People / Surveying History

Surveying History

An Unusual Tool

One of the inquiries the museum handles most often is, “What is this tool?” Sometimes we don’t even receive a photo, just a very detailed description.

The device shown here was donated to the museum. According to the note from the auctioneer, it was a frontier farmer’s tool used in Kentucky. Its purpose was to lay a straight line. Beyond that, the tool’s name and origin remain a mystery. The sight is bamboo, so we’re checking with places like the American Bamboo Society.

The piece is part of an exhibit on less-than-scientific measuring methodologies. Some of our other favorites from this exhibit are the wayweiser, the tobacco jack, the cigarette on horseback and the horizontal sighting using the backside of a horse.

If you come across an unusual measurement device, the museum can help identify the piece and give you some background information. However, please be sure to include a photo. And don’t ask for an appraisal. In our view, these tools are priceless.

Women in Surveying

Most of the museum’s tours start with this photo of a 1918 graduating class of surveyors from Mount Morris College in Illinois. The group includes two women; however, there is no record of who these women were, and there wasn’t a registered female land surveyor in Illinois until the 1970s. Were these two women surveyors or engineers, or were they the wives or girlfriends of the male students?

History has documented women receiving doctoral degrees in mathematics as early as 1886, and the acclaimed Alice Fletcher, the first American woman surveyor, allotted Indian lands in the mid-1800s. (See the 2002 POB article “The Measuring Woman” at for more details.) Although records show other women receiving pay for being surveyors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were usually on crews with their husbands. Of course, some women in the early 1900s likely became surveyors when the men went to war.

The women in this photo are a mystery. If anyone has information about who they might be and whether they were surveyors, please contact the museum.

June Trivia: What was the first surveyor’s tool?

Answer: No one knows for sure, but many people believe odd engravings seen in Egypt, Greece and Rome provide a good indication. The engravings show a groma, like the one pictured here built by Jennifer Laurenzana, a surveyor-in-training who is currently a survey technician at Coombe-Bloxdorfe PC in Springfield, Ill.

A search on “Roman Groma” on YouTube pulls up some interesting videos showing the groma in use. The one titled “Roman Military Surveying” by ukcaelo is particularly fascinating because of the subject's passion. Others show how the agrimensores and gromatici used the groma to lay out straight lines and 90-degree angles on properties, farms, roads and walls.

The Romans originally sighted a line using paces and a pole man who would place poles on the ground, so it could be argued that these were the first true surveyor’s tools. We don’t have any Roman poles at the museum, but we do have the groma shown here, thanks to Laurenzana’s donation.

How many of the more than 350 unique NOAA Science on a Sphere datasets are directly related to surveying?

Check back in August for the answer and more glimpses of surveying history from the museum. Or visit the museum for yourself!

Abraham Lincoln’s National Museum of Surveying is the only museum and tourist attraction of its kind in the country. Located in Springfield, Ill., the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, the museum preserves the legacy of surveying while ensuring its future through vivid images, superb storytelling and dynamic multimedia. Through the Reaching Our Orbit Capital Campaign launched in March 2012, the museum is raising funds to pay down its mortgage and expand its educational programs. An undisclosed source has pledged to match every donation received, up to $200,000, by the end of 2012. For more information and to find out how you can support the museum’s efforts, visit

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