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 the landscape 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)