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History of Surveying

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Surveying techniques have existed throughout much of recorded history. In ancient Egypt, when the Nile River overflowed its banks and washed out farm boundaries, boundaries were re-established by a rope stretcher, or surveyor, through the application of simple geometry. The nearly perfect squareness and north-south orientation of the Great Pyramid of Giza, built c. 2700 BC, affirm the Egyptians’ command of surveying.

Brief descriptions about surveying….

Land surveying is the process by which land is surveyed and measured using mathematical means. The history of land surveying dates back thousands of years and forms of land surveying have been around since ancient man in all major civilizations across the globe. Ownership of land has and still is a very significant part of the lives of everyone in the world. Whether it was finding out which tribe owned which forest or the boundaries of major cities, the history of land surveying is incredibly interesting.

Where did the History of Land Surveying Begin?

The first examples in the history of land surveying date back to the ancient Egyptians during the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza in 2700 BC. There is evidence of the Egyptians using basic geometry to redraw boundary lines when the Nile overflowed its banks.

The Romans were the next civilization to advance on the initial land surveying techniques of the Egyptians. Historical evidence shows that the Roman Empire was the first civilization to employ an official land surveyor within their Empire. They used simple tools to create straight lines and angles. The land surveyors had a range of jobs in the Empire and some of their work is still evident today.

The Domesday Book, created by William the Conquerer in 1086 in England is another early example of the history of land surveying. The amount of information about the land was very impressive for the time, however the quality of land surveying was very poor and accuracy was lacking.

Possibly one of the best known characters in land surveying history was Napoleon Bonaparte – who was very enthusiastic about accurate land surveying. He always ensured that he had very precise maps, which were obviously very important when he was trying to conquer the world. He had maps produced that were drawn down to scale both at 1:2500 and 1:1250. The cadastres he had were used widely and spread quickly, however problems were encountered in built-up areas where things changed quite rapidly.

History of Land Surveying Techniques

As new technology and theories have become available, the techniques and methods used in land surveying have evolved.

Hundreds of years ago land surveyors would use all sorts of means for measuring distances – such as using chains with links that have a certain known length for example. Additionally land surveyors have to measure horizontal angles which in most cases was done using some form of compass. The quality and accuracy of compasses have increased as time has gone by.

In the past land surveying results were a lot less accurate – not due to the inabilities of the land surveyors themselves – but due to the inaccuracy of the tools that they had access to.

These days land surveyors have access to much more accurate tools such as GPS (global positioning systems).


The Waywiser. An instrument for measuring the distance which one has traveled on the road; an odometer, pedometer, or perambulator.
The waywiser to a coach, exactly measuring the miles, and showing them by an index.


The Theodolite. Instrument for the measurement of horizontal and vertical angles, used in surveying. It consists of a small telescope mounted so as to move on two graduated circles, one horizontal and the other vertical, while its axes pass through the centre of the circles.

Modern Land Surveying

As time has gone by, land surveying tools and techniques has advanced and the role of land surveyors is much broader than it was in the past. Below we shall look at how the history of land surveying has evolved into modern land surveying.

Although the fundamentals of land surveying haven’t changed, and the purpose is still the same – the techniques and methods have evolved drastically since the beginning of the history of land surveying.

As we mentioned before, one of the key changes in land surveying is the accuracy of the tools that are available to land surveyors. While in the past (up until the early 1900’s) most land surveyors had access to little more than a level, tape measure and a theodolite – modern land surveyors have access to some of the most advanced tools in the world.

Total Stations are very commonly used in modern land surveying. These include an EDM (electronic distance measurement device) which allows for more precise land surveying.


The Total Station. An optical surveyor’s instrument that combines a transit and an electronic distance measuring device. A total station calculates angles and distances for surveyed objects. This information can be used to create topographic maps.

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