimate experience than going to the museum.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393071252
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/18/2013
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 704,085
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Marguerite Holloway, the director of Science and Environmental Journalism at Columbia University, has written for Scientific American, Discover, the New York Times, Natural History, and Wired. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children.

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  • Posted March 19, 2013

    A Welcome Description of an Historic Survey

    Easy to read style, details provided in a logical sequence. References to other significant geodetic developments that were arising concurrently. Specifically, the considerations given to gravimetric data were helpful to perceiving the Manhattan survey in the context of survey activities, nationally and internationally. For the non-surveyor, this book serves to connect the implications of a precise survey for the immediate and long-term development of Manhattan.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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