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Interesting Facts & History of Surveying

What do George Washington, the Mason-Dixon Line, the Egyptians, and Captain James Cook have in common?

National Surveyors Week is March 15 – 21. It is a week to honor the contributions and accomplishments of professional surveyors. Today, there are more than 45,000 professional surveyors in the U.S. who continue the critical role as “expert measurer” by utilizing advanced technology such as GPS, 3D laser scanning, robotic survey instruments, and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to map property boundaries and surface features for design, development, mapping, and conveyance of real estate.

Read on to learn some interesting facts and a little history about the Surveying Profession.

Early Surveyors

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were all Land Surveyors before taking office as the President of the United States. The first president of United States, George Washington, began his remarkable career as a surveyor, map-maker and soldier. He began work as a surveyor’s assistant in 1748 at the age of 16, but after only a year, he became a surveyor for the newly created frontier country of Culpeper. There he gained a reputation as an honest, fair and dependable person.

The Mason-Dixon Line

The Mason Dixon Line is actually a survey line. Charles Mason, an assistant astronomer at Greenwich Observatory, and Jeremiah Dixon, an astronomer, mathematician and surveyor, were hired to survey an agreed-upon line to settle a dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland. It took 4 years and cost $75,000 to run the 233 mile line. Modern surveys have shown it to be an accurate survey, within a couple of seconds of latitude.

One of the Oldest Known Professions

Surveying is one of the oldest known professions. The Egyptian Land Register, created around 3,000 BC, is the first known land ownership record. This record showed the owners of various areas of land and also recorded the locations of this land. Surveys such as those used to create the land register were based on geometry, as well as declarations by landowners of the believed boundaries of their land.

The duties of the surveyor in Ancient Egypt covered a number of aspects, including boundary definition and building construction. The annual flooding of the Nile, something that significantly impacted the life of the Egyptians, often resulted in a change of the shape of the land on the banks of the river, or the disappearance of the stones marking the boundaries. A surveyor was required to re-measure the land and to replace the marks as required, so that any disputes between neighbors could be resolved.

The role of the surveyor was an important one, as shown by the evidence of the work of the surveyors in the form of pictures on the walls of tombs. The position of the surveyor in the Egyptian society shows they were one of upper class and were very well educated individuals.

Early Surveying Tools

In Greece and Rome, surveyors were people held with exceptional esteem, as they were responsible for the straight angles and perfect lines that shaped the remarkable buildings and coliseums that are still present today. They used a simple surveying tool called a Groma. The Groma was comprised of a vertical staff with horizontal cross-pieces mounted at right angles on a bracket. Each cross piece had a plumb line hanging vertically at each end. It was used to survey straight lines and right angles, thence squares or rectangles. They were stabilized on the high ground, and pointed in the direction it was going to be used. The helper would step back 100 steps and place a pole. The surveyor would tell him where to move the pole and the helper would set it down. The Groma is believed to originate from about 400 BC in Mesopotamia, which is today’s Iraq.

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook is one of the most famous surveyors in the world because he is one of the first who sailed into every ocean and surveyed all the areas he discovered. He mapped lands from New Zealand to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean in greater detail and on a scale not previously charted by Western explorers. He surveyed and named features, and recorded islands and coastlines on European maps for the first time. He displayed a combination of seamanship, superior surveying and cartographic skills, physical courage, and an ability to lead men in adverse conditions.

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