Surveyor equipment. Surveyor’s telescope at construction site or Surveying for making contour plans are a graphical representation of the lay of the land before startup construction work

Land surveys today benefit from hundreds of years of experience, knowledge, and tools. Our map creation of today uses anything from magnetic locators to special telescopes, to drones and satellites. The men tasked with early land surveys had simple equipment and employed special and innovative techniques to get the job done. As we saw in our series about Lewis & Clark, some of America’s most notable land surveyors, these early pioneers didn’t have much to work with but their knowledge of the land propelled them forward. Land surveys rely on smart techniques but also on their tools to get the job done. 

Early Tools and Techniques for Surveying and Understanding the Land 

Even ancient peoples had the urge and necessity to understand the land that surrounded them. It is an essential part of civilization—though not often discussed as such. 

The Roman Groma

One early instrument in the history of land surveyors seems to have made its way from Mesopotamia. The Groma looks rather simple. It is a vertical staff with horizontal staff pieces at right angles. It was also adopted by the early Romans to measure land in the empire for taxation purposes.  

The Greek Diopter

With the advancement of math and geometry came advancements in other fields. Land surveying advanced as the art of measurements and mathematical equations developed further. The Greeks developed the diopter. This was a lightweight portable tool composed of a cogwheel. They used water levels and astronomical features to survey a property. The theodolite—an instrument still used today— seems to have derived or at least been inspired by the early Greek diopter. 

Land Surveying in Early Europe and American History 

As Western civilizations expanded, the need to understand and record features of the land became more and more important. As the British Empire extended its borders across great lands, the explorers that led these expeditions sought to understand the lands in which they ventured. 

In 1571, Joshua Habermel created the first theodolite. Modern versions of this tool still exist today and form part of the day-to-day surveyors kit. This is a precise instrument that requires a tripod and compass. When early Europeans began using the technique of triangulation, it improved the accuracy of the measurements of boundary lines. This early European method of triangulation was used up to the 1980s because of its simplicity and accuracy. 

The Use of Celestial Maps & the Night Sky 

In the mid 18th century, the theodolite was improved by the addition of a scope. Today’s Theodolite, for example, is a rather sophisticated telescope derived from these early versions. Surveyors around this time used sextants, which measured angles using celestial maps. 

The Use of Other Early Tools

The land surveyor’s tool kit has evolved but the ideas have remained the same. Below is a list of various other early tools used by pioneer land surveyors that learned to be creative and innovative with what was at hand. 

  • Gunther’s Chain: This tool was around during the 17th century. It is a thin-looking chain consisting of a linked chain that is pinned to the ground and extended outward up to 60-65 feet. It helped surveyors define a path and record measurements from endpoint to endpoint. 
  • Gunter Surveyor Compass: Angles are critical for land surveys. Many of the tools that were developed early on focused on using angles to measure distances and terrain. Also known as the circumferentor, this tool helped determine right angles. 
  • Zenith Telescope: This is a refracting telescope and was pretty sophisticated for its time. It was designed to observe the night skies and contributed to the understanding of Earth’s rotation and axis. Portable versions of this telescope were used for land surveys including latitude determinations. 
  • Ramsden Theodolite: Jesse Ramdsen developed the Ramsden Theodolite in the late 1700s. He was an innovative London instrument maker that was tasked with creating an accurate instrument that used triangulation to divide England. The instrument weighed up to 200 pounds. 

The Day-to-Day Instruments Used for Land Surveying Today 

Most days it depends on the job. When surveying relatively flat terrain in the middle of a city to surveying mountain regions or deserts, there are various instruments and equipment that can be used. On any given day you might find your local land surveyor using the following: 

  • Surveying magnetic locators
  • Surveyors safety vests 
  • Surveying tripods
  • Marking paint
  • Automatic levels
  • Total stations
  • Theodolites
  • Electronic levels

The list goes on. Depending on the kind of job and the kind of survey that needs to be done, the tool kit may vary slightly. 

Get Accuracy and Reliability with Land-Mark Land Surveyors

As experts in the industry, we have seen the development of many new technologies and equipment over the years. It is no substitute for knowing how to do the job. We pride ourselves on efficient and accurate work here at Land-Mark. From residential surveys to government contracts, we get the job done. 

Need a reliable land survey? Trust the experts in El Paso and the Southwest. Call Land-Mark today. 

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