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History of Surveying

Surveying or land surveying is the technique, profession, and science of determining the terrestrial or three-dimensional position of points and the distances and angles between them. These points are usually on the surface of the Earth, and they are often used to establish land maps and boundaries for ownership, locations like building corners or the surface location of subsurface features, or other purposes required by government or civil law, such as property sales.

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A surveying professional is called a surveyor. Surveyors work with elements of mathematics (geometry and trigonometry), physics, engineering and the law. They use equipment like total stations, robotic total stations, GPS receivers, prisms, 3D scanners, radios, handheld tablets, digital levels, and surveying software.

Surveying has been an element in the development of the human environment since the beginning of recorded history. The planning and execution of most forms of construction require it. It is also used in transport, communications, mapping, and the definition of legal boundaries for land ownership.

Ancient surveying
Basic surveyance has occurred since humans built the first large structures. The prehistoric monument at Stonehenge (2500 BC) was set out by prehistoric surveyors using peg and rope geometry.


In ancient Egypt, a rope stretcher would use simple geometry to re-establish boundaries after the annual floods of the Nile River. The almost perfect squareness and north-south orientation of the Great Pyramid of Giza, built 2700 BC, affirm the Egyptians’ command of surveying.

The Romans recognized land survey as a profession. They established the basic measurements under which the Roman Empire was divided, such as a tax register of conquered lands (300 AD). Roman surveyors were known as Gromatici

In medieval Europe, beating the bounds maintained the boundaries of a village or parish. This was the practice of gathering a group of residents and walking around the parish or village to establish a communal memory of the boundaries. Young boys were included to ensure the memory lasted as long as possible.

In England, William the conqueror commissioned the Domesday Brooke in 1086. It recorded the names of all the land owners, the area of land they owned, the quality of the land, and specific information of the area’s content and inhabitants. It did not include maps showing exact locations.

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Gunter’s chain – An instrument that enabled plots of land to be accurately surveyed and plotted for legal and commercial purposes was introduced in 1620 by English mathematician Edmund Gunter. This marked the beginning of an era.

Modern surveying
In the 18th century, modern techniques and instruments for surveying were put to use. Jesse Ramsden introduced the first precision theodolite in 1787. It was an instrument for measuring angles in the horizontal and vertical planes. He created his great theodolite using an accurate dividing engine of his own design. Ramsden’s theodolite represented a great step forward in the instrument’s accuracy. William Gascoigne invented an instrument that used a telescope with an installed cross chair as a target device, in 1640. James Watt developed an optical meter for the measuring of distance in 1771; it measured the parallactic angle from which the distance to a point could be deduced.

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Dutch mathematician Willebrord Snellius (a.k.a. Snell) introduced the modern systematic use of triangulation. In 1615 he surveyed the distance from Alkmaar to Bergen op Zoom approximately 70 miles (110 kilometres). The survey was a chain of quadrangles containing 33 triangles in all. Snell showed how planar formulae could be corrected to allow for the curvature of the earth. He also showed how to resection, or calculate, the position of a point inside a triangle using the angles cast between the vertices at the unknown point. These could be measured more accurately than bearings of the vertices, which depended on a compass. His work established the idea of surveying a primary network of control points, and locating subsidiary points inside the primary network later. Between 1733 and 1740, Jacques Cassini and his son Cesar undertook the first triangulation of France. They included a re-surveying of the meridian arc, leading to the publication in 1745 of the first map of France constructed on rigorous principles. By this time, triangulation methods were by then well established for local map-making,

It was only towards the end of the 18th century that detailed triangulation network surveys mapped whole countries. In 1784, a team from General William Roy’s Ordnance survey of Great Britain began the principal triangulation of Britain. The first Ramsden theodolite was built for this survey. The survey was finally completed in 1853. The Great Trigonometric survey of India began in 1801. The Indian survey had an enormous scientific impact. It was responsible for one of the first accurate measurements of a section of an arc of longitude, and for measurements of the geodesic anomaly. It named and mapped Mount Everest and the other Himalayan peaks. Surveying became a professional occupation in high demand at the turn of the 19th century with the onset of the industrial revolution. The profession developed more accurate instruments to aid its work. Industrial infrastructure projects used surveyors to lay out canals, roads and rails. Napoleaon Bonaparte founded continental Europe’s first cadastre in 1808. This gathered data on the number of parcels of land, their value, land usage, and names. This system soon spread around Europe. Robert Torrens introduced the Torrens system in South Australia in 1858. Torrens intended to simplify land transactions and provide reliable titles via a centralized register of land. The Torrens system was adopted in several other nations of the English-speaking world.

20th century
At the beginning of the century surveyors had improved the older chains and ropes, but still faced the problem of accurate measurement of long distances. Dr. Trevor Lloyd Wadley developed the Tellurometer during the 1950s. It measures long distances using two microwave transmitter/receivers. During the late 1950s Geodimeter introduced Electronic Distance Measurement (EDM) equipment. EDM units use a multi frequency phase shift of light waves to find a distance. These instruments saved the need for days or weeks of chain measurement by measuring between points kilometers apart in one go.

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Advances in electronics allowed miniaturization of EDM. In the 1970s the first instruments combining angle and distance measurement appeared, becoming known as total stations. Manufacturers added more equipment by degrees, bringing improvements in accuracy and speed of measurement. Major advances include tilt compensators, data recorders, and on-board calculation programs.

The first Satellite positioning system was the US Navy transit system. The first successful launch took place in 1960. The system’s main purpose was to provide position information to Polaris missiles submarines. Surveyors found they could use field receivers to determine the location of a point. Sparse satellite cover and large equipment made observations laborious, and inaccurate. The main use was establishing benchmarks in remote locations.

The US Air force launched the first prototype satellite Global positioning system (GPS) in 1978. GPS used a larger constellation of satellites and improved signal transmission to provide more accuracy. Early GPS observations required several hours of observations by a static receiver to reach survey accuracy requirements. Recent improvements to both satellites and receivers allow Real Time Kinetics (RTK) surveying. RTK surveys get high-accuracy measurements by using a fixed base station and a second roving antenna. The position of the roving antenna can be tracked when it moves.


21st century
The theodolite, total station and RTK GPS survey remain the primary methods in use.
Remote sensing and satellite imagery continue to improve and become cheaper, allowing more commonplace use. Prominent new technologies include three-dimensional (3D) scanning and use of lidar for topographical surveys.

Next week we will take a critical look at Surveying from the African and Nigerian perspective.


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