Surveyors and their contribution to society as depicted in art and literature.

William Blake, Ancient of Days,  “Paradise Lost” illustration (1808)

Who built historic Thebes, ancient Egypt’s city of seven gates-the pharaohs, the engineers, the workers?

During the inauguration of large buildings, many people are honored. However, the contributions of geomatics and land-management specialists are usually overlooked. Nevertheless, these professionals play an important role in the entire project-they create the basis and take part in project engineering and in the building’s realization. They guarantee the accuracy, the property, the mortgage on the real estate-and, in many cases, they guarantee the project’s sustainability.

Geoinfomation, geographic information systems, navigation, instruments and sensors, land administration, planning and construction-these are the fields of our daily business. These are our contributions to a complex and interdisciplinary world on the way to sustainable development.

Eduard Ender, Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland, 1872

But what can we see about surveyors in the daily news, in literature and the graphic arts? Let’s have a look at surveyors’ activities depicted in art and literature in the last 4,000 years:

  • to determine, measure and represent land, 3D objects, point-fields and trajectories;
  • to assemble and interpret land and geographically related information;
  • to use that information for the planning and efficient administration of the land, the sea and any structures thereon; and
  • to conduct research into the above practices and to develop them.[1]

To Conduct Research Into the Practices and to Develop Them

Sustainable development begins with research. Surveyors research for better understanding of the world. In a sense, the surveyor helps create the world.

“He took the golden Compasses, prepar'd
In Gods Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
One foot he center'd, and the other turn'd
Round through the vast profunditie obscure,
And said, thus farr extend, thus farr thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World.”
-John Milton, “Paradise Lost,” Book 7: 225-230, 1667

“At the foot of the mountain he planted a staff and told the gods of the valley: From here upward I recognize land of god, from here downward I have to cultivate my fields.”
-Japanese legend, 6th Century  

“He verged the land, measured it and gave it to his children to possess it as holy land.”
-Mayan legend

On the life of Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Friedrich

“Humboldt: The end of the job is in sight, the measurement of the world nearly done. The cosmos will be more understandable, all difficulties of human origin, like fear, war and exploitation, will sink into the past. Science will cause an age of welfare.”

“Gauss came to speak about chance-that enemy of all knowledge-whom he always wanted to defeat. When observed from close up, one sees behind every event the endless subtlety of the causal fabric. If one steps back far enough, the larger patterns reveal themselves. Freedom and chance are a question of location, a thing of perspective.”
-Daniel Kehlmann, “The Measurement of the World” (“Die Vermessung der Welt”), 2005

Alois Carigiet, 1963

To Determine, Measure and Represent Land, 3D objects, Point-Fields and Trajectories

Land registration is essential for sustainable development. The surveyor’s job is to determine, measure and represent land and 3D objects for use in land registration.

“I touch, carefully, with pointed fingers, and release immediately. I make triangles. And with the point of the triangle I seize the world. On the paper and on the maps I catch it. All surveyors catch the world and release it immediately.”
-Hans Boesch, “The Spell (Der Bann),” 1996

“New people arrived and digged mysterious fosses [ditches], rove [wandered] about planning, measuring, computing.”
-Meinrad Inglin, “Urwang,” 1954

“One morning the surveyors appeared. The presence of these creatures spread a great horror.”
-Alejo Carpentier, “The Empire of this World,” 1940

“Wednesday arrived a staff of engineers, hydrographers, topographers and surveyors. They changed rainy seasons, speeded up the circulation of harvests, guided the river out of its old bed.”
-Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Hundred Years of Solitude,” 1967

“It wasn't easy to convince a surveyor that a heap of river stones are the eggs of a snake or that a pink sand-stone gobbet [lump] was the liver a kangaroo killed by a spear.”
-Bruce Chatwin, “Songlines,” 1987

Detail from a map

“At the cadastre office, I was daily eight hours with boring work and with boring people who sweated and were unclean and badly combed.”
-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Confessions,” 1781

  “... a drunken surveyor, only able to gauge the meadow ... ”
-Gottfried Keller, “About Jeremias Gotthelf,” l849

  “When he was drunk, he never made a measuring mistake, never a wrong addition!”
-Emil Zola, “The Earth,” 1887

  “Before [the] law court was a scrubby and drunken surveyor alleged for corruption, and he was discharged …”
- Pavlovič Anton Chekhov, “Platonov,” 1880

“Bella Barnes was going to marry a surveyor, a wildish young fellow, but a good one to work as ever was. ... she thought she’d find a way to keep him out of debt and drinking and gambling too.”
-Rolf Bolderwood, “Robbery Under Arms,” 1888

Kevin Charpoo "Pro" Hart, The First Surveyor, 1974

The First Surveyor

‘The man who brought the railway through -- our friend the engineer.’
They cheer his pluck and enterprise and engineering skill!
‘Twas my old husband found the pass behind that big red hill.
Before the engineer was born we'd settled with our stock
Behind that great big mountain chain, a line of range and rock --
A line that kept us starving there in weary weeks of drought,
With ne'er a track across the range to let the cattle out.

“‘Twas then, with horses starved and weak and scarcely fit to crawl,
My husband went to find a way across the rocky wall.
He vanished in the wilderness -- God knows where he was gone --
He hunted till his food gave out, but still he battled on.
His horses strayed ('twas well they did), they made towards the grass,
And down behind that big red hill they found an easy pass. …

--Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson (,ca.1900

To read the rest of the poem, click

Hans Erni, 1950

To assemble and interpret land and geographically related information

The surveyor’s job is to assemble and interpret land and geographically related information, which will then be used for sustainable land administration.

The Italian Carlo Carra painted the wife of the surveyor and engineer in 1921. How does she look at the surveyor? We find the answer from a man's point of view-and from a woman's point of view-in two Swiss fictions:

“He kisses as he calculates the cube root, strictly orderly and cool. ... He was glad, when the ceremonies of the wedding were over and he was again between his instruments and projects. This was his passion: to measure, to calculate, to count, to draw angles and circles. She knew, this man would never be able to love a woman, he already had one – geometry!”
--Federer Heinrich, “Mountains and Men,” 1911

“I exist in his schedule. Papers of me are kept in his office. A person like me has to be unbearable for a surveyor like him.”
--Margrit Schriber, “Roots of Air,” 1981

Sustainable development requires good land management, which begins with the surveyor. The surveyor provides information for the planning and efficient use of the land, the sea and any structures thereon.

Surveyors measuring the fields overflowed by the Nile River, Egyptian grave painting, 1420 B.C.

Brian Tucker, Running the Line (Mason and Dixon), 1766

Navigation and geodetic surveying was supposed to find new worlds. From the very beginning, surveyors worked side-by-side with the conquerors, armies and sappers (military specialists in field fortification). Many paintings show surveyors at this type of pioneering work:

Samuel Thomas Gill, Chaining over the Sand Dunes to Lake Torrens, 1846

Phillip Parker King, Phillip Parker King and John Septimus Roe Surveying the Entrance of Endeavor River, 1819

 Ritz Raphael, Correction of River Rhone at Raron (Swiss Alps), 1888

This painting tradition still continues today. Pro Hart, Hugh Sawrey, Geoff La Gerche and other painters frequently use the motif of surveying.

The land surveyor’s work enables rivers to be restrained. Some paintings show the work of river corrections, such as Switzerland’s Kander River in 1712 and the Rhone River in 1888. 

Land surveyors are land managers and their work contributes to the production of more food, which is a foundation of sustainable development.In addition, agriculture made great progress with the invention of the steam plow.

“Six machines in full activity, each of them with a comet’s tail of straw smoke, are very elating. The lonely silent fields have already a quite different air.”
--Max Eyth, “ In the Stream of our Time,” 1871

Albert Anker, The Surveyor (for Railway Line in Switzerland), l885

The land surveyor’s work paves the way for important transportation projects, such as railways, roads and bridges.

Painters often show the surveyor working on railroad projects.. In Switzerland, painter Albert Anker represented the surveyor measuring for the railways.

W.L. Kozlowski, 1932

Heinrich Federer arranged a novel around a mountain railway construction project in Switzerland: “Isn't it human strength to drive up on this rock, where no one ever saw animals, with locomotive and cars full of people?”
--Heinrich Federer, “Mountains and Humans,” 1911

Friedrich Dürrenmatt gives still another meaning to the railway and the tunnel:
“We move on rails, the tunnel must lead us somewhere. Nothing proves that the tunnel is not correct, except that it does not stop.”
--Friedrich Dürrenmatt, “The Tunnel,” 1952

In addition, Felix Moeschlin described the railway construction through the Swiss Alps in “We perforate the Gotthard,” 1947/49; the measurement work is described in detail. Niklaus Bolt described the building of the Jungfrau mountain railway in Switzerland.

Surveyors also work as a town planner and real estate property appraiser. In this function–as is often the case with town planners and architects–they have to often fight with doubts.

“Because my mistakes, reinforced concrete around me can be corrected only with dynamite.”
--György Konrad, “Stadtgründer (City Founder),” 1975

“You know the fact that I am actually an architect and should build houses, but I never built them, I only blown them up.”
--Heinrich Böll, “Billiard at Half-Past Nine,” 1959

As these many references in art and literature demonstrate, geomatics professionals play an important role in the  development of a sustainable society. It is an important work that deserves to be recognized and honored in our society.

Footnote 1 - FIG Definition of the Functions of the Surveyor, 2004,