Surveying the Land, Volume One: Distance Measuring Tools and Their Accuracy, 1620 to 1920, by Milton Denny, PLS

Review by Burton Christensen, PLS

about the book

Surveying the Land, Volume One: Distance Measuring Tools and Their Accuracy, 1620 to 1920 By Milton Denny, PLS

Denny Enterprise, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Released December 2009

ISBN: 1-4276-0497-5

198 pages

List Price: $50

As I observe the culture of surveying, one truth that has been apparent--and occasionally entertaining--is the wide variety of skill sets and opinions about “the right way” to do things. It is said time after time that younger surveyors rely too much on technology and have neglected many of the fundamental principles of our profession. This tendancy has led many seasoned surveyors to call the younger generation “button pushers.” Younger surveyors argue, in turn, that the older surveyors apply too much weight to their slower, less-productive skills and techniques, then they proceed with a jab such as, “If the big boss tells us we can’t use data collectors to stake road tomorrow, I guess you will finally get as much wood in the ground as me.” These debates typically stay at the tongue-in-cheek level and dissipate before they get too personal. However, most of the joking is based on a certain degree of seriousness.

I began surveying roughly a year before the first RTK rover with an integrated receiver/antenna hit the market. My origins are far from handwritten calculations and notes; the “primitive” years of my career were spent using a non-servo total station and an HP 48 graphing calculator with a GX card. But as my career diversifies and progresses, the history of the timeless profession of land surveying increasingly captivates my interest. So when I heard about Milton Denny’s newest book, I was eager to review it.

The book is a comprehensive collection of early surveying instrumentation with a heavy focus on chaining. It is full of tables, pictures and illustrations that enhance the reader’s ability to quickly understand the concepts. My initial thought was, “What a great reference for young surveyors to gain a basic understanding of the measurement tools used during this time period!”

However, as I delved into the book’s history lesson, I gained an even-deeper appreciation for Denny’s approach. An exceptional touch is the regular inclusion of original field-note excerpts from federal surveyors and quotes from famous dignitaries who were also surveyors. These quotes and notations describe violent attacks, life-and-death struggles with the elements, as well as heartfelt gratitude and regard for their profession and colleagues.

Most in our profession are aware of the U.S. presidents who were also surveyors. This book highlights some of these men in a more down-to-earth, grassroots way than I have ever encountered. After reading about how they conducted themselves as surveyors, I now have a clearer understanding of why they were able to realize their potential and become not only leaders of this country but also highly regarded historical figures.

As much as I enjoyed the rich history in this book, the most practical and, perhaps, timeless aspect of Denny’s work became apparent to me recently as I listened to two excellent lectures by Don Wilson of Land & Boundary Consultants Inc.: one on easements and the other on boundary investigation. Wilson highlighted many surveys in which the chains of title were traced back to patents and, for some, to grants from British monarchs. One concept he emphasized was that anyone who is retracing surveys needs to not only adhere to the laws and statutes of the original survey time period but also match the units of that time (i.e., What was the prevalent length of chain/rod at that time?). Denny’s book can be a great reference to support research in such a survey.

The day is quickly approaching when few, if any, surveyors in active practice will have ever used the methods and tools described in this book as a primary means of measurement. Yet any surveyor can quickly gain an understanding of them through this resource. The visual elements bring the descriptions to life and make the chronology easy to follow. As time goes on, these images will only increase in value.

I’ve never met Denny or listened to one of his lectures, but after reading this book, I will watch for an opportunity to do so. He has clearly acquired a wealth of knowledge throughout his career and has a proactive way of sharing this knowledge with others. In “Surveying the Land,” Denny has achieved a unique balance: a book that is enjoyable to read yet still has an abundance of technical information for use as reference in practice. I recommend this book to all surveyors who engage in boundary retracement, those who enjoy history, and anyone who wishes to broaden their understanding of this noble profession.

Burton Christensen, PLS, is Survey Division manager for Sunrise Engineering Inc, Draper, Utah.

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