History of Surveying and Measurement


Much of the subject of surveying (as defined under the entry for FIG ) is related to the use of scientific instruments. Interest goes back some 3000 years to the various simple equipment used to reestablish field boundaries after the annual floods of the river Nile or to build tunnels, aquaducts and other structures, the remains of which can be found in parts of the Middle East today. From simple squares, water levels and the like the profession has progressed through many forms of theodolite and level, quadrant, astrolabe, zenith sector, plane table and numerous other instruments. Many of these will be found in such reference works as:

Surveying Instruments: their history. by E R Kiely 1947. Reprinted 1979 by Carden Surveying Reprints, Columbus, Ohio.

Early Scientific Instruments. Europe 1400-1800. Anthony Turner. 1987. Sotheby's Publications. ISBN 0 85667 319 6

The Divided Circle. A history of instruments for astronomy, navigation and surveying. J A Bennett. 1987. Phaidon-Christie's. ISBN 0 7148 8038 8

Beitrag zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des Theodolits. Max Engelsberger. 1969. Deutsche Geodätische Kommission, München.

Scientific Instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries and their makers. Maurice Dumas. 1989 Portman Books London. Originally published in French. First English edition  1972 B T Batsford Ltd.

With Compass and Chain. Early American Surveyors and Their Instruments. S Bedini. 2001. Professional Surveyors Publishing Company Inc. 774 pages. ISBN 0-9665120-0-6

The Writings of the Roman Land Surveyors. B Campbell.  2000. Soc. For Promotion of Roman Studies. London. 570 pages. ISBN 0-907764-28-2

Drawing the Line. How Mason and Dixon surveyed the most Famous Border in America. E Danson. 2001.  Wiley, New York. 232 pages. ISBN 0-471-38502-6

Technical papers on particular instruments can be found in a wide range of journals but there are few books devoted just to instruments. For those with interest in the instruments and makers of the USA a regular column by Silvio Bedini in the journal American Surveyor has been going since 1985, now gathered together in the book above.

History of Science courses at post-graduate level run at

  • University of Oxford

  • University of Cambridge

  • University of London (Imperial College)

From L'Henry-metre. H de Suberville, 1598. Courtesy Jan de Graeve.