The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor (Paperback)

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"Randel is endlessly fascinating, and Holloway’s biography tells his life with great skill." —Steve Weinberg, USA Today


John Randel Jr. (1787–1865) was an eccentric and flamboyant surveyor. Renowned for his inventiveness as well as for his bombast and irascibility, Randel was central to Manhattan’s development but died in financial ruin. Telling Randel’s engrossing and dramatic life story for the first time, this eye-opening biography introduces an unheralded pioneer of American engineering and mapmaking.


Charged with “gridding” what was then an undeveloped, hilly island, Randel recorded the contours of Manhattan down to the rocks on its shores. He was obsessed with accuracy and steeped in the values of the Enlightenment, in which math and science promised dominion over nature. The result was a series of maps, astonishing in their detail and precision, which undergird our knowledge about the island today. During his varied career Randel created surveying devices, designed an early elevated subway, and proposed a controversial alternative route for the Erie Canal—winning him admirers and enemies.


The Measure of Manhattan is more than just the life of an unrecognized engineer. It is about the ways in which surveying and cartography changed the ground beneath our feet. Bringing Randel’s story into the present, Holloway travels with contemporary surveyors and scientists trying to envision Manhattan as a wild island once again.


Illustrated with dozens of historical images and antique maps, The Measure of Manhattan is an absorbing story of a fascinating man that captures the era when Manhattan—indeed, the entire country—still seemed new, the moment before canals and railroads helped draw a grid across the American landscape.



About the Author


Marguerite Holloway, the director of Science and Environmental Journalism at Columbia University, has written for Scientific American, Discover, the New York Times, Natural History, and Wired. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children.

Praise For…


Marguerite Holloway has uncovered [in the life of John Randel Jr.] a quite marvelous tale, and has told it just magnificently.
— Simon Winchester, author of The Perfectionists and The Map That Changed the World

The Measure of Manhattan allows us to appreciate, for the first time, the extent to which the rationality of the grid plan can be attributed to the irrationally obsessive man who ‘affixe[d] the city to the island,’ in Holloway’s words.

— Richard Kreiner - Slate

A far more intimate experience than going to the museum…Holloway’s relationship to the city is personal, and she is aware that the city itself was made by people, for them to live in.
— Village Voice

This outstanding history of the Manhattan grid offers us a strange archaeology: part spatial adventure, part technical expedition into the heart of measurement itself, starring teams of nineteenth-century gentlemen striding across the island’s eroded mountains and wild streams, implementing a grid that would soon enough sprout skyscrapers and flatirons, Central Park and Fifth Avenue.
— Geoff Manaugh - BLDGBLOG

Marguerite Holloway brings to life the man who in a very real way made New York what it is today.
— Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction

Marguerite Holloway’s portrait of the surveyor’s surveyor in his cartography-obsessed time shows us how much the physical city has changed and, most crucially, how much it hasn’t.
— Robert Sullivan, author of My American Revolution and Rats

As elegant as the maps it celebrates, Marguerite Holloway’s lively biography tells the story of the man who pinned a grid to Manhattan.
— Edward Dolnick, author of The Clockwork Universe

An enchanting web of biography and science, as magical as the grid that John Randel devised to give birth to modern Manhattan.
— Andro Linklater, author of Measuring America
Product Details
ISBN: 9780393347906
ISBN-10: 0393347907
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: February 24th, 2014
Pages: 384
Language: English