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Web Exclusive: In Review: The History of Land Surveying Instruments in America

July 10, 2000
Students of surveying history and collectors of surveying equipment will want to invest their time and money in this video series. Milton Denny and Mickey Shackelford definitely know their history and present the material in an entertaining fashion with slides and pictures. My only complaint—I wish more visual aides had been used. Unfortunately, due to the age and rarity of some of the equipment discussed, it likely wasn't possible.

According to Shackelford, the ancient Egyptians were the first people to practice the art of surveying by the so-called “Rope Stretchers.” Boundary lines along the Nile River were marked with large stones or monuments to enable farmers to distinguish one property from another after the annual floodwaters subsided. The History of Land Surveying Instruments in America begins there and works its way through early surveying instruments such as the cross staff, the English quadrant and the sextant, to modern-day total stations and GPS.

Milton Denny discusses the importance of science in world development—from the earliest compasses to the birth of computers. He also discusses the needs that led to the rise of surveying as a profession, such as private land ownership and the early American land surveyors who laid out our nation. I found his discussion of our Presidential land surveyors to be most entertaining.

The video series includes the evolution of linear measuring instruments from ropes and rods and chains, mentioning the history behind such important names as Aaron Rathborne, Edmund Gunter, Vincent Wing and Benjamin Rittenhouse.

Lessons on the evolution of angular measuring instruments, levels and vertical measuring instruments are also included.

For the collector, the video also offers discussion on identifying the age, maker and value of antique surveying equipment, as well as suggestions for its restoration, cleaning and care. A thorough bibliography of surveying history books is listed in the video's accompanying workbook. An illustration of the evolution of instruments is in the book (click here), as well as an interesting article “A Brief History of Some Early Surveying Instruments” by Shackelford.

This video series is one of three produced by the Engineering and Professional Development Distance Learning Series at Auburn University. Continuing education credits are available to those who purchase the videos. For more information on the Distance Learning Series or to order videos, contact the College of Engineering at Auburn University by E-mail at eesv@eng.auburn.edu.