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

Welcome to the new(ish) Northing & Easting!

Welcome!  For several years I’ve been blogging under the title Northing & Easting using Google’s blogging service but lately I’ve become dissatisfied with Google’s offerings. Now mind you, what Google offers is a free service so I’m not going to complain too loudly, but as a free service its features are limited.  My hope is that WordPress will offer more options not just for blogging, but also for setting up and running a website. We’ll see how it goes.

So what’s the philosophy here? I’m a professional Topographer. That’s a job title you don’t hear any more, but it accurately describes what I do in my daily work. A Topographer, or Topographic Engineer, is someone who studies and describes the shape of the earth and the feature on it. The discipline of Topographic Engineering traditionally incorporates surveying, geodesy, photogrammetry, cartography, geography, geology, soils science, forestry, hydrology, landform analysis, cultural analysis and astronomy. A good Topographer is a true polymath.

Topographic Engineering was not an obscure discipline. Many of our greatest historical figures worked as Topographers at one point or another in their careers. Men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, Robert E. Lee, George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur and Herbert Hoover all worked as topographers at some point during their professional lives. Topographers working in the service of the US government or US Army mapped the coastlines, rivers, interior lands and natural wealth of the USA, laid out the land survey grid system that facilitated the opening and settling of the vast expanses of the American west, mapped extensive regions of the Pacific, Far East, Europe and Asia, and even mapped the Moon. Topographic Engineering is an old and honorable profession and I’m proud to be a part of it.

Today the discipline has a much fancier high tech 21st Century title: Geospatial Engineer. The term Geospatial Engineer was coined by the US government to describe the role of the traditional Topographer brought forward into the world of computers, GPS, satellite imagery, remote sensors, digital data and the Internet. The biggest difference is that the Topographer walked the land to study, describe and map while the Geospatial Engineer sits at a desktop computer and leverages a world of digital data to accomplish the same mission. But are they the same, these old ground walkers and the wiz kids at the computer terminals? Conceptually, yes. Both are leveraging a broad range of data to study and describe the earth and its features.  The difference is in the how.  To do their job the old Topographers actually had to leave the office, travel to the ground they were going to study, walk it, measure it, sample it, map it and describe it based on their personal observations. This always resulted in a much more intimate and, I would argue, more accurate and precise evaluation. Today’s Geospatial Engineer has, in most cases, lost that direct contact with the very ground they are studying and describing. While they have complex digital analysis tools and vast digital data holdings at their disposal the final product often tends to be detached, clinical, often imprecise and inaccurate.

I’m no Luddite. I love the technology. I’m lucky to work for an organization that provides me access to the very latest in geospatial information systems (GIS) software, web mapping technology and digital field data collection devices. We maintain vast digital data holdings that cover a very compact space on the Earth’s surface (a large airport) so we are able to develop a wide range of analytic scenarios and quickly field check the results. We are able to effectively evaluate what works, what doesn’t work, and we maintain a direct dialog with industry leading software and hardware developers. This puts me in a perfect position to evaluate current trends against historical precedent.

The central mission of this blog is to celebrate the history of Topographic Engineering and to capture and discuss the fast disappearing technologies and methods used by generations of old Topographers. But we’ll also  keep an eye on the current state and trends in the Geospatial Engineering field. Since this is my blog and I get to call the shots I may take occasional forays off to explore other topics, but we’ll always quickly return to the central theme. One of my primary objectives is to keep it interesting, and that’s where you come in. I’ll need your honest feedback on what I post here and any recommendations you may have regarding topics, style or any other features of this blog.

Thanks for your time, and I hope you come back often!

– Brian

In Praise of the Old Topographer

Progress is good.

Without progress we wouldn’t have a lot of great things like:

Electronic ignition
Cell phones
Frozen pizza

Few could argue that these developments have significantly enriched our lives or made them easier.  (Have an issue with electronic ignition being on the list?  Ever hand crank a car to get it started?)

But too many people equate change with progress.  If you change something, particularly if you change something that few people really understand, you can claim progress and nobody really stops to say, “Uh, I don’t think so”.

So it is today with my ‘profession’ – Geospatial Information Services (GIS).

I put the term profession in quotes when using it in conjunction with GIS, because I’m not really sure GIS is a profession.  It certainly is a job – there are thousands of people working GIS jobs around the world, but in my opinion it’s not really a profession, not yet anyway.

And the story of GIS is the story of change without real progress.

Background.  I have been working in the mapping, survey and geographic analysis field almost continuously since 1980.  I watched as the US military, particularly the Army geospatial engineering field, transitioned from the old manual analysis and production methods to computer-based analysis and production.  When I started it was all hand drawn overlays and paper maps.  Today it is GIS software and web-based mapping services.  I have certainly seen change in my field – fundamental, earth shaking change.  I’m not so sure I’ve really seen a lot of progress.  In fact, I would claim we’ve actually moved backwards in our ability to provide clear analysis and decision support tools to our customers.  We have moved forward with change, yet backwards with progress.

How can that be?  Simple.  The GIS field has traded fundamental skills for computer application expertise,  and the lack of fundamental skills and the ability to do critical analysis makes the field a slave to the software.

Change without progress.

Go up to any GIS professional and ask him or her to describe their job.  They will stumble around trying to explain it to you and invariably the words ‘arcgis’, ‘computer’, ‘database’ and ‘web maps’ will leak out.  The GIS professionals today can not think about, describe or relate their jobs without first thinking about the computer application.  For far too many of them the computer application is their job.  Continue the line of questioning and ask them if they think they can continue to do their job effectively without their computers and GIS software, even for just a short period of time.  Again, most will say no – in their minds their ‘profession’ is inseparable from and defined by the software.

Ask a civil engineer to define his or her profession.  You won’t hear words like ‘autocad’ or ‘microstation’ slip out, yet AutoCAD and MicroStation are the two leading engineering design packages in use around the world.  Reason?  Civil engineers don’t define their profession in relation to software applications.  Civil engineers are educated and trained to solve complex issues using analytical skills.  I work every day with extremely competent civil engineers who plan and manage multi-million dollar projects, yet they don’t even know how to open up an AutoCAD drawing file on their desktop computer.  They were hired for their engineering and problem solving expertise.  Software applications are merely enabling technologies that allow them to work more efficiently.

Put the same question to a land surveyor.  You won’t hear terms like ‘terramodel’, ‘geomatics office’, or ‘civil3d’.  These are software packages that enable surveyors to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, but they do not define the profession.  The survey profession is defined by a set of standards tied to analytical and problem solving skills.

In each of these cases the profession defined what it needed from the software and the vendors responded.  In the GIS field things evolved the other way.  In the beginning (way back in the 1970s), the term ‘GIS’ defined software, not a skill set (the original term GIS stood for ‘geographic information software’ and has only recently morphed into ‘geospatial information system’).  Other professions like Forestry, Geology and Geography started using GIS technology to better manage large amounts of data that had a spatial component – things like timber stands, mineral lease boundaries and census data.  The software was revolutionary, but it was an enabling technology and not an end in itself.  Because the software was used by a broad range of professions there was little standardization.

As the years progressed and GIS software matured, more and more individuals became captivated by the GIS concept.  I will admit, in addition to having powerful analytical capabilities GIS packages like ESRI’s ArcGIS are just plain fun to work with.  However, these applications do little to enforce standards.   Everybody gets to do what they want.  That’s not the software’s fault – it’s up to the GIS professional to apply recognized standards.  But before you can have standards you have to clearly define your profession, and if you can’t define your profession how can you define your standards?  It was as though GIS had no conceptual roots – a discipline born anew, without heritage or precedent.  And nobody wanted to take ownership.  So, heavy GIS software user self identified themselves as ‘professionals’ and happily motored along, defining themselves any way they wanted.  As a result the GIS profession has become a primordal soup of software users with varying skill sets.  Some are damned sharp, other’s have trouble finding the ArcGIS icon on their computer desktop.  Yet all get to claim the title of ‘GIS Professional’ because, well, nobody told ’em they can’t.*

I refuse to be defined by a software package.  I am better than that, and my employers didn’t hire me for my button pushing skills.  They hired me to solve complex problems and provide unique services no other group in the organization could provide.  If I can provide the answer by scribbling a few calculations on a notepad, great.  If I have to fire up high end GIS software to run a complex analysis, OK.  How I arrive at the solution is immaterial to my employer, they just want an accurate answer that conforms to the established standards of the disciplines I’m touching.

But if GIS is the software, what is the discipline?  What melds geography, geology, forestry, hydrology, landform analysis, civil and structural engineering, environmental science and surveying into a multi-discipline approach to problem solving?  What discipline applies the best approach to describing the land and the structures on it and features below it with accuracy and precision?  What discipline relates data using a multi-disciplinary approach to solve the unique and complex problems beyond the realm of other earth science and engineering disciplines?  That discipline doesn’t exist, you say?


The discipline I describe has existed for over 150 years.  This discipline opened the American west to exploration and settlement, unlocked the vast natural resources of this country and helped fuel it’s rise to an economic world power, it charted America’s home waters for safe navigation, mapped vast expanses of Central and South America and even mapped the Moon to identify safe landing areas for our Apollo missions.  Most came to this discipline from other professions.  It drew in its share of civil engineers, geologists, surveyors and geographers.  It was once the leading career choice for the top graduates from West Point.  This discipline started to die out in the 1980s, with the rise of specialization and computerization, when we tried to replace broad experience with computer algorithms.  Yet it is a discipline that is still as relevant today as it was in the mid-1800s, perhaps even more so as our infrastructure, development, enviromental, and energy issues start to intersect in ways only spatially-based analysis can address.

This is the discipline of the old Topographer!  

A topographer of the old Coast & Geodetic Survey, conducting
what is essentially a geospatial analysis using a plane table survey set

By definition, a topographer is someone who precisely maps and describes a portion of the earth’s surface and the man made features on it.  That is about as elegant a description of what I do as any I’ve found.

So, don’t call me a GIS professional, analyst, manager, coordinator or anything else related to a software application.

Call me a Topographer!

– Brian
* I understand we have this thing called the GISP certification program.  In its current form it’s a joke.  What does it certify?  Other professions with established licensing standards, like the engineering and survey fields laugh at the GISP certification program.  How can you certify against something that doesn’t have standards?