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

3.81  ·  Rating Details  ·  276 Ratings  ·  44 Reviews
In 1790, America was in enormous debt, having depleted what little money the country had during its victorious fight for independence. Before the nation's greatest asset, the land west of the Ohio River, could be sold it had to be measured out and mapped. And before that could be done, a uniform set of measurements had to be chosen for the new republic out of the morass of ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published September 30th 2003 by Plume (first published 2002)
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May 30, 2016 GoldGato rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although I'm sure it wasn't the book's intention, but I now finally understand why the western part of the United States is defined by nice crisp lines, while the poor mixed-up East is a hodge-podge of borders. When flying over the land, it's wonderful to look down at the Great Empty and see the squares of farms and towns. I always know when the flight has passed the Mississippi because then it's that part of the country. "Easterners", I always sigh.

The book has a large ambition, in that it is t
James Eckman
Jul 04, 2016 James Eckman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to James by: GoldGato
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm a nerdy type, I liked playing with the surveying tools in my 7th grade Construction class, so this book was right up my alley. The cover and title of this book worried me a bit, Untamed Wilderness smacks of the old Manifest Destiny histories I read as a kid. Not in this case, it's clear how the US was settled, we stole it from the natives and how the evolving notion of private versus owned by some sorry-assed king property drove the economy of America. Land hunger, greed and speculation are ...more
Emmett Hoops
Jun 08, 2013 Emmett Hoops rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This was one of those books that added much to my understanding of America. Every time I look at a map of the U.S., I marvel at the number of small towns in the South, and the relative paucity of them in the North. I wondered why the Western states all have boundaries that can be drawn with a ruler, a few quite nearly square, while none east of the Mississippi have that characteristic. I wondered how in the world anyone surveyed the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina: it is, after all, ...more
I was encouraged to read this book from a friend who responded to my Facebook rant earlier this year on why the United States of America is one of the few countries that does not use the metric system. This book answered that question and more. I am no longer ashamed. ;) In America, we are free to use whatever system of measurement works best, ounces or cups or grams in the kitchen, metric in scientific and medical fields, mph and kph in travel. And, indeed, we have hidden elements of metrificat ...more
Steve Dallape
Nov 05, 2015 Steve Dallape rated it really liked it
As much as I enjoy reading about history, I really didn't think this fairly in-depth analysis of land surveying and the standardization of weights and measures would hold my interest for long - how wrong I was! This is a far-from-dry look at how America - its people, society and culture, not just the physical land - was shaped by the men who measured it, and the methods they used. I had no idea of the chaotic state of weights and measures throughout history, with different countries, and even di ...more
Todd Stockslager
Jun 08, 2015 Todd Stockslager rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Account of weights and measures in America, with particular attention to the relationship between the land, the people, and the system of surveying the land. How we measure, market, and possess our geographical space has impacted our politics and our people immensely, Linklater argues.

He also traces the history of the metric system, and its creation and growth at the same time that the US and England were pursuing their own (and finally failed) attempts at new decimal-based weights and measures.
Jeff Waltersdorf
Nov 08, 2012 Jeff Waltersdorf rated it really liked it
An intriguing accounting of the surveying of the United States, carving wilderness into sellable blocks of land. A bit dry in the recounting of history, it is peppered with interesting anecdotes of the surveyors themselves, including how pirates of the Caribbean kept the United States from becoming metric. Even the tangents into the invention of the metric system, versus the growth of the English/Imperial measurement system, and decimal versus fractional based measurement, come back into play th ...more
Jun 24, 2015 Ron rated it really liked it
A very nicely written and far-ranging history of how the American "wilderness" was mapped and platted, starting in the mid 1700s and continuing for 150 years, so that the land could be sold, and the land settled and used.The author covers the ongoing debate of what measurements should be used, and how traditional measurements fought against metrication and won out, mostly, in the English-speaking world. Land peculation, laziness in surveying (settling for good-enough, until the lawyers got invol ...more
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Marina Mowrey
Jan 29, 2015 Marina Mowrey rated it really liked it
This was really interesting, but the title is a little misleading. And actually, my book calls it "Measuring America: How the United States Was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History," which is also misleading. It's more like "Measuring America: How the Act of Surveying Land in Early America was Affected By, and In Turn Affected, Many Measuring Systems" or something. It is more interesting than I just made it sound, and gave a different perspective on some events I already knew a bit about. ...more
Jan 25, 2016 Muz rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone!
This book didn't really take me that long to read. Life came up and made me put it down. Which was sad, because it's hard to put this one down.
Linklater looks at American history through the window of surveying, land management, and land ownership. And while that sounds dull, it isn't. He touches on everything that drove colonists and led up to the Revolutionary War, and how the country expanded after that. How a change in practices in England - where land was enclosed and people removed from p
Tom Darrow
Dec 25, 2015 Tom Darrow rated it really liked it
The subtitle and cover of this book is a little deceiving. They make you think that this book focuses entirely on the Northwest Territory/Ordinance and land surveying, but the story includes much more than that. It is essentially the entire trans-Atlantic history of measurement (area, weight, time, temperature, etc.) from the 1700s through the present.

Pros -
- The author does a good job at digging up some of the more obscure, but influential, people and presenting them in a life-like way.
- The a
Mike Ogilvie
Dec 01, 2010 Mike Ogilvie rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical
A fascinating look into the unique circumstance the United States found itself in in its infancy. What do you do with a vast wilderness of land that was growing in fits and bounds by settlement, legislation, conquest, and treaty?

Having the need to measure the new land, the powers that be (Congress, the President, and his cabinet) needed to figure out just how to get that done. It became a huge opportunity to bring together the unbelievably chaotic units of measurement available at the time (e.g.
Todd Martin
Jul 02, 2010 Todd Martin rated it really liked it
Property ownership has been at the heart of the American dream since the countries inception (life, liberty and property) and represented a significant difference from the English system with its feudal system. But you can’t have property ownership without a system of surveyance which allows property boundaries to be established so that land may be bought and sold. “Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy” by Andro Linklater te ...more
Jul 17, 2014 Tracey rated it liked it
This was a pass-along from my mom, I think; tho the subtitle is intriguing enough for me to have spent the $2.00 on it at Borders before they closed.

However, the subtitle is a bit misleading. Linklater actually starts the book with a review of the history of measurement, before getting into how measuring land gave mankind a sense of ownership and dominion; starting with Great Britain and carrying over to the colonies that became the United States of America. Along the way, he delves into the hi
Jun 15, 2011 Eric rated it liked it
Forget the subtitle, Linklater tells the story of how the American land was surveyed and brought from unknown, unmeasured, and unsaleable to known, quantified, and commodified...from land to property. Along the way, learn how Jefferson almost suc...ceeded in moving us to a decimal-based metric system; why the North beyond the 13 colonies is marked by grids and straight lines and the South is not, and how that has shaped the redeeming values of the former and the corrosive character of the latter ...more
Alasdair Craig
May 06, 2014 Alasdair Craig rated it it was amazing
A wonderful book, marvellously told, detailing from a surveyor's perspective the relentless westward expansion of the US states in the early years of America. Intertwined with this story is also the story of the metric system, and how America came so close to being one of the first to adopt it. Whether you're pro-metric or traditional you can appreciate the sympathetic way Linklater discusses both.
Edmond Dantes
May 23, 2016 Edmond Dantes rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Questo libro è un piccolo gioiellino, che racconta in ottimo pano stile anglosassone la nascita del concetto di proprietà privata in Inghilterra (vs proprietà feudale), dei problemi legati alla oggettività della sua misurazione, dei dibattiti sus sistema migliore da usare e dell'impensabile - a priori - trionfo del Metro sulla iarda ...
Apr 25, 2008 Ron rated it really liked it
I had been meaning to read this book for a couple of years now and finally got to it. Liz gave it to me because it's related to Geography. A great non-fiction book that takes from 1500's Europe to America and how the practice of surveying and the science of Geodesy developed. The author has really done his reasearch on this one. It weaves the trials and tribulations of early American land surveyors and the political struggle for standardized weights and measures in America and throughout the wor ...more
Craig Stratton
Jul 25, 2011 Craig Stratton rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: surveying
This is a very interesting book for anyone interested in American History, but especially to those who make their living as Land Surveyors. I find it fascinating how the wilderness of America was able to be mapped, sometimes accurately, sometimes not, but men and technology so far removed from the current equipment we have today. This book also goes into detail how the concept of measuring and selling land was so foreign to the native americans and how the settlers used that to their advantage w ...more
Interesting facts, but a little too technical to make it an easy read. i enjoyed it anyway.
Kevin Kasowski
May 22, 2013 Kevin Kasowski rated it liked it
the writing isn't always fluid and the narrative kind of wanders back and forth across time periods which I found a bit confusing but this book isn't as boring as it might sound. The subtitle part was the most interesting to me, i.e., the backstory to the surveying of America was the long-running battle between Thomas Jefferson (who believed in small farmers owning their land) and Robert Morris and others, who were devout speculators and absentee landlords. How the lines were drawn (or not) had ...more
Todd Van Meter
Aug 12, 2011 Todd Van Meter rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've read this book three times and find it just as fascinating with each subsequent reading as I did with the first. If you have any curiosity regarding how the USA came to use our current uniform system of weights, measurements, and coinage then this book is mandatory reading. The book also includes a very interesting explanation of the origin of the public land survey system and demonstrates the true genius of Thomas Jefferson.
Jun 08, 2014 William rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: scanned
Fascinating read. It amazes me how we measure things truly matters and affects the psyche and culture of a nation as it grows and lives today. This books goes into a lot of detail, more than some may care for, but it's not overly academic either as not to be accessible or not interesting. It also talks about more than just the United States, despite what the title and subtitle say.
Michael Hinsley
Jun 26, 2011 Michael Hinsley rated it it was amazing
Absolutely brilliant. While not the most fluid of writers, Linklater handles a tough subject well. A positively enlightening essay on the cartography of the U.S. I even had to throw out several of my most cherished prejudices regarding the Mid west and connecting regions. Is nothing sacred? Truly delightful, worthy of a re-reading, and further treatments.
Jan 16, 2016 Scribe rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Great book, especially if you're heavily involved in maps and areas anywhere. A twin tale of the physical and political challenges that went into making American land 'ownable', and the need for and rise of the metric system (or not) in Europe and the States - and the power-grab associated with it.
Jan 17, 2008 Nikki rated it liked it
Recommends it for: people interested in American history
Shelves: just-read, history
I learned quite a lot about the metric system from this book, which was not something I expected. However, my wish to learn more about the surveying of the western U.S. (starting in East Liverpool, Ohio) was fulfilled and I learned about a lot of interesting characters along the way.
Apr 06, 2009 Christopher rated it liked it
A fun book, if a little unfocused. I feel like I would have enjoyed this more if I had grown up or lived in the Northwest Territories or mid-west in general. Since I am very much a New Englander, I just don't see the effect of these land survels on my land.
Feb 09, 2010 Rita added it
Fascinating story of how our world (US) was divided. It answers so many questions about county road, townships, rangelines, Gunter's chain (for those in Forestry). Also, how important standardized weights and measures are and have always been to countries.
Jun 12, 2012 Kerry rated it liked it
I loved the history of weights and measurements. Also learned extensively about Gunter's chain. I did find myself drifting in this audio book since it is very geeky and science based. You have to be into the concept of land surveying to finish this one.
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“Below the roads run the surveyors' lines which squared off the wilderness, and not only made it ready for sale but constructed a shape for county and state government.” 0 likes
“And that survey is the one we all go back to. When you find one of their original corners, it is like a handshake with the past.” 0 likes
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