Terrain Models – WWII Style

In a previous post I discussed the issue of terrain models and how the requirement to build them was often the bane of my professional existence. Since we received no training on the construction of terrain models most of the time we were just winging it, making sure that the general terrain was well represented and laying in key topographic and geographic features like important towns, cities, roads, rivers, etc. These models got the job done, but they certainly weren’t elegant. I knew we could do better, but frankly I wasn’t about to waste any more personnel resources than necessary. My Terrain Analysis units were always over tasked and under resourced, and every hour my Soldiers spent putting together a terrain model was an hour stolen from a more important requirement. The fact is, I wanted the finished product to be somewhat crude in the hopes that we’d never get asked to do it again.

Nevertheless, terrain models are an important tools for military planners and unit leaders and the demand for accurate terrain models has always existed. The demand reached a zenith during WWII when planning for major operations like the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch), Italy (Operation Husky) and France (Operation Overlord) reached a fever pitch. Commanders at all levels demanded accurate terrain models for use as briefing, planning and rehearsal tools.

To provide some level of standard guidance, in June of 1944 the Army Map Service published a bulletin covering the construction of both terrain models and physical relief maps. What this bulletin describes are not simple sand tables, but complex, accurate and detailed models prepared by skilled model makers in a controlled production environment. Frankly I think this bulletin may have done more harm than good; I can envision senior WWII field commanders waving it in the face of their Topographic Engineer officers and yelling, “See, the Engineer branch has even published an official how-to manual. Now get out there and make me a terrain model!” In a sense I’m glad I never ran across this or any similar publication while I was on active duty. Copies of this bulletin are somewhat rare and I have to wonder if most of the copies weren’t burned over the years by Topographic Engineer officers desperate to hide the evidence.

Still, it’s an interesting publication and one worth studying to realize just how complex and difficult making accurate terrain models really is (just click on the image to open the document).

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A Slight Price Change

I recently acquired a mid-1900’s copy of Ainsworth’s Brunton Pocket Transit owners manual. This is the small manual that was included with every pocket transit sold.

Brunton Pocket Transit 1957 - Front Cover

Click on the image to open the manual as a PDF

Included with this manual was a 1957 price list and the prices it shows makes for some fun comparisons to prices today

Brunton Pocket Transit 1957 - Price List

In 1957 an Ainsworth manufactured pocket transit would set you back $49.50. Wow! Compared to current pricing for the same item made today by the Brunton Company – $400 – that was quite a bargain.

Or was it? There’s no direct comparison between 1957 prices and 2016 prices. If we calculate for inflation using consumer price index numbers, $49.50 in 1957 dollars = $417.52 in 2015 dollars. So the pocket transit buyer in 1957 was actually paying about $17 more in inflation adjusted dollars for his compass.

Any way you calculate it a new pocket transit is a pricey piece of equipment. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) a purchase decision a young college student or newly graduated geologist made lightly, but it was a necessary and critical piece of his professional kit. That probably explains why there are so many well used but well cared for examples available today on auction sites like eBay.



Greetings From The Panama Canal

I’ve been fascinated by the Panama Canal and its history for years. Before 1993 I didn’t give the ‘big ditch’ much thought, then one day in ’93 I got a phone call from my Army assignments officer telling me I’d been selected to do a tour with the US Army South headquarters at Fort Clayton in the old Panama Canal Zone. At first I resisted, thinking an assignment to Panama in the waning days of American influence was a backwater job (which it was), but my good friend Gil Rios, who had spent several years in Panama, called and told me that it was a damned interesting place and that I’d have a lot of fun (which I did).

Before heading down there my wife and I read everything on Panama we could get our hands on. This included David McCullough’s excellent one volume history of the Canal, Path Between The SeasI also got the opportunity to dig through the Fort Belvoir, Virginia post library (home of the US Army Engineer School) to review their fairly extensive historical holdings on the Panama Canal. Since the US Army Corps of Engineers had a significant hand in the design and construction of the Canal a lot of reports, pamphlets, books and articles were written by Engineer officers, and many of those papers made their way to the Fort Belvoir library. We read our books, got our shots, packed our household, said goodbye to friends and family and headed to Panama.

Our time in Panama proved to be just as interesting as Gil promised. My geospatial team ended up working on counter drug projects across Central and South America. We also got pulled into a wide range of Panama Canal turn-over issues, working to identify abandoned US facilities across the isthmus, assisting in property remediation studies and conducting analysis on the effects of deforestation on siltation levels in the Canal. Our daughters enjoyed endless summer in a tropical paradise and experienced first hand a culture and and environment that few other American children got to see.

One of the things I took away from this experience is a life-long fascination with the Canal and its history. Along the way I became an accumulator of  Panama Canal bric-a-brac, particularly if it has a topographic connection. In the early 1900’s America was fascinated by the Canal and proud of our nation’s achievement in building it. Magazine articles, professional publications and early newsreels gave Americans a peek at what was going on in a place so exotic yet not so far away. We were conquering disease, rugged topography, rain, raging rivers and dangerous rock slides to join the oceans and improve world commerce. This triggered a flood of Panama Canal ephemera – publications, maps, photos, commemorative coins, plates and post cards. Lots and lots of post cards. Most of these knickknacks sported a map, because to understand the Panama Canal and its relationship to the United States you need to put it in geographic context.

So today we’ll take a look at one of the more unique Canal related items I’ve come across. It’s a standard sized post card published by I. L. Maduro in Panama City and is likely a reprint of a report published by the Panama Canal Company in the early years of the Canal’s operation.

Panama Canal Postcard Front

Click to open in a new window

What makes this card unique is that it’s an information dense geographic analysis. It effectively combines a nicely done relief map with a corresponding elevation profile that serves as a comparative chart highlighting the difference between material removed during the initial French effort to dig the canal (1881 – 1893) and the subsequent and successful American effort (1904 – 1913). The card also includes key statistical information about the Canal – passage times, channel depths, lock sizes, construction cost, workforce size and other interesting tidbits. Also included is a mileage chart that highlights the amount of shipping distance saved by using the Canal. This was a thinking man’s post card, a high level engineering report squeezed onto a 3.5″ x 5.5″ piece of cardboard. Even more interesting, the map is embossed; it has raised relief, making it a miniature physical relief map.

Overall it’s extremely well done. Yes, you need a magnifying glass to read all the information, but that’s OK. It’s worth the effort. I can imagine hundreds of professional men visiting the Canal Zone or transiting the Canal stopping off and picking up one or more of these post cards to help them explain to friends and family just what a unique and extraordinary achievement the construction of the Panama Canal was. That’s why these cards are not particularly rare. A quick eBay search for ‘panama canal post card’ will usually turn up one or more of these for sale or auction.

But let’s remember this is a post card, designed to be scribbled on and dropped in the mail. So it is with this particular card. In 1934 Uncle Gerry mailed it from Panama to his nephew Don at a YMCA camp in Connecticut. Just what was Uncle Gerry doing in Panama? Was he a crew member on a ship transiting the Canal? Was he working for the Panama Canal Company? Was he a tourist who dropped in to see what this big ditch was all about? We’ll never know, but it’s fun to speculate.

Panama Canal Postcard Back

The Panama Canal was an outstanding American engineering achievement that continues to serve world commerce. We turned the Canal over to the Panamanians in 1999 and they continue to operate and improve it, most recently expanding it to handle the newest generation of supercargo carriers. This has triggered a ‘port war’ here in the US as various cities along the eastern seaboard scramble to improve their port and rail facilities in an effort to capture a larger share of the increase in shipping traffic. Over 100 years after it’s opening it’s great to know that the Canal is still contributing to the world’s commerce. That’s precisely what the thousands of engineers, surveyors and laborers were working towards back at the dawn of the 20th century.


Topographic Instructions of the US Geological Survey

How do you make a map? More precisely, how does one produce a map compiled to specific standards for accuracy, content and style? Does that question keep you up at night? Nah, me either. But it is an interesting question and I’d bet that if you put it to 100 people you’d get 110 answers.

Of course today it’s easy. Nobody really makes a map these days. Most just go to Google Maps on their smartphone or tablet, and these days that’s about all the ‘map’ most people want or need.

But 100 years ago things were much different. Back then there were still vast unmapped areas of the US and it was the responsibility of the US Geological Survey (USGS) to send topographic parties in to map them. This was before the era of cell phones, internet, GPS and even radio communications. Checking with the home office involved the US Mail or, if they were lucky, telegraph. For that reason these parties operated autonomously under the direction of a Party Chief. The Party Chief was part military general, part football coach and part college professor; he ruled with an iron fist and made sure everything was run properly, was responsible for the motivation and morale of his party and was the brains of the outfit. The Party Chief was vested with enormous authority because he had an enormous responsibility – he answered to his regional Chief Geographer for the accuracy and quality of his party’s work.

In 1913 Party Chiefs didn’t go about their work blind. They operated under a very detailed set of instructions and standards laid out in a USGS publication titled Topographic Instructions of the United States Geological Survey.

Topographic Instructions of the USGS

I find this a fascinating manual because it is the only publication I’ve seen that lays out in detail the steps necessary to create a map from scratch. It covers all the processes involved in creating a map to very specific accuracy, content and composition standards. This is, quite literally, the document that defined what we know today as the standard USGS topo quad sheet. Of course the USGS was producing standard topo sheets before this manual was published, but indications are that prior to 1912 the instructions were covered in separate publications and broken out by discipline. This manual brought it all together in a single reference that is remarkably clear and concise for its time, stripped of a lot of the superfluous language that Edwardian-era government functionaries were so fond of using. This is a manual designed to be used in the field by men who have a job to do.

The topics covered include

  • primary and secondary triangulation
  • primary and precise leveling
  • plane table surveying
  • map construction (compilation), drafting and editing
  • instrument care and repair

But beyond the technical, Topographic Instructions of the United States Geological Survey covers detailed administrative instructions to Party Chiefs on topics like crew selection, first aid for pack animals and crew members, how much food to pack, how many fountain pens to bring along, how to set up a base camp, even how to interact with local officials and the press.

It’s a soup-to-nuts manual on how to make a map from scratch.

– Brian