Every land surveying company that has been around for 20 years or more has survey relics. They are in the attic, the supply closet, under a desk or in a display case.

My first encounter with a survey relic was something found in a supply closet out in Independence, Mo. While getting flagging and tacks, I came across a box with junk inside. Looking closer, I saw something with a dish on it and a canister. It was a carbide lamp. At 21, it had all the coolness and magic it would have possessed when I was 12.

Jerry, the owner, told me they used those in the mine work around Kansas City. Out there they excavated underground mines and left large rooms, which could be used for storage or business office and manufacturing. Brunson Instruments were manufactured underground in one of those tunnels where the temperature was a constant.

The way the lamps operated utilized carbide placed in the canister with water. This produced a gas, which flowed out of an orifice in the center of the dish and was ignited somehow. The flame would stick out a few inches from the orifice and, according to Jerry, an instrument man would take a backsight when a lamp was placed on the ground behind the plumb bob. Every so often, the flame would be too close to the backsight, and through the lens one could see the plumb bob string burn through and the bob drop out of sight. He had a funny smile while telling me this, which is indicative of a surveyor enjoying the memory of the funny frustration of a coworker. With all the solo surveyors today, we will just have to laugh at ourselves.

Recently, I have acquired a few of my father’s relics. He is a long-retired chemical engineer who earned his professional engineering license in Delaware. On an office shelf, I have his old crimping license. I do not know why, but I do. I asked for it along with his old slide rules. He made a lot of money for DuPont with those calculators. I would imagine, somewhere in China, a surveyor has his grandfather’s ivory abacus stored in a closet. It is hard to give up and throw away the past.

Pass It On

In training my apprentices, I explain to them how civil engineers had to use those relics to perform lengthy calculations using tables, slide rules and adding machines. Surveyors in the days of yore had to make things easier for themselves. It is important for young surveyors to understand why parallel lines and 90-degree corners made life less complicated. It can also indicate the lengths some subdivision designers will go to calculate complex subdivisions. I recall a subdivision with all roads as curves, all parallel and the rear lot lines straight for two- or three-lot widths before another angle was introduced. Often, it is wisdom to suppose, until proved otherwise, that lines were radial. When looking at a plan and seeing the note “line not radial,” one can assume that the others are radial. It’s a matter of reading the hieroglyphics. Does anyone today put the note “not radial” on a plan?

Some rainy day, I will open up the closet and bring out the other ancient instruments. At the time of their purchase, they were state of the art. I probably should have sold them, but I have not sold a single thing. I did give away an automatic level to a civil designer. I warned him that it “stuck” sometimes and demonstrated the technique of “whacking” it lightly to see the cross hairs dip and return to the same place. It is probably one of his personal relics and I hope he remembers my giving it to him.

Every now and then, I come across a white plastic container much like the pharmacist uses, but without the safety lid. Why I do not know, but I will open it up and look inside at the tape repair kit. I feel certain that I will never again break a chain, but I still cannot get rid of it. Inside the tube are metal sleeves, a square of emery cloth and matches. We used these in a pinch to repair a metal “chain.” That term “chain” is to a tape, what “dialing” a phone number is to an iPhone. I believe that in the attic is the other chain repair kit, which included the hole punch and those tiny brass rivets used to join pieces of broken tape.

The Curse of the Packrat

I believe land surveyors have a problem with pack-ratting things away. Large engineering firms probably have no patience for old stuff hanging around. When a rod is bent or broken, I find it difficult to toss it out. Just last week, I pulled an old rod out and wondered why I was not using it as it was nice and straight, and showed little wear. Then I looked at the bottom and saw someone had torn the point off. For a moment I considered it and then decided that one day I might want a piece from it and set it in the corner.

In the basement, I found an old aircraft protractor and plan on demonstrating it for my students. It has a bracket that attaches with three wood screws to a drafting table or board. The arm fits on with a thumbscrew and you can set bearings or zero and plot deeds. I suppose while flying in a bomber the navigator plotted courses. When I first went into business, my father’s friend lent or gave it to him, and so it came from Dad. I returned it after I bought my deluxe precise drafting arm, which fit on my 7-foot drafting table. Boy did I love that drafting arm. It had interchangeable clear plastic scales that fit into the head. You could use it to set in a bearing or draft parallel lines.

When affordable clone computers came along, I noticed my beautiful drafting arm was being used to hold papers on the large drafting table. Its time had come. No longer needing the huge table, I offered it to some of the architects for whom I prepare topographic survey plans. A lovely young woman took me up on the offer and stopped by, and we placed that huge tabletop and legs onto her small Pinto-sized car. She was entering a master’s program in architecture and joyfully took my table and went to the southwest to learn her art. Years later while discussing a proposal, it clicked in my mind that I was talking to the same person and she said at home she still had that table. She did not take me up on the offer of the drafting arm and I felt sad. The next time I come across a hand-drawn plan by an architect, I hope to remember to make that offer again and put that drafting arm back to work. In the meantime, it resides in my garage attic with other relics.

When you come across old instruments, tools and measuring devices, I suggest you ask around the office and see if anyone remembers how they work. The lands we survey today were measured and subdivided by land surveyors using those very tools. It will help you gain insight on what measures different surveyors felt they needed to employ to get the job done for the price quoted.

Under my apprentice’s desk is a small light table. I seldom use it and then only to hand address letters by putting a print out of the name and address inside the envelope, and tracing those onto the outside of the envelope. In years past, I used it for drafting and tracing.

Years ago, I had been contracted to prepare a topographic survey plan of a township park. The front and right side property limits of the tract were defined by roads. The left side was up against lots created in the same old subdivision as the lands I was surveying. The rear line, the tricky part, was along Pennsylvania route 100, a limited access highway. When the state wants land, they take it much like the king did, for the good of the country. The state took whatever was on their plan and what was left over after the taking, the original property owner keeps.

During the course of the survey, I realized that rather than trying to find the controls set by the state for the centerline and right of way line, the surveyor simply underlaid the highway plan beneath his subdivision plan and traced the lines. Then, he scaled the distances from the front of the lots to where the pencil line intersected the highway right of way line. This happened to be a long arc and probably was part of his difficulty in establishing the location of the highway land. It was easy to label the radius of the rear line of the lots because he simply copied the radius from the highway plan. Using his engineers scale, the rear arc was measured on the chord but that would be called the arc distance.

With the average age of a licensed land surveyor in the U.S. being 58, you now have plenty of opportunity to tap into ancient information. You may also find your future employer whose business you take over in 10 years and the person who will sign for you when you sit to take the exam for your own license.

I have heard many senior citizens joke that to set up their new computers they need a high school kid. It’s funny to me because it’s partly true. On the other hand, the young people will need an old person to share the wisdom of how to set up and run their company.