Book Review: 'The Curt Brown Chronicles'

February 29, 2012
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In one, somewhat imposing volume, Michael Pallamary has gathered together the writings of Curtis M. Brown. It is a noteworthy library for any surveyor.

Libraries are among the most revered of human inventions, perhaps second only to the invention of literacy itself. Writing permits that most uniquely human of endeavors--transmission of ideas without personal presence and across time. Writing makes way for books, and books for literature. Collecting, preserving and honoring human thought expressed through literature employed the ambitious transcriptions of dedicated monks in Irish monasteries and inspired the building of museums to honor the muses, including libraries for collecting the written volumes. We can easily identify notable libraries: the Musæum in Alexandria (330 BC), Celsus Library in Ephesus (110 AD), the Sankoré Madrasah in Timbuktu (1330 AD), the Bodleian in Oxford (1610 AD), Chetham’s Library in Manchester (1653 AD), and the Library of Congress (1800 AD). The professional surveyors in America may claim a new albeit diminutive one in Pallamary’s book, “The Curt Brown Chronicles” (2011 AD).

Curtis M. Brown graduated with honors in mining engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1932. He was a well-respected surveyor, author, speaker and teacher who was active in professional societies. Originally from Maine, he practiced primarily in California. He was the author of “Boundary Control and Legal Principles” and co-author with Winfield H. Eldridge of “Evidence and Procedures for Boundary Location."“ He served as president of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) in 1965 and was a frequent contributor to the ACSM publications and others. Pallamary’s book starts with memorial dedications by Walter Robillard, Donald Wilson and Ted Madson.

Reading the words of Curt Brown is enlightening and rewards the reader with insights about how one’s professional practices may be improved, how fledgling surveyors may be better prepared and how clients may be better served. It is at times eerie to read his words because today, some 50-odd years after they were written, his thoughts and admonitions are as contemporary as ever. Some may argue the words are different now, but they aren’t really. For instance, today’s pseudonym for surveying is “geomatics.” As Brown was writing in the 1960s it was “geometronics”; same subject, different attempts to gild the lily.

One aspect in particular that increases the book’s interest is that Pallamary preserves as much as possible the formats from the original publications. Therefore, contemporary advertisements abound side-by-side with the words of Brown, putting even more flesh on the historical bones of his articles. Readers who were around in the 1960s to experience the changes afoot will find many of the advertisements nostalgic. For others, the advertisements will serve as valuable illustrations of the equipment and possibilities of the day--valuable because all too often with high-tech devices, evidence of them disappears when the firmware becomes outdated and they are forgotten. So in this volume there is much to be had, even when one is literally reading between the lines.

Of course, most importantly, one finds the words of wisdom and good advice of Curt Brown. The 690-page book is divided into topical chapters plus an index and appendix. He wrote with depth and conviction on practically all topics within the realm of professional surveying. Throughout the book, one finds that Brown is pithy and eminently quotable.

For instance, in his speech delivered to the 24th Annual Meeting of the ACSM in 1964 entitled “The Challenging Future for the Land Surveyor,” he addresses the topic of testing those who would be licensed to practice. He describes how fast the technology and practice is changing, and the challenges that poses to surveyors and in particular to those who test applicants for competency.

He says, “The future of any profession is wholly dependent upon the quality of the new men admitted to practice. Are we seeking new, professional surveyors on the basis of what grandpa had to know, or are we seeking them on the basis of what they will have to know to survive in coming years?” and “The purpose of any registration act is to protect the public from the unqualified. It is certainly not a means of granting to a few an easy means of earning a living to the exclusion of others.” The surveyor “is in a quasi-judicial position, in that he is obligated to consider the rights of others, even though they may not pay him a fee. This is the primary basis for limiting the practice of land surveying to a qualified few.” (Would that we could successfully remind the public, political agencies and others of that!)

He reminds us that true/false and simple multiple choice test questions are fine for chainmen, rodmen and other technicians, but questions about factual information test only the lower forms of education required of a professional. “True superior education is the ability to recall factual information pertaining to a problem, sort out the essential facts by thinking and then come to a correct conclusion.” Then he gives proper examples.

In the mid-1960s, he describes how the university curriculum for civil engineers has diverged severely away from the necessary preparation required by a professional surveyor, and the difficulty of placing a bachelor-level surveying curriculum in a suitable school or college within the university environment. He says, “The decline of surveying in universities is directly attributable to accreditation [which] has done more to stereotype engineering education than anything else … ACSM has an education committee attempting to evaluate offerings in surveying and mapping.” (This familiar refrain was spoken almost 50 years ago!)

That short example of the depth of Brown’s thinking and analysis never wavers throughout the 13 chapters. Others are each on their particular topic, whether it is ambulatory boundaries, procedures or standards. It is comforting to hear with our mind’s ear words worth following. It is wonderful to find this repository, this Library of Brown, collected and indexed and made convenient by our librarian, Michael Pallamary.

This book has found a special place on my shelf next to the BLM Manuals of Surveying Instructions. It should fill an important role for those studying to take up this venerable professional and should be commended to them by their professors. I recommend it highly to all practicing professional surveyors and any who are interested in its proper practice.

A fitting close to this review is the quotation in the front pages of the book:

“Professional stature cannot be attained by self-proclamation. The lazy say, ‘give me the prize without the training, the wages without work, the reward without the quest, heaven without probation, a professional’s prestige without a professional’s skill.’ If the land surveyor is to have professional standing, that standing must be earned and bestowed upon him by others.”

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