Measuring America

It's not clear how to categorize Measuring America by Andro Linklater, but wherever it falls, it's a marvellous book.

It's about that fundamental of economics, the foundation of wealth-creation in the early and perhaps also the later stages of economic development – land. The measuring referred to in the title is the history of the surveying of the land from the earliest days of the United States, the move westward by settlers, and the creation of wide property ownership. The creation of regular plots by the survey, at least in the northern and western states and mid-west, created a market: “What drew people from the eastern states and around the world was the desire for this soil magically transformed from wilderness to property by the act of measurement and mapping.”

It's also about the political implications of land ownership, and the relationship between the relatively regimented US survey and the robustness of American democracy. The choice of approach to land measurement “was so straightforward that the citizen squatter could operate it as easily as the government surveyor,” (p169), thanks to the intervention of Thomas Jefferson. There was indeed massive land speculation, but not as massive as it might have been.

But the book is also about the impact of imposing a grid on nature, given the
regularity of the US survey and the square plots which symbolise the
prairies. Here is a grid Hannah Higgins didn't cover in her The Grid
Book
, but certainly could have. Organisation into grids is a conceptual
innovation which, like any technology, has costs as well as benefits.is also about the importance of standards not only for economic development, as standards are essential for trade, but also for modernity. Standardisation involves abstraction, measurement by concept rather than by the length of a stride of contents of a cupped hand.

In the last chapter the author looks at the steady progress of metric measurement, now standard everywhere in the developed world apart from the US (in official, although not common usage). He notes that the EU will turn officially fully metric in 2010. “Like everything to do with measurement, the EU's decision has little to do with logic – a single system is more efficient than two – and everything to do with control, profits, power. Eventually the US government will have to make a choice between economics and its past, between the wishes of business and those of its citizens.”

I bought the book on a whim in the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool – it's signed by the author and it's certainly  a bookshop I'd put on my author tour if I could – and it proved to be a real gem. I learned something new (did you know that you weigh more at the poles than at the Equator) or was stimulated and provoked by a fresh idea (not least weights and measures as a dimension of power) on virtually every page. Highly recommended.

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