Today, there are thousands of interpretations of what the Bible meant when it mentions “signs and wonders.”

In old cowboy movies, you have probably heard one actor say “Look, smoke signals.” I would like to have heard the other cowboy ask, “Do you know what they mean?” Then the first cowboy would answer, “It means there are Indians over there and they are probably sending a warrior from another tribe on a fast pony to ask what those signals mean.” 

In land surveying, when one surveyor was making hand signals, the other people on the crew would wonder what the signs meant and might have to send their own warrior on a fast pony to find out. It took time to work out a good system of communication when people were too far apart, the wind was high, or machinery was roaring nearby and they couldn’t hear each other. This led to frustration for everyone. 

As a party chief, when assigned a new crew person, it was important to teach them “our” signals. Should a replacement transit person arrive, I would ask if they had signals for numbers from their former boss. Most did not. Eventually, Charlie came along with a system I found to be so good that I no longer put up with variations. I told people we were going to standardize “Charlie’s signs.” 

Using hand signals made life much easier. Too often, the radios we had were dead on arrival, broke easily, worked poorly and wasted time. These faulty devices could use up a half hour before everyone had thrown in the towel. 

Over the years, us old surveyors learned many hand signals. As a rodman or transit man, the best one to see was at the end of the day. The party chief would take his two index fingers and draw a box starting at the top middle of the box and move outward horizontally toward the imaginary top corners, then vertically down the sides to the bottom corners, then horizontally to the middle of the bottom. That was the sign for “box it.” The message was clear. If the chief were far away, the box was motioned larger so it was easy to see. 

Before the “box it” sign, the chief would use the “pick up” sign. This was done with both arms outstretched to the 5 and 7 o’clock positions and the hands in a “thumbs up” position. Then the arms were swung upward to tell the transit man (most often there were men on the crews) to pick up the instrument. When the instrument person saw this, their hope was to see the “box it” signal next. If the boss motioned to make another setup, that meant you would be getting back late to the office. 

I recall a certain instrument man telling me when he thought the boss was going to work too late, he would “accidentally” kick the transit, which then required leveling it up and getting another backsight. After that, the party chief would give up for the day. I never did that myself,  but could see the logic in the method. It’s good for young surveyors to understand that those old transits were the backbone of land surveying up until around 1977 when the total station instruments became affordable for most companies. 

There is an art to giving directions from the instrument. If a person was far from where they needed to be, I would stand away from the instrument and wave with both hands in an exaggerated manner and watch until they came near where I had seen some vegetation on line. Then I would put both hands out with my palms up and tell them to “stay.” All directions given with my hands indicating the way the rodman needed to move. If I yelled directions, I had to keep in mind right was to his right and left was to his left, not my right and my left. 

Once a person was close to line, I began to point the direction they must go. If they were a foot off, I would make my pointing motion slow and far from my body. As they moved closer to line, my points to the direction became shorter and faster. Eventually, they were just a tiny touch one way or another. When the directions were shouted, they became hairs, such as “two hairs right.” Once they were on line, I would frantically wave my arms up and down if they were far away, or both arms quickly straight out. Verbally, I would yell “good.”

Good is one of the finest survey terms. Good means all sorts of things. Such as:

  • “Should I set on the traverse point?” = Good!
  • Is it lunch time? = Good.
  • When a person has moved their plumb bob onto line = Good!

When a head chainman has measured a distance and is pleased with the chain tension, they yelled, “Good!” 

It reminds me of a Washington Post article, which stated that the Eskimos have a number of words for snow. Similarly, surveyors have many meanings for “good.” Sometimes surveyors use it the way they would in the field when communicating with the members of their families. I think I will make a point of using it more often with my apprentices. But, when I’m out working alone with a robot, I rarely tell it “good.” 

A sign I use often is the “thumbs up” or double thumbs up. This is really for anyone who might be watching me. Generally, when finished with a setup, I check the level of the instrument, the backsight, and give the thumbs up motion. If my client has been watching me, they will see how I am confident of my work.

Many years ago, I was assigned John, a beginner, for my rodman. The transit man was using our automatic level as we shot grades on the curb stakes we set earlier in the day. The site was flat, and the wind was blowing away from the rodman and toward us. If you yell with the wind, your voice carries further, and if you yell against the wind, it goes a shorter distance. The rodman had his fingers on the rod right where the instrument man needed to see the numbers. Naturally, the instrument man “twiddled” his fingers toward the rodman. This sign is made by pointing all four fingers at the rodman and moving them all up and down irregularly in a “twiddling” fashion. 

The rodman froze and stared at the instrument man who repeated the signal. Seeing that the rodman was not responding as expected, I also joined the instrument man and we both twiddled our fingers in unison.  John chuckled to himself and was not sure what kind of a joke we were playing on him. It was obvious we were very seriously twiddling at him and he was not doing what was expected. He did the right thing and walked back to us to find out what this was all about and we all laughed because, by then, the instrument man and I knew how silly we looked to someone who did not get the message of the twiddling fingers. An alternate signal would be to hold one hand up as if holding the rod and smacking it with the other hand. 

That day, John probably learned the signal for “raise for red.” We spent time teaching him the various signs he might see from us. In order to know the foot on the rod that went with the hundredths, the rodman had to slowly raise the rod straight up so the instrument man saw the red foot numbers. 

Also, there was the “plumb the rod” sign, which had the instrument man with his arm at the 11 o’clock position (if the rod was leaning that way) and slowly moving that arm upward to show the rod needed to be straight. Then, for important elevation shots, the transit man would give the signal to “rock the rod” by taking his extended arm from behind his head to in front of his head. All the apprentices would learn to appreciate how important it is to “plumb the rod.” Seasoned transit men enjoyed the chance to yell at a rodman, “Plumb the rod!” They also yelled unusual sayings such as, “Grandma was slow, but she was old.” That’s the fun of a three-person crew. 

This all sounds so un-useful today, but it is not.  We deal with many types of measurements and must know how to use our tools properly to get the right readings. As apprentices fail to do things correctly, they are often gently made fun of, and thereby, learn and remember how things are done and when precision counts. Many contractors still use levels (automatic or regular) and if they see you not holding your rod plumb, they will lose faith in your work.  When you are looking at a leaning rod through the scope of a transit and keep yelling at the rod person, most get the idea they need to learn something. Generally, the transit person would demonstrate “plumbing” the rod by holding it loosely and observing it tip slightly side to side. If older contractors see you holding the rod plumb, and see you using surveying signs and words, they will add years to the experience they believe you have gained. It also shows that the kids respect and know proper procedures and all the centuries of good surveying that lead up to today. 

When it comes to radios, the last set of radios I had were the best handhelds with accessory microphones much like the police use. They covered distances far longer than one can see. But, even with my super charger that accepted many batteries at once, the old line “these batteries are dead” would be heard too often. Some radios broke, and they were all placed in a box and given to one of the Philadelphia surveyors who was thrilled to get them. Apparently, radios were not in the city budget, but fixing radios was. So how were they replaced? With our modern mini computers – the cell phone. Now, if I am looking at a person across the field and hand signals fail, I simply give them a call. 

When observed by civilians and construction workers, the use of simple hand signals demonstrates your teamwork and knowledge in the art of your profession. The hand signs I mentioned are just a few. Perhaps on some of the upcoming rainy days, you could honor the older party chiefs and licensed surveyors by going over old practices and how they might apply to land surveying today.