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Rulers of the territoryMeasuring America How the United States Was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in Historyby Andro Linklater312pp HarperCollinsIn the mid-19th century when the cold tongue of land that is the Michigan peninsula was first being sliced up for development the surveyors began to discover problems with their measurements particularly during the winter The lengths of metal chain they doggedly carried and laid out like giant rulers across the forests and swamps would shrink when the temperature dropped below zeroThe resulting inconsistencies would only add up to a few inches a day but over the vast distances of midwestern America the shrinking chains threatened to cause future disputes between landowners Until a conscientious surveyor called William Burt came up with a solution every frosty morning he built a fire and warmed up his chain until it expanded back to exactly its original lengthSuch diligence respect for figures and slightly bloody-minded defiance of the elements is a very American combination So to try to understand the country by describing how it was first surveyed and divided up as this book does is likely to be a fruitful enterpriseAt first in fact Measuring America seems almost too neat a project full of charmingly eccentric explorers with echoes of two recent bestsellers about map-making Dava Sobels Longitude and Thomas Pynchons Mason Dixon It details quirky discoveries about the 19th century and about America two of contemporary publishings favourite subjects The opening sentences could almost be a cosy sepia voiceover from the History Channel The imposing library of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in London is strategically situated In one direction its tall windows look over the street to Whitehall where the Tudor and Stuart sovereigns ruledYet Andro Linklater is too restless and intelligent a writer to take a predictable route through the subject for long He begins not with America but with the pioneering land surveys in England and Holland during the early 16th
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