Monday, February 25, 2013

A Book Review of Drawing the Line

Drawing the Line - How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America by Edwin Danson is a fascinating book.  Though often touted as the marker to delineate between the slave and free states of the Civil War era, the history of the Mason-Dixon Line goes back before even the American Revolution.  Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were commissioned by the British Crown in the mid-1700's to survey the line so as to break the fierce border dispute between the (William) Penn family of Pennsylvania and the Lord Baltimore family of Maryland.  Besides this outstanding achievement, Mason and Dixon hold the distinction of measuring the first degree of latitude in North America.  This book is an interesting look at the history of the making of the line, as well the surveyors, Mason and Dixon.

Though at times rather technical in the languages of geometry, trigonometry and astronomy, the book readily and understandably addresses many other topics pertaining to history, science and culture.  These include:

* the history of determining the Earth's measurements for the standard of surveying - the various men throughout time and around the world who contributed to the study

* the hazards and dangers of the pursuit of scientific discovery during Mason and Dixon's lifetime

* John Harrison's lifelong work for the prize of unlocking the puzzle of measuring longitude, as well as the importance of longitude and how many thousands of lives have been saved because of it

* how the Englishmen, Mason and Dixon, perceived the treatment of the American Indian, as well as their experiences with Indian guides on the trail

* a deeper look into why the colonies went to war against Britain

* some details into how a surveying camp was run (including the fact that they chose to rest from their work on the Sabbath - Mason being Anglican and Dixon a Quaker)

* Mason's journeys on horseback and their interactions with the colonists

Also of interest are the excerpts from Mason's journal (which, by the way, was lost for 100 years after his time and later discovered in Nova Scotia!).  I also found the language of the book to be, at times, poetic:

"The assiduous Charles Mason, the water streaming from his cocked hat, collected one chunk of ice and measured it.  'The hail intermixed with pieces of ice; one piece of an irregular form measured one inch and six tenths in Length, one inch two tenths in breadth and half an inch thick.'"

"Strolling through the scented groves of hickory trees, one huge leaf caught his attention.  He duly measured and recorded its dimensions; seventeen inches long and twelve inches broad."

"An Englishman traveling alone, among a population increasingly resentful of the mother country, of its taxes and proclamation, tells of a brave and resilient man.  How did Mason handle this potentially dangerous situation?  He was a genial soul for one thing, a man with presence, though occasionally dour.  He was not aristocratic, but a country boy from the solid English yeomanry.  He found conversation easy, but equally enjoyed his solitary ambles.  Most of all, he enjoyed the company of Americans wherever he met them, and maybe shared a little of their rebellious nature."

"Whether it was a beautiful curtain of stalactites, the fall of a meteor, or the size of a hickory bough that caught his attention, Charles Mason admired with full reverence the glory of God's creation that daily surrounded him.  His eye for a fine line and his deep love of geometric form was frequently and lyrically expressed while he was standing aloft a high hill surveying the vista of the long West Line."

Reading this book has given me an appreciation for the knowledge and work that goes into surveying - especially the brand of "ancient" surveying at which Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon excelled.  And Mason and Dixon's passion for, and appreciation of, geometric arcs and precise measurements and straight lines is a testimony that, once again, Beauty shows up in unexpected places.

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