Technical Publications

Here’s a list of recommended technical publications for those interested in the art and science of Topographic Engineering:

The Nautical Sextant by W.J. Morris. A book about sextants on a blog about topographic engineering? Sure! The sextant was a key piece of mapping and navigational equipment for most land-based exploration parties throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Before GPS the sextant, when used with an artificial horizon (usually a pool of liquid mercury), provided the only reliable method for determining latitude and longitude. Lewis and Clark carried a sextant on their Voyage of Discovery to map and catalog the wonders of the Louisiana Purchase. William Peary carried one to determine his position in relation to the North Pole. During WWII Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had a German naval officer and senior navigator assigned to his headquarters during the North African campaign to fix his unit positions by sextant reading in the trackless desert. Dr. Morris, a practicing physician in New Zealand, has written a classic on the maintenance and repair of various types of sextants. Clearly written and accompanied by excellent photographs, this book is a labor of love and modern classic, and a must-have for anyone that owns or uses a sextant. You can also visit Dr. Morris’ excellent blog site at The Nautical Sextant.for more information on sextant history and repair.

Geodesy For The Layman by the Defense Mapping Agency. This short book is a minor classic in the field of geodesy (geodesy is the science of the study of the shape of the earth). First published in 1959 by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Burkard of the Army Map Service, it was subsequently updated and revised by the Defense Mapping Agency’s Geosciences Division. At this point I’m not sure which government agency (if any) has assumed responsibility for maintaining the work and I hope it is not an abandoned publication. It was a standard text used by the Army Map Service, the Defense Mapping Agency, the US Geological Survey, NOAA and dozens of colleges and universities around the country. Geodesy for the Layman distills the often mind numbingly complex concepts of geodetic science down to something the interested layman can digest. This was one of the first books I was handed when I attended the Defense Mapping Agency’s Mapping, Charting & Geodesy Officer’s Course back in the early 1980s and quickly became a well thumbed reference. It’s a free publication so go grab a copy and start reading!

Interpretation of Aerial Photographs by Thomas Eugene Avery. Dr. Avery wrote the standard text in aerial photograph interpretation in 1962 and it stands today as a classic reference. Sadly, aerial photo interpretation is becoming a lost art. particularly stereo photo interpretation. With the development of high resolution commercial satellite imagery and digital raster GIS software the perception is that conventional photo interpretation is a thing of the past. Not so. A pair of trained eyes looking at clear stereo imagery can discern things that computers can not. A few months ago I pulled Avery’s book of my shelf, grabbed a series of stereo aerial images and a pocket stereoscope and spent an enjoyable couple of hours re-acquainting myself with some of the old skills which, on reflection, still have value in this always-on, always-connected, instant data world. Sadly Avery’s book is out of print, but since it was in common use as a college text there are plenty of good used copies available on the web.

Glossary of Mapping, Charting and Geodetic Terms by the Defense Mapping Agency. The standard reference dictionary of mapping, charting & geodetic (MC&G) terms. Very useful if you are reading an older text dealing with topographic topics and stumble across a word or term you don’t understand. Now out of print, but PDF copies are available from the the Defense Technical Information Center.

The American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch. The classic publication on marine navigation. Nathaniel Bowditch was a 19th century mathematician and sea captain from Massachusetts. Bowditch was a true polymath, and his reputation began when he was contracted to provide updates and corrections to the US edition of a British publication, The Practical Navigator. Bowditch made so many corrections and improvements to the original text that the publisher decided to rename it the American Practical Navigator. In 1867 the book’s publisher Edmund Blunt sold the copyright to the US Government, which continues to update and publish the work. You can read my original review of Bowditch here.

Topographic Instructions of the US Geological Survey by the USGS. Published in 1913, this is the comprehensive manual that details the duties and responsibilities of topographic field parties. This is the first, and so far only, comprehensive manual on topographic field operations I’ve seen. It covers all topics, from initial reconnaissance to 1st & 2nd order triangulation and leveling and plane table work, to instructions for setting control markers to topographic drafting, contouring and the preparation of make-readies for engraving. It is, quite literally, a soup-to-nuts instruction manual on topographic mapping operations. Along the way it manages to cover such mundane topics as pack animal care, treatment of bites by ‘mad’ dogs, interacting with the local press, the amount of cooking lard needed for a topographic party of six for one month’s operations, and how to replace a survey instrument’s stadia crosshairs with spider webbing. In all an absolutely fascinating piece of topographic history.

History of the Army Topographic Engineering Laboratories (1920 – 1970) by John T. Pennington, US Army Engineer Topographic Laboratories (ETL) (1973). This is less a formal history of ETL and its predecessor agencies and more a history of topographic and survey equipment and systems development within the Army Engineer Topographic Laboratories system between the late 1920s and 1970. As such it is a detailed and fascinating compendium of development work at the labs, with particular emphasis on topographic system developments leading up to and during WWII. This reference covers everything from the development of the lowly pocket stereoscope to early work on satellite navigation systems. For a topographic equipment geek this book is invaluable because many of the low density or one-off systems that are all but forgotten today are discussed in detail. This is a poor copy of a copy from the Defense Technical Information Service and the accompanying photos are all but unusable, but the text is invaluable.

ETL History Update, 1968 – 1978 by Edward C. Ezell, US Army Engineer Topographic Laboratories (ETL), February 1979. This is an update to History of the Army Topographic Engineering Laboratories (1920 – 1970) by Jack Pennington (above). This is another poor copy of a copy, but the information is invaluable. What makes this document interesting is it highlights ETL and the Army Topographic community’s transition away from WWII-era optical and first generation electro-optical topographic systems to fully integrated digital systems that give the earliest glimpses into the fully digital geospatial technologies we take for granted today.

Development of Photogrammety In The U.S. Geological Survey by Morris M. Thompson, USGS, 1953. This report is similar in style to the History of the Army Topographic Engineering Laboratories (1920 – 1970) (above) and covers photogrammetric equipment and practices development in the USGS between 1904 and 1953.

The Inter-American Geodetic Survey, Twenty Five Years of Cooperation by Colonel John W. Granicher, US Army War College, 1972. This is a short overview of the history of the IAGS up to 1972 and was probably completed as a research paper by Colonel Granicher as part of his Army War College course requirement. As such it is a fairly high level overview of IAGS activities and accomplishments, but it does provide a good framework against which we can compare other documents and publications dealing with the IAGS.


1 thought on “Technical Publications

  1. Here are several books that you might consider for your reading list.

    Topographic Surveying by Herbert M. Wilson.
    An entertaining and informative volume detailing topographic field practices at the juncture of
    the 19th and 20th century.

    Textbook of Topographical and Geographical Surveying by Charles F. Close
    An Empire wide compilation from various British authors detailing topographic surveying practices at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Elements of Topographic Drawing by Sloan and Montz
    A look at topographic drawing as practiced in the WWII era. If someone has any interest in hand drawing maps this is a good place to look.

    The Pencil by Henry Petroski
    What’s a topographer without a pencil? A detailed history of the origin and development of wooden and mechanical pencils. Now thats geeky!


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