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.