No limits. Those words came to mind as I read “The Measure of Manhattan” by Marguerite Holloway.
The book, published earlier this year by W.W. Norton and Company, tells the story of John Randel Jr., a surveyor, cartographer and inventor who plotted Manhattan’s city grid in the early 19th century.
Randel’s tale is one of hope and heartbreak. Though he died penniless, he pursued perfection passionately. He made his own instruments, including a theodolite that was large by American standards at that time. Holloway said that Randel’s admirers found in him a “rationally driven exactitude.” Though Randel could be stubborn and headstrong, he remained dedicated to his vision for the world and for conquering all challenges in his path. He would not take no for an answer.
In addition, Randel offers lessons for us all. His courage and commitment to his ideals should serve as guideposts. Society’s limits would not deter him. He dealt with setbacks, both financial and personal, by driving forward and with an unwavering commitment to what he thought was right.
Randel’s characteristics, particularly his love for math, drove innovation. Randel’s traits, particularly his self-reliance, drove a pursuit for the truth.
Those same talents motivate us today.
They help surveyors like Steven C. Carper, who is trying to develop his own niche and who is working on volunteer projects in countries such as India and Haiti.
These traits guide surveyors like Todd Babcock, Chas Langelan and Jim Shomper who investigate the mysteries of the past, revealing new details about the lines that shaped the United States. At the Surveyors Rendezvous, they celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Mason and Dixon Line by shedding new light on the life and work of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.
Mason and Dixon, much like Randel, can guide us today. Their stories can lend insight to the challenges we face.
Importantly, history can show us where we’ve been. It can show us a path, but we have to blaze the trail. If we don’t, the lessons will be lost.
Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy hearkened to the work of a famous playwright when he addressed the Irish legislature: “George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach to life, ‘Other people,’ he said, ‘see things and say why? But I dream things that never were and I say, why not?’”
John Randel Jr. dreamed things that never were, and today there are many others that share that same vision. It allows us to dream, to excel and to change the world.