The Manhattan grid, with its logical progression of numbered streets and intersecting avenues, is familiar to anyone who has been to the city. The same type of grid can be seen throughout much of the country by anyone who flies low over the Midwest to see its patchwork of farmland. The men responsible for these grid systems are long gone, but their work remains a marvel of modern design and urban planning that has affected our lives in countless ways. The Measure Of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor [W. W. Norton & Company; February 18, 2013; $26.95 hardcover] is the first book to chronicle the life of John Randel Jr., the unrecognized genius who mapped Manhattan as we know it today. As she tells Randel’s story, author Marguerite Holloway, the director of science and environmental journalism at Columbia University, explores the science and symbolism of surveying, a craft that begat a surprising number of modern technologies.
In 1808 when he was in his early twenties, Randel was commissioned to survey Manhattan. Most of the island was still rural, predominantly farmland. “We have suffered so much from pestilence, We have so severely felt the evil of confused Streets, that we have considered the widening of our narrow passages, and the formation of open places and squares, as of the first magnitude and importance,” wrote a group of New Yorkers not long after the initial grid plan was unveiled. In the spirit of Enlightenment ideals, the grid plan was meant to impose order on an unpredictable terrain. Neither the land nor its residents were cooperative.
The island of Manhattan, with its rocky, marshy terrain and eastward tilt, was particularly unsuited for the precise north-south, east-west grid the city developers imagined. Most surveyors made do with whatever tools they had, but Randel, a true perfectionist, invented his own instruments. Not only that, he measured the effect that temperature would have on the materials so that he could correctly adjust measurements made at different times of year. Gamely walking every inch of Manhattan as he plotted streets, Randel braved inclement weather and contended with unhappy residents, who removed markers that threatened the boundaries of their land. His employees were often no happier with the hard work of laying down the grid: many quit, others drank or shirked their duties.
The grid was arguably the most successful project of Randel’s career. But as Holloway tracks his fascinating decline, she describes how Randel’s other ideas stayed “visionary” even as the world changed around him: a controversial plan for the Erie Canal won him statehouse enemies; his dream of a great metropolis in Maryland earned him a reputation as “strange and eccentric”; and a revolutionary proposal for an elevated railway in Manhattan led to his financial ruin.
The Measure Of Manhattan is a portrait of a remarkable character whose influence on our society and culture has been surprisingly large, but who until now has been relegated to the footnotes of history. Holloway’s absorbing biography brings the talented, tragic figure of John Randel Jr. to life, and she reminds us that, in many ways, our industrial age began with Randel’s work. His is the story of the clash of technology and nature, and of the evolution of cities themselves.
“There is much to like in this book and its now-restored subject. . . . A solid contribution to the history of the early republic.” —Kirkus Reviews
“In this fascinating biography of a figure mostly eclipsed by the city’s other sculptor, Robert Moses, Holloway traces Randel’s life and career from his work mapping the grid of ‘Mannahatta’ to his plans for an elevated rail line and his constant efforts to improve the tools of his trade.” —Publishers Weekly
“Setting Randel amid the infrastructure manias of early-1800s America, Holloway renders his life’s triumphs and failures irresistibly readable.” —Booklist
About The Author
Marguerite Holloway, the director of science and environmental journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, has written for Scientific American, Discover, the New York Times, Natural History, and Wired.
Title: The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor
Author: Marguerite Holloway
Publication Date: February 18, 2013
Price: $26.95 hardcover