Measuring America

Andro Linklater

Read December 2003

In April 2003, I was fortunate to catch a talk by Alex MacLean, one of my favorite photographers. MacLean had just published a book, Designs on the Land. While many of his photographs are enchanting, I was especially taken with the cover image. It features the grid of American farmland, familiar to anyone who's flown over the Midwest a few times. But amidst the seemingly perfectly straight lines (themselves a bit of a lie, given that they lie on the surface of a spheroid) there is one little jig, as if someone got their calculations wrong. The visual tension this jig introduces immediately draws in the viewer, and forms the focus of the photograph, even though it's nearly off the edge.

MacLean must have known how arresting it was, because he puts it on the cover, and again as a prelude to the book on pages 16-17 (and in contrast to the natural randomness of Shiprock, rising out of a flat desert plain, and to interwoven highways in Philadelphia). The picture is entitled, “Castleton, North Dakota. Grid correction in Red River Valley.” Grid correction? This seemed like a curious concept, but I didn't know what the grid was, and soon put it out of mind. Except apparently I didn't, because over six months later, when I saw a reference to this book by Linklater, I saw the word “grid” again and was immediately reminded of MacLean's photograph. I hoped Linklater could teach me something about MacLean. I was in luck: the grid proves to be the focal point of this entertaining and informative book.

Thomas Jefferson's agrarian instincts are well-known; less known is his belief that the only way the New World could avoid the abuses of the old, particularly servitude, was through self-ownership of land. When land was held by a supreme ruler, boundaries didn't matter; when they became a subject of property, boundaries were everything. Jefferson therefore saw the process of surveying as a key to his vision of how America should evolve. This book is primarily the story of this survey, which for the first time in history divided a country into neatly identifiable plots that were then available for purchase. (Jefferson's rival, Hamilton, also supported this plan, partially because he saw it as an opportunity for the Treasury, which could use the sale of land to raise much-needed cash.)

Along the way, Linklater covers a good deal of other territory (so to speak). He must discuss the process of surveying; he gives memorable accounts of the older systems in employ along the Eastern Seaboard and in the early westward movement (in Ohio), and of the colorful characters that initiated and benefited from these ventures. He explains how “40 acres” entered the American mindscape, and where many of today's cookie-cutter towns got their layouts (though he notices, and quotes others who also realize, that in San Francisco alone this grid reaches part of the staggering beauty). Any discussion of surveying invariably defaults to one of measurement, which is Linklater's opportunity to cover the metric system and its history in relation to America. He is also careful to record reasons why the Imperial system continues to have its fans (divisibility by 2 and 3 is valuable because, unlike division by 10, it can easily and immediately grasped by a human, especially where physical quantities are concerned; John Quincy Adams therefore advocated the Imperial system). There was, indeed, a certain irony about reading this book in Maine, one of the few US states to have Interstate highway signs in metric units also. Finally, Linklater actually travels the land, and peppers the book with descriptions of seemingly unremarkable places that nevertheless illustrate principles of surveying. The book reflects this intimacy with his subject.

Jefferson is, in many ways, the hero of this book, and Linklater does well to back his worship with historical survey. He portray's Jefferson's tireless interest in the sciences and in rational thought. At one point we learn of Jefferson's plan for a new method of measure for the new country, penned as a supplement to an article on coinage (which, too, Jefferson felt within his ambit). Indeed, at one point Jefferson anticipates opposition to his proposals from conservatives who would want to “preserve an athletic strength of calculation”. Reading all this, we cannot but help marvel at the suppleness and power of Jefferson's intellect. It has become popular for authors to take issue with the deity of Monticello; this book does a good deal to remind us why he remains one of the foremost minds of human history.

In many respects, this book is an excellent companion to Alder's book. Indeed, the connections run deep, with some stories to be found in both. The books appear to have been published nearly simultaneously, and I was rather surprised to find that neither one cited the other; did they both really research the same documents? Then I found references in Linklater's book to an earlier journal article by Alder (who is an academic). So the credit for unearthing the common material must go to Alder; but there's a lot else in this book, and at any rate Linklater is able to weave the common material into a very different context. (For instance, the sorry tale of good Joseph Dombey, who was France's metric delegate to America in , features in both; while Alder also tells us about Britain's delegate also, Linklater gives us a great deal more information about Dombey and his life.)

This book is researched well, with the reference to Adler's journal article being just one instance. Unlike many non-academic authors, Linklater is not afraid to consult numerous original sources in addition to many secondary ones. He is openly enthusiastic about the Web, and honest enough to acknowledge it; this is the first book I've read that explicitly thanks Google (and the mathematician biographies housed at St. Andrews). His index is thorough and useful. Finally, Linklater writes well, and his lucid and often entertaining prose sometimes masks the depth of his inquiry.