George Washington (1732-1799) was the first president of the United States and is known as the "Father of Our Country." But few realize that Washington gained some of the skills that would help him build a new nation by working at an early age as a professional surveyor.
Although he was tutored as a small child, Washington attended school in Fredericksburg while he was living at nearby Ferry Farm. His favorite subject was mathematics.
His formal schooling ended at age 14 or 15, when he began to earn money as an assistant to local surveyors, using surveying instruments that had belonged to his father.
With his love of mathematics and his interest in exploring, surveying to mark out new farms in the Virginia wilderness was a perfect career choice.
To do this work, Washington would have used a brass plain surveying compass, a Jacob's staff and a standard measuring chain called a Gunter's Chain. A surveying compass was used to measure horizontal angles in surveying.
A Jacob's staff, or "cross-staff," was a single pole equipped with hardware to provide a secure support for the compass. The tripod existed at the time, but the Jacob's staff was less bulky, though some areas and soil conditions limited its use.
The standard used for measuring land was the Gunter's Chain, consisting of 100 links totaling 66 feet (7.92 inches per link.)
Washington would have used advanced mathematical skills such as trigonometry and geometry in his survey work.
Washington met Lord Fairfax, who owned more than 5 million acres that extended from the Potomac River to the Allegheny Mountains and included most of the Shenandoah Valley. While planning the survey of his western lands, Lord Fairfax invited Washington to join the expedition in March 1748. Washington kept notes on the journey's problems, hazards and discomforts. By the end of the expedition, Washington had surveyed almost 10,000 acres.
After his return, Washington took and passed an exam before the faculty of the College of William and Mary for a surveyor's commission. This has been described as equivalent to a degree in engineering. In 1749, Washington secured the appointment of surveyor for the frontier county of Culpeper. He established a reputation for fairness, honesty and dependability, while earning a decent living. In addition to his public surveys of the western frontiers of the Northern Neck, Washington assisted in surveying Belhaven, now Alexandria, in 1749.
Washington's use of logical thinking as a surveyor and his practical knowledge of the land contributed to his success as a military leader and as president in solving the many problems of turning the plans of the Constitution into a working government.
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch.
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