- SPECIAL REPORTS
- THE MAGAZINE
This time the connection was realized through a regular read of my local newspaper. It was the shortest of writeups on a Michigan historical event--one of those “This Week in History” stories. As a writer, the heading drew my attention: “Ancestor of the typewriter is created.” Needless to say, I did not expect to read about a U.S. deputy surveyor when I delved in. But that’s precisely what happened.
According to the article, U.S. Deputy Surveyor William Austin Burt is credited as the inventor of the typographer--later coined the typewriter. Burt was a Massachusetts native who migrated to Macomb County, Michigan, my current residence. In fact, there is a plaque in Stony Creek Metropark in Shelby Township--just eight miles from my home and a familiar place where my family enjoys many afternoons--that marks the location of Burt’s Michigan home.
But greater than the invention of his very inefficient typewriter model are Burt’s contributions as a surveyor. He spent 20 years as a U.S. deputy surveyor and was part of the crew that established the Michigan-Wisconsin border in 1847 and helped survey the route for the Sault Ste. Marie canal in 1852. He invented the solar compass, which he patented in 1836. In 1858, the year he died (in Detroit), Burt’s A Key to the Solar Compass, and Surveyor’s Companion was published in which Burt describes linear surveys and the Public Land Survey System of the United States as well as suggests provisions for a four-month survey (interesting list there).
Burt is recognized by many as a pioneer, inventor and legislator. A lake in Cheboygan County is named after him, as is an elementary school near my childhood home. The students of Michigan’s Ferris State University Surveying Engineering program pay homage to Burt by participating in their ACSM student chapter, the Burt & Mullett chapter, which bears his name.
While researching Burt a bit further, I encountered several other surveyors with inventor kudos not directly related to the profession. Gail Borden Jr., creator of the first commercial process for condensing milk, for example, was a surveyor in Mississippi in the early 1800s. Across the Atlantic, Swedish inventor John Ericsson, creator of the ship propeller, was a topographical surveyor by age 14 and later surveyed in the Swedish army.
While I knew about Burt’s surveying contributions, I didn’t know about the personal connections I had to him. And that makes it extra special. Perhaps you have a connection with one of these inventors. In one way or another, I think we all do.
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