Point of Beginning

On the Level

June 1, 2004
In a surveying magazine ad, a software vendor asks the question, "Remember when surveying was fun? Almost like playing"¦" This ad got me thinking back to my early years (circa 1960) when, as a rookie civil engineer, I began my career with a consulting engineering company whose major business was surveying. As a project engineer assigned to prepare residential subdivision plans, I was given the responsibility of performing the property line surveys, the topographical surveys and the data collection surveys; I didn't get to do any engineering until we were several weeks into a project. At first it seemed like grunt work but I soon discovered that the surveying phase of the project could be much more interesting than the cookbook engineering that usually followed.

A typical project would be a 20- to 40-acre suburban site with stone walls, fences, bar ways, cart paths, waterways, wetlands, buildings and public infrastructure. We located all those features with Wild T-1 instruments and 200-foot steel tapes. It was still a couple of years before we would apply computer-driven COGO solutions, so we did all of our work with mechanical desk calculators and eight-place trigonometry function books. (I considered this a marvelous advance over the logarithmic solutions we were forced to use in my university civil engineering/surveying course.) Making the field survey, reducing the notes, balancing the traverse and plotting the results was a test of concentration and trust. Pounding away with those trig functions required rigid discipline to avoid transposition errors. When a traverse wouldn't close I learned the hard way that the problem was usually not in the fieldwork but in the office computations. I had the humiliating experience of sending a crew back to the field to find their taping error only to discover later that the problem was my incorrect data entry.

On days when everything went well-when the traverse closed the first time through, when the calculated evidence of property lines matched the calls of the deed, when the plot on polyester film emerged into view like a Polaroid slowly coming into focus, and when my boss and mentor stopped by my desk and said something about a good effort-I felt like I had the best job in the world.

The next step was to plot the property line onto a topo manuscript, which was usually the result of aerial photogrammetry if the time of year was right, the weather was right and there weren't too many tall pine trees on the site (if there were, a crew would go out with plane table and alidade to fill in the blanks-a chore I usually avoided). Land planning followed and I would develop a preliminary subdivision plan applying the local zoning requirements and our client's objectives. The best job in the world became even better when I was allowed to present the plan to a local planning agency, and defend our engineering and planning in the face of a hostile neighborhood that would rather see that 30 acres of field and forest remain in its natural state.

But surveying has never been a one-dimensional occupation. There are whole varieties of problems requiring a surveying solution. An episode I'll always remember was going into a five-story telephone exchange building to construct a horizontal and vertical grid to determine the alignment of columns within the building. Engineers for the New England Telephone Company were set to design a sixth floor for the building, but could see that structural columns were not always vertical and seemed to zigzag back and forth as they rose from the basement to where they appeared at the roof. Our job was to measure those locations at each level, plot their alignments and quantify the misalignments if there were any. Richard McKeown (the best instrument operator I ever worked with) and I started at the roof with a base line, which we anchored by straddle ties. During the night workers bored holes in the concrete slab at our control points after which we could project the base line down to the next level by plumb line, set up the base line again and repeat the process until we reached the basement. From these base lines, each one directly above or below the next, we located the tops and bottoms of columns on each floor and offered our three-dimensional solution to the anxious engineers. (They went ahead with the design for the sixth floor and I believe the building is still standing.)

Richard and I did a lot of crawling around on our hands and knees in that building constructing the base lines, and the day we were in the room where a long line of operators sat at their switchboards was a special day. We were not allowed to look up, to speak, to rattle our equipment or to breathe hard. The chief supervisor of the operators reminded me of the Nurse Ratched character from the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." We were threatened with instant death if we interfered with the operators, and Nurse Ratched was certain that our real intent was to admire all those pretty ankles. Richard and I never got caught looking but on the drive back to the office that night we agreed, in extravagant terms, that surveying was fun.

In the years to follow there were surveying projects in the city, on the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard (where the poison ivy grows like no place else), on old worked-out sanitary landfills, on industrial sites, commercial sites, golf courses and ski resorts. We worked with engineers, architects and lawyers. We worked for clients who were "little old ladies," wealthy entrepreneurs, government agencies and brothers fighting over the division of inherited property. One client in the West had fallen heir to a large tract of rural land in New England that he had mortgaged beyond its current worth. While filling my wastebasket with tissues saturated with tobacco juice, he complained bitterly that the bank payments were breaking him (as though the land itself had conspired against him). Where else can a professional find such a cast of loony characters? There is something about land, and the ownership and value and use of land that brings out the worst and the best in people.

Surveying, in my experience, has been fun and rewarding if not excessively remunerative. All it requires of the professional surveyor is Job's patience, a mathematician's mind, a bartender's understanding, an ex-plorer's vision, an historian's persistence and a banker's business acumen. Is it still fun? Have the total stations, and GPS and robotics equipment taken the fun out of surveying? Do surveyors no longer enjoy finding the unfindable and reconciling the irreconcilable? I doubt it; clients and their land are still involved. There are still problems to be solved, one of the most important of which is still to understand people, and their motivations and intentions. The surveyor is still there at the beginning of every project involving the land; he is still there during construction, putting his ideas onto the surface of the earth; and he is still there to document the finished product.

I have hardly ever met a surveyor who didn't complain about the low pay, the working conditions, the cranky clients and the overzealous planners. But I have also rarely heard a surveyor say he would rather be doing something else. Why is that? Perhaps because surveying is so much fun.