Stepping Back in Time

November 24, 2003
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Participants in the Surveyors Historical Society Rendezvous '03 head back to school for a lesson in surveying history.



On the grounds of Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Mich., this fall, students young and old gathered in a different sort of classroom-a vast conference room at the college-to hear lectures and presentations during the Surveyors Historical Society (SHS) Rendezvous '03, the association's seventh annual gathering. MSU was a fine setting for the "Back to School"-themed conference, held September 18-20.

The binder provided for attendees included much historical information, including biographies of students of the then Michigan Agricultural College (now MSU) engineering class of 1895, whose footsteps and fieldbook notes attendees would follow in an effort to recreate a turn of the century class exercise. Students of this class went on to practice law, agriculture, teaching, and of course, surveying and civil engineering.

Friday's lecture sessions included insights on school life in 1895 given by Keith Widder, senior editor with the Michigan State University Press, complemented by a talk on the evolution of surveying education delivered by Robert Burtch, PS.

An impressive collection of solar compasses, most of which are displayed at the proud home of the Museum of Surveying in Lansing, Mich., were the highlight of museum President David L. Ingram, LS's Friday presentation. The Museum owns three compasses, Ingram noted, including a Grant & Crossman from Detroit, a Houghman and a Young & Sons from 1882 or 1883, which the museum uses often for training and demonstrations. Investing in one of these instruments in 1859 would have been a wise decision; today it could be worth more than $20,000.

Ingram verbally instructed the class on how to use the sun compasses of the time: 1.) Set the latitude of where you are; 2.) Set the declination of the sun including refraction, etc.; 3.) Set time (polar) on the hour arc (noon is center; morning to left and afternoon to right); and 4.) Align sun through aperture on the other end. Students were promised a hands-on lesson later in the day or on Saturday.

Ingram noted that the compass was originally called the "meridian finder." He also let attendees in on the fact that the first compass was patented by a Michigan surveyor, William Austin Burt, in 1836. Burt also patented the first "typographer" or typewriter and was the subject of Jack N. Owens' talk that morning, "Burt Crosses the Straits with the Michigan Meridian, or Every Which Way But South." Owens described how Burt was charged in 1840 with surveying all the "exterior township lines in the northern peninsula of Michigan east of ranges 8 and 9 west of the Meridian," and noted that much the same conditions would be encountered while surveying Michigan's upper peninsula today as existed during Burt's time.

The exhibit hall of the conference housed displays from the Museum of Surveying and the University of Akron, whose students participate enthusiastically every year in the annual NSPS student surveying competition, a history themed exercise at the annual ACSM conference. There were signed copies of "They left their mark," a surveying print, and a display dedicated to the Lincoln surveyor statue project unveiled in October. Items on display in preparation for the annual SHS auction included a matching set of silver and bronze medallions commemorating the Land Act of 1785, as well as a newspaper copy of the day the Act was signed-June 6, 1785. Also on display were geological maps from 1845 and 1846 and stamps dedicated to surveying around the world.

An admirable goal of the Museum, Ingram noted, is to raise $600,000 over a two-year period to build a second floor in the building. And, indeed, while most visitors can appreciate the height of the old building, which can accommodate the several 15 ft plus rods now on display, it is evident that the Museum could better utilize the room-and house more antique instruments for its many visitors. Once this renovation is completed, the museum will be the premier research facility for surveying in the country.

After the presentations and following a more than plentiful lunch (positively fit for a surveyor), attendees split into four separate groups for their "assignments." Groups 1 and 2 headed to the Museum of Surveying (the only one of its kind in North America) and the Michigan State Capitol Building to appreciate instruments and monuments of yesteryear. Groups 3 and 4 were given quite a different type of "homework."

Millennium Surveyors Step Back in Time

Rendezvous "students" gathered on the grounds of the Michigan State campus and were told to determine the distance from an apex of one building and the corner of another using tools far different than those used today (see inventory below). These were the points the students were to use to retrace an historical surveying exercise from 1895. Fulfilling the "Back to School" theme of this year's Rendezvous event equaled "walking in the footsteps" of Squad 6 from Michigan Agricultural College. Captain H.W. Hart and his crew, including Sanderson, Hagedorn, Elliott and Storr, chained a course beginning on the grounds of College Hall in the summer of that year; this is known to be true because their fieldbooks have survived, although not much else has. Ingram had originally hoped to re-create an exercise from July 23, 1895, which involved angles and distances related to a seven-station traverse. However, every building referenced in the old field book was burned down or torn down, none of the existing buildings match the notes, nor do any roads, paths or trees. There was one tie along the river to the dam, however, Ingram said he couldn't even be sure if the referenced dam was one and the same with the existing dam. Because there was absolutely nothing left over from 1895 to tie into, recreating that exercise was impossible. And although the buildings Ingram chose for the baseline exercise were not the same as those used by Squad 6, Groups 3 and 4 attempted to re-create their actions-a true test for today's surveyors.

Attendees of Surveyors Rendezvous '03 were also invited to partake in traditional SHS Rendezvous activities, including the annual Swap Meet, the mock Antiques Road Show, a barbecue on Friday night and an auction on Saturday.

There weren't many actual college surveying students in attendance at this year's Rendezvous. Perhaps next year's Lewis and Clark-themed gathering will draw attendees young and old to the event. Rendezvous '04 attendees will gather in St. Joseph, Mo., to take part in educational opportunities and presentations July 1-3. On the 4th of July, attendees will travel to Atkinson, Kan., the exact spot where Meriwhether Lewis and William Clark spent Independence Day 200 years earlier in 1804. To celebrate, they fired a cannon and named the local brook "Independence Creek." See you in Missouri!

Base Line Exercise Inventory:

  • Buff & Buff transit

  • THS (The House of Sokkia) transit

  • 100 ft Gurley chain

  • Old field books

  • Plumb bobs

  • One trusty hammer

  • One item from the old days: nails instead of today's chaining pins

  • One item from today's toolbox: plastic instead of cloth flagging

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