Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Englshman Who Went Up a Hill

...and came down a mountain.

It's cold and rainy outside, the Mrs. is taking a nap and the dogs are too.  I went looking for something quiet to do and stumbled upon my old copy of the quaint English film 'The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain'

There aren't many movies made about map makers, surveyors or cartographers.  Damned few.  The tedious film 'The English Patient' usually comes to mind, although the map making connection is just a plot mechanism to explain why a Hungarian count with an impeccable English accent is poking around Egypt and North Africa.  I don't think a map is shown in the entire movie.

In the opening scenes of 'Lawrence of Arabia' we see Lieutenant T. E. Lawrence helping to color a map in a military office in Egypt.  This is a pretty accurate snapshot of Lawrence's activities before he was sent out to foment revolt among the Arab tribes.  Before WWI Lawrence worked extensively as a field archaeologist in the Transjordan region and was a skilled map maker.  During WWI he was initially employed in making military maps of the Middle East.  Back then cartography and field survey were essential skills for explorers of all types and Lawrence was no exception.

There's lots of other movies with oblique references to maps, mapping and surveying.  The Indiana Jones series comes to mind, as does the 1999 movie 'The Mummy', but that's about all I can t hink of right now.

So back to our movie.  'The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain' is the only film I can think of that revolves around surveying and cartography.  The movie is loosely based on the true story of a group of Welsh villagers who, during World War I, conspire to have two British Ordnance Survey cartographers designate their local hill a true mountain so they can continue to lay claim to having "the first mountain in Wales."  At its heart the movie is the story of a village, devastated by the loss of its young men on the battlefields of France, that struggles to retain its dignity.  There's also a charming love story woven into the plot between one of the cartographers (Hugh Grant) and a local girl (Tara Fitzgerald).  The film is stuffed full of colorful characters who are all in cahoots to keep the cartographers in town while they surreptitiously add 20 feet to the top of their hill so it meets the minimum elevation requirement to be called a mountain.  Hence the somewhat long title.

The movie is a charming period piece.  Whoever did the costuming did a great job.  The scenes of the two cartographers working atop the mountain, kitted out in all sorts of period field gear are fun to freeze frame through (I particularly like Hugh Grant's leather map case).  The one glaring mistake the director made is having the crew use a dumpy level in the place of a surveyors theodolite to measure the angles between adjacent hills, but I'll forgive that slight hiccup.  Everything else looks spot-on, including the scene where Hugh Grant is doing some preliminary cartography work using an adjustable steel tipped pen and bottles of ink.

Here's the scene where the locals get the word that their mountain is really a hill.  Colm Meaney plays the local pub owner, town cad and ringleader of the whole effort, and is a hoot to watch:

The movie is slow and charming.  A classic little English gem.  It would be a great film without all the mapping and surveying stuff, but having it all in there makes it even better.

Highly recommended for rainy days.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

ArcGIS for Home Use

In August my 1-year subscription for my ArcGIS for Home Use license expired.  For those of you not familiar with the program, it's something ESRI started back in 2011 with the release of ArcGIS 10.0.  For $100 a year you could get a 'home use' license for ArcView 10.0 and a whole raft of useful extensions - virtually every ESRI add-on that would work with ArcView.  At the time I said it was one hell of a bargain, and it still is.

The software can only be used for individual ArcGIS skill development and maintenance, although limited use to support non-profit causes is allowed.

But with the release of ArcGIS 10.1 ESRI has sweetened the deal.  The ArcGIS for Home Use program gives you an annual license not for basic old ArcView, but for the new top-of-the-line product from ESRI - ArcGIS for Desktop Advanced!  

(In case you didn't get the memo, the old ArcGIS license level designations that have been around for decades - ArcView, ArcEditor and ArcInfo - are no more with ArcGIS 10.1.  Now it's ArcGIS for Desktop Basic (ArcView), Standard (ArcEditor) and Advanced (ArcInfo)).  

In addition to ArcGIS for Desktop Advanced (OK, I'll say it once and be done with it - ESRI's new naming conventions are a kludge) you get almost the whole suite of extensions.  The list is impressive:

  • 3D Analyst
  • Data Interoperability
  • Data Reviewer
  • Geostatistical Analyst
  • Network Analyst
  • Publisher
  • Schematics
  • Spatial Analyst
  • Tracking Analyst
  • Workflow Manager

That's almost the whole shebang.  If memory serves, any extensions not included have dependencies on ArcGIS for Server so wouldn't be much use anyway.

Any way you slice or dice it, $100/year for this software is a heck of a deal, particularly when you consider that if you are a geospatial professional you should be able to deduct the $100 subscription fee come tax time (disclaimer here - I ain't a tax lawyer and I don't play one on TV).

So how big of a system hog is ArcGIS for Desktop Advanced?  (Grrrrrr.... that naming convention again.  I know, I know, I promised.)  Actually it isn't too bad.  I was going to wait a few months to renew my subscription until I could scrape up enough money for a new home desktop system.  My old Compaq Presario (Windows 7 (64-bit), 500 gig HD and 3 gig of RAM) is getting long in the tooth and I really, really want one of those slick Dell XPS 27" systems.  Can you imagine stream digitizing on that baby?!  Well, reality intrudes.  It'll probably be well after tax time before I can afford one and while I really like Windows 8, ESRI is warning all ArcGIS users off of the new OS until they certify its compatibility.  So I bit the bullet, renewed earlier this week and got the software up and running on my old Compaq a few days ago.

Now, I won't go into ArcGIS 10.1 nuts and bolts functionality, that's not what this blog post is about.  We've been using 10.1 both beta, pre-release and final release at work for over 6 months and its good software.  There are some stability/functionality issues that are slated to be fixed in Service Pack 1 due out this week, but overall it works as advertised.  I'll just say that 10.1 runs fine on my old Compaq.  Yes performance could be snappier, but remember I've only got 3 gig of RAM (soon to be upgraded to a whopping 4 gig - all the motherboard will support).

What I particularly like about 10.1 is its better integration with the free version of ArcGIS Online.  ArcGIS 10.0 kina' sorta' worked with ArcGIS Online but 10.1 is much better.  In particular, basemap services pulled from ArcGIS Online seem to work much smoother.  You are still a slave to bandwidth when using these basemap services, but if you've got one of the mainstream broadband providers (we use Comcast) you should be OK.  

ESRI is also making significant changes to their imagery basemap services.  They are aggressively acquiring new high resolution imagery, have made the metadata directly queryable (is that a word?)  in ArcGIS and provide the imagery royalty free.  ESRI must be writing some big checks to the imagery companies.

Basemap imagery coverage of Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta.  Note the
metadata window showing the date acquired, the provider, accuracy
and resolution (in meters).  This shot shows a Korean Airlines 747
taxiing for takeoff from Concourse E.  Cool stuff, eh?

I guess you can tell by now I'm a big fan of ESRI's ArcGIS for Home Use program.  If you read back through this blog you'll figure out that I can be quick to heap criticism on ESRI for their foibles and misfires.  But I'm equally quick to heap praise where praise is due, and this is one of those times ESRI deserves praise.  If you are a geospatial professional or an amateur with a strong interest in GIS then this program is for you.

 So just what does a geospatial geek do to test his new installation of ArcGIS for Desktop Advanced 10.1?  Why, he digitizes all the hydrology in his neighborhood, that's what!

As my kids tell me, I'm such a geek!


Saturday, August 11, 2012

End Of An Era

I got news a few days ago that the last class of Army topographers (today they are called Geospatial Engineers) has graduated from the NGA College at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.  The course will be moved to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in November.

This graduation, which took place on August 2nd, marks the end of Army Engineer training of any sort at Fort Belvoir.  It is the end of an almost 100 year presence at Belvoir, which openend in 1915 as an Army Engineer training ground and was originally named Camp A. A. Humphreys.

Fort Belvoir was always the traditional home of the Engineers.  It housed not just the Engineer School but also the offices of the Chief of Engineers and several key Engineer labs, including the Engineer Topographic Lab which today is designated the Army Geospatial Center.

At one time all Engineer officer training took place at Fort Belvoir (I attended my Engineer Officer basic and advanced courses there) but over time most Engineer enlisted training was moved to Fort Leonard Wood, which offered more training and maneuver space.  However, all formal topographic engineer training, for both officer and enlisted, remained at Fort Belvoir at the Defense Mapping School.

In the late 1980s the Chief of Engineers made the decision to move all Engineer training - officer and enlisted - to Fort Leonard Wood.  The decision was no surprise; the Engineers had been talking about it for years.  Still, it was sad to see the them vacate their traditional home.

As part of the move I know the Engineer School looked at ways of moving the Defense Mapping School to Leonard Wood, or at least relocating all Engineer topographic training to the new school.  The move didn't take place for several reasons, but two key issues kept topographic training at Belvoir.  First was the fact that most of the courses were actually Joint classes - students from all military services, Department of Defense civilians and even a small population of foreign students were all mixed together in the same classes.  The other services and the Department of Defense liked the idea of having the training offered in the Washington D.C. area.  Apparently only the Army Engineers think central Missouri is an appealing locale. The other issue was equipment.  In the 1980s and well into the 90s much of the training at the Defense Mapping School involved the use of heavy base plant equipment like large printing presses.  Even the Army was still using large, heavy Heidelberg SOR offset presses for map printing.  This equipment could not be easily or cheaply moved from Virginia to Missiouri.  Much of it was no longer manufactured so it wasn't like the Engineer School could just go out on the market and buy new equipment so the older stuff could remain in use back at Fort Belvoir.

Fast forward to the 21st Century.  The Army topographers are now called Geospatial Engineers and they long ago abandoned their old traditional map making ways for GIS software, digital data sets and plotters.  All you need to conduct topographic training these days are desktop computers and lots of bandwidth.  Apparently there was no longer any real need for these classes to remain at the NGA College (formerly the Defense Mapping School) at Belvoir.

The last class of Engineer Soldiers and the last class of Army topographers to train at Fort Belvoir have crossed the stage and received their diplomas.  A 97 year old tradition has ended.


Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Quick Shout Out

Over the past week or so I've been dialoging with Harold 'Hess' Hester, owner of the Defense Mapping School alumni site.  What drew me to Harold's site was an interest in locating an old Army buddy, CW3 Ralph Ruetze, who had served as an instructor at the school.

I learned from the website that, sadly, Ralph passed away in 2010.  However, Harold was eager to incorporate my memories of Ralph into his site.  Thanks Harold.  Ralph was quite a character and deserves to be remembered.

The Defense Mapping School (DMS) had the mission of training service members of all services, Department of Defense civilians and foreign students in the topographic arts and sciences - survey, cartography, graphics, press operations, terrain analysis, instrument and equipment repair and much more.  And they did an outstanding job.  The entire DMS organization - from the school registrar to the division chiefs to the individual instructors - went to extraordinary lengths to make sure our soldiers were well trained and well cared for while they were in the school's care.

DMS was one of several agencies that included the Defense Mapping Agency, the Topographic Engineering Center, the Waterways Experiment Station and the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory that provided unstinting support to the field topographic units.  The sad truth is that these agencies often provided more support to Army topographic units than their own local Engineer commands did.

So my thanks to 'Hess' (and Jack Batt) for standing up a much needed home on the web for Defense Mapping School alumni.

Monday, May 28, 2012



I was going through some of my books and manuals this morning and stumbled across this old favorite.  I spent a few minutes flipping through the pages and was reminded just what an absolute gem of a book it is.  I consider it a minor classic.  

As the author David Greenhood states in the first line of the Introduction, "This book has been written to be read rather than studied."

And so it should.  This is not a textbook or a reference, it is an educated man's introduction to the concepts of topographic mapping.  Authored by somebody who had a deep understanding of the subject and knew how to write for general audiences, it is readable, enjoyable and instructive.

Although this book was first published in 1944 and incrementally updated through 1964 it gives up little to the back half of the 20th century because it focuses on concepts rather than gizmos.  There's not a word or hint of satellite navigation, space-based imagery platforms, world-wide datums and coordinate systems or computer-based mapping.  

Greenhood's discussions on things like scale, perspective, contouring, projections and map compilation are some of the best and easiest to grasp that I've ever encountered.  Greenhood's coverage of these concepts stand the test of time because they don't change over time.  Scale is scale, perspective is perspective, whether you are looking at a paper map or a computer screen. 

Some of the topics seem quaint, like how to properly sharpen a pencil or how to select the correct paper for drawing a map, but the discussions are charming and still somewhat useful in today's world.  Most of the referenced publications are out of date and long out of print, but it's important to note that many of Greenhood's references were classics in their own right and are themselves worth hunting down and reading.

One of the real strengths of this book are the illustrations.  Most of the illustrations are hand drawn and they remind us that a talented illustrator can easily convey complex information in  ways photographs can't.  The illustrations are expertly integrated with the text and provide support and reinforcement to the topics under discussion precisely when and where needed.

I bought my copy of Mapping in 1982 at the bookstore in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC.  It has been paged through and referenced so many times the binding is starting to come loose.  This morning I jumped out to Amazon to see if the book was still available.  I'm pleased to see it is still published by the University of Chicago Press, but the price is an eye-bleeding $32.50 - quite a lot for a trade paperback.  However, copies are available from used booksellers for very reasonable prices.  I grabbed a new-condition copy from an Amazon partner bookseller for $6.95, not much more than the $5.50 I paid for my current copy back in 1982.

If you are at all interested in mapping, or want to introduce the concepts of mapping to a young audience this book is an excellent start.  I've read a lot of books on mapping down through the decades and this is the best single volume introduction to the field I've ever read.



Sunday, May 20, 2012

GPS - It's Not Just For Geocachers!

OK folks, let's put on our big boy pants and play grownup GPS.

"Look at me!  I know how to use GPS for
something other than geocaching!"

I'm involved in a test at a very large and very busy airport to determine the feasibility of using inexpensive handheld GPS receivers as reconnaissance tools for our engineering and facilities staff.  The consumer market is crammed with relatively inexpensive GPS devices and any one of those should fit the need.  We are not necessarily looking for accuracy here; most dedicated GPS units made these days offer plenty enough accuracy.  More important for our project is ease of use, the ability to import a fairly high resolution background image of the airport and the ability to provide coordinate read-outs in our proprietary (i.e., non-standard) grid system. 

Let's start with the proprietary grid system issue.  It may sound daunting, but it's really not.  A fair number of low end GPS units provide what's called a 'user coordinate system' setting.  The user just needs to provide a center point for the grid (in lat/long), a false northing and easting for the center point, a scale factor and few other bits of information.  It's pretty straight forward, and we've been able to program a 13 year old Magellan 315 to handle the task.  The Magellan 315 was a hot-spit GPS unit in its day but by today's standards it is out dated.  It is relatively slow to boot up, slow to acquire and lock onto satellites and it doesn't receive WAAS signals.  Still, it is easy to operate, the screen is a classic example of uncluttered high contrast clarity and it takes user coordinate system definitions without breaking a sweat.  Once it was up and operating it provided perfectly acceptable accuracies.

Magellan 315
Simple to operate and
has no issues with operating under
a proprietary grid system
Next we tested a seven year old Thales Mobile Mapper.  The Mobile Mapper was a piece of kit left behind at the close of a project several years back.  The contractor bought it to help locate underground utility marker balls and turned it over to the airport when the contract ended.  It's an odd duck piece of gear - not friendly enough to take on a fishing trip but not sophisticated enough to satisfy surveyors.  Still, it was perfectly willing to accept our coordinate system definition and returned fine accuracies.

Thales Mobile Mapper

So we proved it's possible to program our coordinate system into inexpensive GPS units.  It should be a simple task to identify a more modern unit that fit our performance and budget requirements.  This is where things got interesting and frustrating.  Our quest has revealed an ignored market segment for GPS units and leaves us scratching our heads and wondering just where the consumer GPS market is heading.

GPS is marvelous technology.  It has removed the great uncertainty in wayfinding and positioning that has vexed mankind since the first caveman decided to go from here to there and his wife told him where to turn.  The real genius of GPS has been in the integration of the location signal (and that's all GPS really is - a bunch of signals from satellites in the sky that provide the information a GPS receiver needs to calculate a position) into devices that leverage that location in unique ways.  

Twenty years ago a 'consumer grade' GPS was an expensive piece of gear that did little more than provide a location and allowed you to store a few dozen waypoints.  In 1999 I purchased the Magellan 315 used in this test for $300, and was happy to get it at that price.  Today $300 buys a unit that provides a position fix that is twice a precise as the 315, uses a high resolution color touchscreen display, stores thousands of waypoints, has a digital 3-axis compass, a barometric altimeter and a digital camera that takes geotagged images.  

But the success of the integration of dedicated GPS receivers is also proving to be their undoing.  Here's why.  I can walk into just about any AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Wal-Mart, Target or Best Buy and purchase a smartphone that offers these same features for about $200 (if I sign up for a service plan).  But in the package I also get a phone, a messaging device, a video chat device, an internet device, a music player, a game console and much more.  The integration of GPS into common consumer devices like phones and tablets is killing the dedicated GPS industry. It's not that highly integrated devices like the iPhone are better GPS devices - far from it.  The real problem is perception.  When pondering the purchase of a dedicated GPS unit the average consumer glances at his or her smartphone and asks, "why spend another couple of hundred bucks when I already have GPS and a mapping application rolled up into this device?"

Most consumers are not educated enough to understand that a dedicated GPS unit offers features that make it uniquely suited to outdoor use in rugged environments.  GPS integration in a smartphone is a compromise, particularly the antenna system.  On a smartphone GPS has to coexist with a range of other receivers and transmitters that all require their own antennas - cell, wi-fi, Bluetooth, etc.  A smartphone is first a phone, and other features like GPS get secondary design consideration.  But with a dedicated GPS unit optimized GPS reception and performance is the primary design goal.  First and foremost we expect a GPS unit to provide fast and accurate position fixes under a wide range of conditions.  If you want to know where to find the nearest Starbucks get a smartphone.  If you are on a seven day backpacking trip and its been raining the last three days and you want to know where the next campsite with a bear box is located get a dedicated GPS.

So let's take a closer look at how the market is broken down.

Today's dedicated GPS devices fall into three broad categories.  

1. Consumer grade devices like we are discussing here.  This market is focused mainly on those participating in outdoor sports like geocaching, hiking, biking, fishing, etc.  These devices cost between $200 and $700, with the bulk of sales taking place at around the $300 price point.  This is the market segment that receives brutal competition from other consumer devices like smart phones, and the manufacturers are scrambling to find a niche and stay relevant.  Garmin, Magellan and DeLorme are the three leaders here.

The Garmin eTrex is perhaps the most
successful line of consumer GPS units in the industry

2. Dedicated map data or field data collection devices.  These are handheld units running mapping software like ESRI's ArcPad and are used by organizations like utility companies to collect information in the field.  These mapping devices have an entry price point of around $1,000 and can go up to over $3,000.  Most of these units offer more GPS accuracy through the use of improved antennas and better software, but offer fewer features like digital compasses and altimeters.  The big attraction with these GPS units is the flexibility of the mapping software and the ability to directly ingest the collected data into high end desktop mapping software like ESRI's ArcGIS suite.  The additional cost for these dedicated GPS units is the result of a smaller market share, higher hardware costs and the increased cost of the the operating system (usually Windows Mobile) and the mapping software.  Trimble Navigation dominates in this market.

Trimble Juno
No compass, no altimeter but hey,
at least it runs Windows!

3. The high end market is dominated by survey-grade GPS units that start around $5,000 and can peak out at over $30,000.  For that price (along with a subscription to a real-time correction service that runs a few thousand each year) the user gets accuracies on the order of a few centimeters horizontally and vertically while working on-the-fly.  Not for the casual user, but it is interesting to note just how much accuracy thirty grand can buy.

A GPS-based surveying system.  This unit is capable of accuracies
of +/- 4 cm within 5 seconds of being placed over a point.
How big is 4 cm?  About the size of a poker chip.
Not for the faint of heart, though.  The saucer-shaped thing at the
top of the pole (Trimble R8) is the high accuracy
GPS receiver and it alone costs about $8,000

OK, back to our original topic.  

The goal is to find a GPS receiver that:

a. comes in at around the $250 - $300 price point

b. can use our custom coordinate system

c. can use a high resolution aerial imagery as a background map

d. is easy to use - should be almost a 'grab-n-go' device

e. collects simple data points, lines or polygons in a format we can easily bring in to our GIS and CAD systems

We selected a fair number of units to test - the Magellan 315 and Thales MobileMapper mentioned earlier, a Trimble Juno and Yuma, a Magellan eXplorist 610, a DeLorme PN-60 and a Garmin eTrex 20.

Top - Trimble Yuma
Middle - DeLorme PN-60, Thales MobileMapper, Magellan 315
Bottom - Magellan eXplorist 610, Trimble Juno, Trimble TSC-2

The DeLorme and the eTrex quickly fell out of the competition.  The DeLorme does not support user coordinate systems (a very disappointing shortcoming in an otherwise outstanding GPS unit).  The eTrex does have a user coordinate system setting, but it only works in meters (our custom airport coordinate system is set up in feet).  I was really pulling for the eTrex 20 because it's the cheapest of our test samples ($175 Amazon price), has a good screen, an intuitive menu system and its receiver tracks both the US GPS and the Russian GLONASS satellites.  Alas, Garmin tech support could never figure out how to get it to provide readouts in feet so back to the store it went.

The Trimble Yuma is really a tablet computer running Windows 7.  It is a very capable device, but at the $5,000 price point falls way outside of our test objectives.

The Trimble Juno is an interesting unit.  It is essentially a highly customized PDA that runs Windows Mobile 6.1.  This Juno is really the lowest entry point in terms of price and features for a serious handheld GPS mapping and field data collection device.  Unfortunately the entry price is still too steep for this test - the hardware itself costs around $1,000 and the software needed to do field reconnaissance and data collection - ESRI's ArcPad - runs an additional $400.  A good device, just too expensive and too complex for the non-technical user.

The Trimble TSC-2 seen in the picture above is not really a GPS receiver.  It is a survey-grade data collector that pairs with a high precision GPS receiver via Bluetooth (we use a Trimble R8) .  I threw it into the picture just for comparison.

The Magellan 610 pulled ahead early in the competition.  It's a mid-sized unit that's a bit chunky but fits well in the hand.  It uses a touch screen interface and it includes a 3.2 mp camera that geotags each image.  After some fiddling it took our custom coordinate system and returns very good accuracies on the order of +/- 10 ft.   I should mention that a large airport is an ideal location to test potential GPS accuracy since you have open skies horizon-to-horizon.  If the GPS satellite is above the horizon your receiver will see it.  No trees, buildings, towers, etc. in the way.  So please, don't take my accuracy results as gospel.  Your real world results will vary.

Magellan eXplorist 610
A very capable little device

Where the Magellan 610 stumbles is ease of use.  It has a lot of features - GPS, camera, compass, barometer and altimeter.  It is a jack of all trades and, to be honest, most features are fairly well integrated.  However, learning to use them takes time and it's easy to get lost in the touchscreen menu system.  The Magellan also suffers from a disease that afflicts most other consumer grade handheld GPS units - 'gamesmanship'.  In an effort to attract new customers manufacturers like Magellan, Garmin and DeLorme have built their user interfaces around the game or sport of geocaching.  It's a fun game and a great way to get tech savvy kids off their asses and into the outdoors.  The low end GPS manufacturers see this as a market niche they can exploit and have structured most of their unit's features around geocaching.

The problem we face is that geocaching-oriented GPS units makes lousy general purpose or field data collection units.  By focusing on geocaching the manufacturers have ignored the needs of a whole different market segment - the map data developer.

A weak coordinate system library, the lack of a GIS-industry standard vector data format such as the ESRI shapefile, weak data attribution tools on the GPS unit and a weak desktop mapping interface all hinder the use of these units as data collectors.  DeLorme comes the closest with it's XMap desktop GIS software, but the cost is over $800 per license it continues to use a proprietary vector data format linked back to the PN-series receivers.

What the industry needs is a low-end map data collector that has a simplified interface optimized for adding and attributing data collected in the field.  It needs to use industry standard vector and raster data formats and should come with a more robust desktop mapping interface oriented towards the field mapping industry or enthusiast.  Magellan seems to be dipping its big toe back into this market with the Magellan eXplorist Pro 10, but this device still requires a third party software package like ArcPad and offers no improved desktop mapping software.

Magellan eXplorist Pro 10
This is just a re-packaged Magellan 610, but a good start!

So GIS industry wonks, here's what I want:

1. a handheld GPS unit with a large, high resolution screen that is easy to read in broad daylight

2. consumer-grade accuracy using WAAS correction

3. a user interface highly optimized for field data collection - no third party software requirements!

4. a robust horizontal and vertical coordinate system library and the ability to accurately define a user coordinate system

5. a 5 megapixel digital camera with flash

6. the ability to configure field collection jobs or scenarios and save them as project files

7. twelve hour continuous use battery life

8. an external antenna port

9. fully waterproof

10. improved desktop software for device configuration and data download and upload

11. use of industry standard vector and raster data formats

And I want this all at a $700 retail price point.

So get to work.  I expect some nice surprises in your 2013 lineups!
- Brian

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Japanese Do Beethoven

The great Rachel Lucas linked to this video on her blog a few days ago.  It is a simply wonderful performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy).

This was a fund raising concert performed for the Japanese tsunami relief effort. What an ensemble!

I admit I'm a sucker for classical German composers, particularly Bach (who'd of thought so much beautiful music could come out of a droll Lutheran - just joking, just joking!)

I'm not a very good German speaker, but the diction sounds pretty good.  Quite an achievement for singers who's native language isn't European-based.  Years ago when I was taking our daughter Aileen to music practice at Emory University for the Atlanta Youth Symphony I got to sit in on some of the choral group practice sessions.  I was always amazed at the emphasis on diction.  These were professionally trained voices so hitting the right notes at the right time wasn't an issue.  Getting the composer's lyrics, intonation and intent correct was their big concern, and there were plenty of discussions between the singers and the conductor as to how particular sections of the lyrics should sound.

Where else but in Japan could you say to 10,000 performers, "If you wanna' jam with us show up in formal wear" 

...and they all comply!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

History Revealed! Origins Of The Army Lensatic Compass

For several years I've been trying to piece together the history of the US Army's lensatic compass.  In an earlier post on this blog we discussed the various types of compasses and a bit of the developmental history that can be inferred by viewing the examples in my collection.  However, there was (and still is) very little solid history on the development of the lensatic compass available on the web.

For an item as ubiquitous as this compass the lack of historical data seems a odd.  The development and usage histories of many other items of WWII-era equipment are well documented.  Take the M1 Garand for example.  Collectors can discuss in detail every single part on that rifle and can accurately date and discern the manufacturer of each part by noting subtle differences in how the piece was machined or finished.  This wealth of knowledge is due to the fact that the development and production records for the Garand were made available decades ago by the US military and the various manufacturers.  Of course collector interest is also a factor.  The Garand is one of the most collected pieces of WWII equipment and when you have thousands of collectors clamoring for detailed information the odds are pretty good someone is going to unearth the data.  Since there can't be more than a dozen serious collectors of Army lensatic compasses there's a whole lot less clamoring.

As an item of individual equipment that guided millions of Soldiers across the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific in WWII, and continues in use by our Soldiers today, I've always felt the history of the lensatic compass deserved better coverage.

Earlier this week I was on a different quest.  I recently purchased an interesting bit of Army topographic kit, a Vertical Sketchmaster (I'll do a posting on that later).  Since the device came without paperwork or documentation the first thing I did was hit Google for a quick search.

[A short segue here.  Hey Google, your search results are starting to look like those from the half dozen or so search engines that have all but fallen off the internet.  When I do a search on your site I'm looking for real results, not page after page of ads or eBay listings.  Any more, searching on Google is like searching on - dare I say it - Yahoo!]

Buried about three pages deep in the search results was a reference to a holding in the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) titled "History of [the] U.S. Army Topographic Laboratories (1920 to 1973)".

The phrase "Army Engineer Topographic Laboratories" got my immediate attention because the document could only be referring to what used to be know as the Army Corps of Engineers' Engineer Topographic Laboratories, or ETL.  ETL and it's predecessor organizations within the Corps of Engineers served (and still serve) as the Army's R&D lab for development of topographic, terrain analysis and geospatial systems, processes and equipment.  Now called the Army Geospatial Center, it was an organization I called on many times during my career for support and advice, and they always came through.

As luck would have it the document is available in digital form through Google.  I immediately downloaded it and started reading.  Published in 1973 as an ETL internal paper by John Pennington, it is a short rundown of the history of the Army's topographic R&D labs and covers major projects and equipment development between 1920 and 1970.  I don't want to spend too much time on this document in this post, because I feel it deserves it's own separate discussion at a later date.  For now I'll just say it is a treasure trove of historical information.

While reviewing the document for information on the vertical sketchmaster I quickly came across discussion of lensatic compasses.  This was something completely unexpected.  I never considered that the development of the lensatic compass was something an Engineer topographic R&D lab would have been involved with.  After reading the entries it now makes perfect sense - the Engineers had doctrinal responsibility for development of land navigation equipment and were the Army's subject matter experts on compasses of all types.  While the development of land navigation techniques including the use of map and compass was the responsibility of the Infantry School, development of the compass as an item of equipment was the responsibility of the Engineers.  Of course the two branches worked hand-in-hand on the project, with the Engineers serving as a test and development agency in support of the Infantry School.

The document briefly discusses compass development both prior to and after WWII and adds some fascinating tidbits to the history of the development the lensatic compass:

Since the quality of the scan is pretty poor I've reproduced the key parts below:

"(7)  Compasses.  Although the compass is not strictly a surveying instrument, considerable effort was expended by the Mapping Branch of the Engineer Board in the World War II period on the development of small compasses for Infantry and other arms.

The work started in 1938 when the Infantry requested that an inexpensive, commercial-type compass be found to replace the marching compass then issued because the marching compass was too large, elaborate, and costly.  This investigation was assigned to the Engineer Board, and it was soon found that no suitable commercial compass was available.  The W. & L.E. Gurley and the Taylor Instrument Companies, however, were willing to make a suitable compass based on a new design; and each company made six samples in 1939 as ordered from the Engineer Board.

After testing by both the Infantry and Cavalry and some modifications by the manufacturers, in November 1940 the Engineer Board recommended procurement of the cheap lensatic compass from both manufacturers."

Thus we have the WWII-era M1938 lensatic compass.

M1938 Lensatic Compass
My question now is, was this originally a liquid filled model?  Read below.

One interesting point is that while lensatic compasses made by Gurley are fairly common (they were a major manufacturer of surveying equipment at the time) I have never seen a military lensatic compass made by Taylor Instruments.  However, Taylor Instruments did go on to be a major manufacturer of wrist compasses for the US military in WWII.

But the story is not over.  Even back in 1940 they were struggling with the issue of how to dampen the compass needle or card.

"Since the mechanical dampening arrangements in all compasses available up to that time had not been entirely satisfactory, the Engineer Board started investigations of liquid dampening in December 1941.  Compasses of both the lensatic and the wrist type with liquid dampening were developed, tested, and adopted in the 1941 to 1944 period; and it was thought for a time that the compass problem had been solved.  However, it was discovered that, with temperature changes, an air bubble often developed in the compass capsule which impeded the free movement of the compass needle and affected the accuracy.

In July 1944, the Superior Magneto Corporation, one of the liquid-filled compass suppliers, solved the liquid  dampening problem by applying the induction dampening principle.  The compass body was made of copper which set up an eddy current and magnetic field as the compass needle rotated, thus acting as a drag to dampen the needle oscillation.  Samples were immediately procured and tested.  As a result, the induction dampened wrist compass was standardized in April 1945, and the induction dampened lensatic compass was standardized in May 1945."

Based on the number of WWII compasses available for sale from auction sites like eBay I think that Superior Magneto was the #1 supplier of lensatic compasses during WWII.  Knowing their core business - the production of magnetos - it makes sense that their engineers would have a clear understanding of the principle of induction and how to apply it to the problem of compass needle dampening.

Today M1938 compasses with induction dampening are easy to identify.  They have a white compass bowl that contains the compass card.  The white bowl is the stamped copper cup that the compass magnet interacts with to slow oscillation.  It is an excellent dampening system and is still used today in US military-issue lensatic compasses.

M1938 Lensatic Compass with induction dampening.
Note the white compass bowl.  This is really a stamped copper cup that interacts
with the north-seeking magnet to reduce oscillation of the compass card.

Let's skip forward now to the late 1940s, when it was clear that the lensatic compass was in need of an upgrade.

"(3)  Compasses.  The development of compasses, both the wrist and the lensatic types, was reopened in 1947 to provide instruments which would overcome the deficiencies noted in those developed during World War II.  Experimental models of the lensatic compass were produced by Taylor Instrument Company, Rochester, New York (Fig. 84), and the Brunson Instrument Company, Kansas City, Missouri.  Both were found to conform to the military characteristics, but the Brunson model was considered superior.  Experimental models of the wrist compass were produced by the Brunson Instrument Company, Kansas City, Missouri (Fig. 85), and were delivered to ERDL in January 1950.  Cold weather tests of the lensatic compass were conducted at Fort Churchill, Canada, and in January 1951 service test models were procured and shipped to service test agencies.  Here again, as with the compass development during World War II, emergency procurement of large quantities of both compasses were made before all testing and development had been completed.

Development of both compasses was completed in 1952.  The lensatic compass was classified as standard type, and the project was closed in November 1952."

The result of these tests and type classification are the classic M1950 Lensatic Compass, a design still in use today:

M1950 Lensatic Compass produced in 2010 by Cammenga.
Today Cammenga is the sole contractor producing lensatic compasses
for the US military.

The M1950 is still one of the best compasses ever developed, and I consider it the best military compass ever issued to any military anywhere in the world.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Are You Lining Up With The Dinosaurs?

Yesterday there was an interesting article posted in the NY Times Business Day section about a sharp scientist and entrepreneur named Gilan Elbaz and his company Factual.

In layman's terms Factual can be described as a data warehouse.  A real BIG data warehouse.  But beyond being just a big storage bucket in the cloud, Factual applies quality values against the data and puts it into context.

The real message here is that Factual is structuring it's data holdings to accommodate and enhance automated spatial analysis and reasoning.  The goal is that highly intelligent software systems, acting against quality data, will perform much of the same complex spatial analysis and decision support operations that human GIS analysts currently do with desktop applications like ArcGIS.

In the future - and the future isn't too far off - high end software packages like ArcGIS will be nothing more than embedded applications in larger, highly intellegent software systems.  Think I'm joking?  Ever heard of ArcObjects?

So, can you read the writing on the wall?  Can you hear me stomping my foot on the floor?  Do you get the hint?

If you are a GIS 'professional' and you describe yourself and your role in an organization in relation to the software you use you are a dinosaur, and you are headed for extinction.

The Geospatial professional needs to be a complex problem solver, not a software jockey.

Adapt or die.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Old School Map Making

I was wandering through YouTube at work today (shhhhh...) and stumbled on this neat old Army training film that describes the steps required to make a paper topographic map, circa 1973.

The steps in this movie really didn't change for about 60 years, from the late 1920s to around 1990 or so.  In fact, not a whole lot if the equipment changed, either.  Sure, there were a few improvements here and there - better materials, more accurate surveying equipment and better aerial photography cameras - but the basic steps remained pretty much unchanged.  Of course today it is all different; digital satellite imagery, GPS, LiDAR and desktop computers have fundamentally changed the mapping profession.

But for now let's celebrate the old ways, when men were men, theodolites didn't have any electronic components and cartographers wore ties while they worked at their light tables.  This movie (broken into three parts by YouTube) was filmed mostly at the old Defense Mapping School at Fort Belvior, VA:

Part I:

Part II.  Now, part II is interesting because I swear the soldier who is shown working at 5:40 is an old friend, Norm Price.  I first met Norm at Fort Lewis in in 1987.  Norm had been a Cartographic Technician warrant officer who recently converted to the new Terrain Analysis Technican field (MOS 215D) just before I met him.  If I remember correctly he entered the Army in the late 60's, so it is entirely possible for young Specialist Price to have appeared in this film:

And Part III:



Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Did Robert E. Lee Spend Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio?

Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio is like being nowhere at all
All through the day how the hours rush by
You sit in the park and you watch the grass die!
Ah, but after the sunset, the dusk and the twilight
When shadows of night start to fall
They roll back the sidewalk precisely at ten
And people who live there are not seen again!
Just two lonely truckers from Great Falls, Montana
And a salesman from places unknown 
All huddled together in downtown Toledo
To spend their big night all alone!

The song is by Randy Sparks, written after a particularly uninspiring night in Toledo.  John Denver started performing it in the early 1970s and was 'uninvited' to do a concert by Toledo Mayor Harry Kessler.  Denver and Toledo eventually kissed and made up, but there's no denying that Toledo wasn't, and still isn't, an entertainment mecca.

Everybody's heard of the great Toledo War, right?

Well, for those of you who haven't, here's the synopsis:

In 1835 the State of Ohio and the Territory of Michigan went to war over a six mile strip of land that extended from Toledo west to the Indiana border.  The war arose from a boundary dispute which was triggered by an inaccurate boundary description set out in the Northwest Ordnance of 1787 and an inaccurate description of Ohio's northern boundary set out in the Enabling Act of 1802 (yet another Congressional screw-up).  Both Ohio and Michigan considered this strip of land, known as the Toledo Strip, to be theirs.  You may well ask (hell, you should ask) why all the interest in Toledo?  Well, in the early 1800s Toledo was poised to become a major shipping center on the Great Lakes.  The Erie Canal had just been opened, triggering a trade and settlement boom in the upper Midwest.  Politicians emboldened by the success of the Erie Canal were talking seriously of financing a canal following the Maumee River from Toledo to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and from there on to the Mississippi River.  If this plan came through then bulk goods could move cheaply by water between New York and the Mississippi.  Toledo would become one of the major trading hubs in North America.  Governors and legislatures drooled over the prospect.  Suddenly Toledo was worth fighting for!

The Toledo War was really nothing more than a bunch of alcohol-fueled hotheads on both sides throwing insults and the occasional lead ball across the border.  Still, the federal government had to do something to settle the dispute.  After long negotiations and intervention by President Andrew Jackson (and a little arm twisting to get Michigan to play along), the border issue was 'settled'.  All that remained was for a formal boundary survey to be conducted and the results agreed to by both Ohio and Michigan.

Enter Lieutenant Robert E. Lee.  He was appointed to a party of Corps of Engineer officers detailed by the War Department to survey and map the Ohio - Michigan border as described in the agreement:

In 1835 (Washington) Hood was associated with Robert E. Lee in a map-making expedition to settle once and for all the Ohio-Michigan boundary dispute. This involved a strip of land averaging six and one half miles in width and extending along the northern border of Ohio west of Lake Erie. Michigan's claim was based on the boundary laid down by the Northwest Ordinance (1787). Ohio's claim was based on the line set forth in its state constitution, which the U.S. Congress had neither confirmed nor rejected when Ohio was admitted to the Union.
To settle this dispute, the government sent Captain Andrew Talcott and Lieutenants Robert E. Lee and Washington Hood to survey and map this area. On the basis of this survey both Michigan and Ohio agreed to compromise and Michigan became a state in 1837. This dispute nearly erupted into a border clash and is often referred to as the "Toledo War."
- Charles R. Steitz, Jr., "Washington Hood: Five Hundredth Graduate of the United States Military Academy", Pennsylvania Folklife, 1990, Volume 39, No. 3  
Which begs the question, just what do a trio of wild and crazy 19th century West Point grads do for entertainment while in Toledo?  Grab a bite to eat and listen to some jazz music perhaps?

Tony Packo's.  A Toledo landmark.  The
best damned hot dogs and potato salad in the world
and home of the Cake Walking Jazz Band.

Although Michigan lost this round they were given what is today their Upper Peninsula as compensation.  At the time it seemed like an unfair trade and there was a lot of grousing about it among Michiganders (or Michiganians, or whatever they call themselves).

Today's Michiganders think it was one heck of a good deal.  All you have to do is drive through downtown Toledo to understand why.

And the Toledo - Mississippi River canal project?  It petered out.  One word.  Railroads.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gas Station Maps

In olden times, like back in the 1960s, you could pull into any gas station in the US and grab a free road map.  These maps were designed for one purpose - to show the motorist how to get from where he was to where he wanted to be.  The maps were part advertising and part incentive.  The idea was to encourage travel by automobile.  The more you traveled the more gas you burned.

The idea of the free road map was born back in the early 1900s when automobile companies like Ford were involved in a major push to get the state and federal governments to expand and improve roads throughout the country.  Road conditions were simply awful back then and the thought was that better roads would encourage travel and commerce and, of course, spur automobile sales.  This led to the creation of the federal Bureau of Public Roads (later the Federal Highway Administration) and the first allocations of federal money for ongoing road construction and maintenance.

By illustration, one of Harry Truman's standard campaign platforms when he was serving as a commissioner in Missouri, then Senator and ultimately as President was better roads.  He felt that no farmer in a rural area should have to travel more than two miles to find a paved road to get his crops to market.  The fact that two miles was viewed as a reasonable distance to have to haul products before finding a good road is reflective of the state of road construction in the rural areas of the country right up into the 1950s.

Well, if we've got all these good new roads how do we let people know about them?  Why the road map, of course!  Gasoline companies like Texaco, Shell, BP, Mobile, Standard Oil and many others viewed free road maps as part of the cost of doing business.  The gasoline companies didn't do the map production themselves.  They farmed out the production to one of the few companies that specialized in making road maps.  Rand McNally, Gousha and General Drafting were the major players in this industry and they cranked out millions of maps between 1920 and 1970.

The other great thing about gas station road maps, besides being free, was that they were kept fairly current.  The compilation of these maps was a cooperative effort between the gasoline producers, the mapping companies and local, state and federal road and transportation bureaus.  Maps were updated and re-published as frequently as every year depending on the rate of road construction in a particular state.  Of course each gas company's map was tailored to show company service stations and to proudly trumpet the superiority of their product over their competitor's, but the actual map information tended to pretty consistent from company to company.

A side benefit from this program was the standardization of road map symbology.  Map makers realized we needed a common map language to depict things like primary roads, secondary roads, city boundaries, rivers and lakes and route symbols.  In very short order common symbols were standardized and used on all road maps, not just those handed out for free in gas stations.  Map symbols were a unifying language on the highways and byways of mid-20th century America.

In addition, millions of American school kids learned map reading from gas station road maps.   Schools regularly integrated map reading into the curriculum, and the map of choice was the good old gas station road map.  I think the peak of America's map literacy came in the 1950s, when millions of American kids, eager to tell their parents where to go, took over the job of automobile navigation and honed their skills in route finding and trip planning with good old gas station maps.

In the 1950s we planned our journeys using a paper map and imagination.  Today we fire up the GPS and wait for it to tell us where to go.  I fear we have become map dummies.

Let's take a trip back in time and see what it was like for a mapping company to keep up with changes to roads and road conditions.  Many would be surprised to learn that the methods used today are pretty much the same as we see in this video.  The equipment has changed - it's all computerized now - but someone still has to drive the roads and note the changes.


Monday, January 16, 2012

From The Deck Of The SS Northing & Easting

Earlier this morning I let the dogs out to do their business and stepped out onto my deck to have a look around.  Although it was a bit cloudy out I noticed that the Moon was hanging brightly about 8 degrees above my roof line.  Dawn was just starting to break and I figured it would be a good time for this pseudo-mariner to get some practice sights in with the sextant.  The moon is entering its last quarter here in Georgia and there was still enough of the orb available for a good upper or lower limb shot.

I grabbed my old Astra IIIB sextant, screwed on the artificial bubble horizon and spent about 10 minutes practicing 'pulling down the sight', focusing more on technique than accuracy.  With a bubble horizon you have a lot of room for error because the horizon indicator (the bubble) is so large when viewed through the sight tube.  Don't worry - around 0720 EST the Moon was hanging at about 40 degrees 4.8 minutes, right where it should be.  The clockwork heavens are still ticking along just fine.

Astra IIIB Sextant

As I was fiddling with the sextant the winds started pushing the low clouds around and the Moon began darting in and out of view, sometimes partially obscured, sometimes fully obscured.  This made for an interesting practice session as I was forced to time the approach and departure of the heavier cloud patches and practice pulling down the sight quickly before the Moon became too indistinct for a good shot.   This is a common problem in celestial navigation - the navigator is at the mercy of the weather.  That's why so much emphasis was placed on grabbing a celestial shot whenever the heavens and the weather cooperated.  It is also why so much emphasis was placed on accurate dead reckoning - estimating your current location based on distance and direction traveled from your last known location.  Since you were never sure when you'd be able to get your next celestial fix an accurate running estimate of your position was absolutely crucial.

I was reminded of the particular problem celestial navigation posed for our submarine crews in WWII.  More than any other arm of the Navy, the Submarine Service operated far into enemy waters in search of victims, and they traveled alone.  Accurate navigation was absolutely essential and the navigators assigned to our submarines were some of the best the Navy produced.

WWII submarines were extremely vulnerable when caught in the wrong combination of circumstances.  Our subs like the Gato-class boats were really highly modified surface ships that could spend limited amounts of time under water on battery power.

US Gato-class submarine

The lower spaces of these subs were filled with giant lead acid batteries that allowed the boat to remain submerged for up to 48 hours and maneuver slowly (9 knots).  Eventually, however, the sub had to surface to charge her batteries, refill her air tanks and get a navigational fix.  For a boat operating alone in enemy waters this was a hazardous activity.  A submarine was never more vulnerable than when on the surface with low batteries.  It was common practice for the subs to surface in the dark of night and make a high speed dash to a new hunting area while replenishing her batteries.  The problem is that the middle of the night is generally a lousy time for a celestial fix.  Sure, the skies are filled with stars and planets, but the horizon is difficult to distinguish.  The best time for a fix is at nautical twilight, when the sun is 6 - 12 degrees below the horizon.  At this time the nautical horizon is still distinct and key navigational stars and planets are visible in the darkening sky.  But there's also enough light left to be spotted by an enemy aircraft or nearby surface ship.

This led to a unique 'navigator's dance' on American submarines.  At twilight the Captain would bring the boat to periscope depth to check for enemy ships and aircraft and to check weather conditions.  If the skies were clear of enemy and clouds he'd give the heads up to the navigator, who was usually the boat's executive officer.  The navigator would have already checked his navigational tables and picked one or more likely celestial objects to try to use for a fix.  This could be a planet or bright star or, if he was really lucky the Moon was already up and far enough above the horizon to provide a good fix.  The navigator would often wear goggles with red lenses to get his eyes adapted to dark conditions.

The Captain would give the command to surface the boat and once the conning tower was clear of the water the hatch would be opened and the watch personnel would scramble up with binoculars, climb the periscope shears and scan the skies and the horizon for any signs of the enemy.  Once the all-clear was given the navigator would come up with the sextant hanging from his neck by a lanyard.  He would take a series of quick shots on the available celestial bodies and call the sextant readings down to the navigation team in the control room.  The navigation team would note the time of the observations against the boat's chronometers and begin the process of using the sight readings to establish a line of position.  A quick shot on Polaris gave the navigator an accurate and easily determined latitude, but the shots on the stars and planets to determine longitude took a bit more number crunching.  Things like the height of the navigator above the surface of the water, the time difference from GMT, the uncorrected error built into the sextant and other factors all had to be calculated.  This process was called 'sight reduction'.  It was (and still is) straight forward but somewhat tedious math.

In the end the navigation team (usually consisting of the executive officer, an enlisted navigator known as a quartermaster and another pair of trained eyes, often those of the Captain) would come up with intersecting lines of position, one for latitude and one for longitude, that provided the boat's true position at the time the sights were taken.

Here's an interesting description of the process taken from the book 'The Underwater War 1939 - 1945' by Richard Compton-Hall:

Away from land every opportunity for taking sun, moon, planet and star sights had to be snatched. Sight-taking with a sextant was treated as an evolution; if surfacing primarily for that purpose it was combined when possible with ditching (trash) — which made matters no easier for the navigator competing in the conning tower and on the crowded bridge with a hustling (trash) party, the lookouts and the sea itself. The smallest drop of water on the sextant mirror made sight-taking impossible and the instrument had to be wrapped tenderly in a towel when not actually bringing the observed body down on to the lurching, irregular horizon which, with so low a height-of-eye, made the task doubly difficult. The 'exec' was primarily responsible for navigation in American boats (assisted by excellent quartermasters) but German commanders relied upon the equivalent of a specially trained warrant officer to take sights. Most British captains thought sight-taking far too important to entrust to Vasco (the navigator) and did the sextant work themselves; but they were quite happy to delegate the long and boring working-out of the sights when they were taken! It could easily take an hour to plod through the spherical trigonometry (which actually amounted to no more than straight forward arithmetic) before arriving at a solution which almost invariably produced a large cocked hat; this led to thinly veiled hints from Vasco to the effect that the captain was incapable of reading sextant angles, and to more direct accusations from the captain that the navigator was incapable of simple addition and subtraction. Some boats carried rapid reduction tables derived from air navigation manuals which greatly shortened the time required to produce a fix: but the Royal Navy and most other services clung doggedly to Inman's Nautical Tables with their long columns of five-figure logarithms.

Today we are spoiled.  Want to know where you are on the face of the earth to within a few hundred feet?  Just turn on your smartphone or GPS receiver.  Within seconds you'll get a position fix that is far more accurate than any experienced navigator could have calculated using celestial navigation.

Yet I believe it is important we continue to practice the old techniques.  First, it is great mental exercise.  To be a good celestial navigator you need to be at least proficient in basic astronomy and mathematics.  You need to know how to evaluate and calculate error.  You need to be a good problem solver.  Celestial navigation is like golf - it takes just a few months to learn but a lifetime to master.  It sure beats playing another round of World of Warcraft.

Next, celestial navigation gives one a greater appreciation for the technology we have available today, and that appreciation and the resulting awareness of the GPS system's capabilities and limitations will make you a better navigator overall.

And last, the celestial navigation techniques and tools we use today are exactly the same as those used by history's great explorers and navigators - Capt. James Cook, Lewis and Clark, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen, Earnest Shackleton, Robert Scott, Capt. William Bligh (yes that Capt. Bligh) and many others. Anyone interested in the history of exploration can make a direct and relevant connection to their heroes and better appreciate their achievements by dabbling in celestial navigation.

So that's today's report from the deck of the SS Northing & Easting.  I'll keep the spyglass and blunderbuss handy in case the pirates try to board.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

The NGS Does the IAGS

My blog post last year about the Inter-American Geodetic Survey (IAGS) has has proven to be my most popular post, both in the number of pageviews and the number of comments.  Although I'm not burning up the internet, it is interesting to track where visitor's interests lie.  Surprisingly, my blog post is also the #2 return on Google searches against the term 'inter american geodetic survey' (it seems that the acronym IAGS is in use by several completely unrelated organizations that generate a lot of traffic, so searches against that term won't put my post anywhere near the top of the list).

I'm both elated and just a bit saddened by this outcome.  Elated that I seem to have hit on poorly covered yet important subject that I can contribute significantly to, yet saddened that the Army Corps of Engineers continues to ignore the very crucial contributions their topographic services and personnel made to the professions of mapping, surveying and geodesy.

When I wrote the blog about the IAGS I noted that there's very little available information about the organization on the web and I tried to provide links to as much relevant info as I could find.  One of the sources I completely ignored was the excellent article about the IAGS that appeared in the March 1956 edition of the National Geographic Magazine.

March 1956 National Geographic article on the
IAGS.  Click here to read it.

Before the National Geographic gave up serious scholarly writing for feel good stories about baby seals and the therapeutic effects of tree hugging it actually published some darned good stories about geography, exploration, and adventure.  All three of these elements come together in this great story about the IAGS.  It is probably the best, and perhaps the only, popular account of the agency's activities.  So, follow this link and read about the Men Who Measure the Earth.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Whence The Meridian?

It seems that most folks' awareness of history reaches back only 20 or 30 years.  Few today can conceive of a world without laptop computers, cable TV, cell phones and Dancing With The Stars.  Oh how dark and disordered life must have been before the internet!  How did man survive?

Old farts like me realize that history is a cumulative progression of events, and the things we take for granted today had an origin in the murky mists of time long past.

So it is with the concept of longitude and the meridian.  Today we take for granted that the zero line of longitude, the international meridian, runs through Greenwich, England.  It seems just so natural.  Most people today don't realize that getting the meridian at Greenwich accepted as the world-wide standard was a long, drawn out process that spanned over a hundred years and involved most of the major world powers.  What we take for granted today is actually the result of some pretty intense diplomatic and scientific battles.

Man has realized since the time of the ancient Greeks that the Earth is round(ish) and that one of the best ways to refer to one's position on this big ball is to use angular measurements - degrees, minutes and seconds.

On land this convention wasn't really important - the common man was content relating his location as distance and direction traveled from known points.  There was always a track, trail or road that led to where he wanted to go.  The history of the march of civilization is the history of road building.  It's coded into our DNA.

But as soon as man started sailing out of sight of land things changed.  There are no roads in the middle of the Atlantic.  All sailors had to fall back on was positioning by latitude and longitude.  With the explosion of maritime trade in the 18th and 19th centuries most of the big navigation problems were quickly worked out.  By the late 1700s we had reliable navigation instruments (sextants and chronometers), most of the important places of the world had been charted and sea captains could reliably and safely make their way to the other side of the world and back carrying cargoes that made the ship's owners immensely wealthy.

But there was one last international navigation issue that was was still hanging out there in the late 1800s that needed to be addressed.  The issue of a common meridian.

Latitude and longitude are calculated from an accepted reference line, or zero line.  For latitude the solution was simple.  The equator is the natural zero line of reference.  When calculating latitude you are measuring your location north or south of the equator - the zero line of latitude.  Simply measure the angular distance from your location to the North Star - Polaris - and you have your latitude in degrees, minutes and seconds.  Mariners around the world have been doing this since before recorded history.  (If you are south of the equator it's a little trickier since there is no star that hovers directly over the south pole.  However, there are nearby stars such as those that make up the Southern Cross that permit similar measurements.)

Longitude however has always been the problem child of navigation.  Part of the problem is that there is no natural zero line of longitude - the earth does not have a natural vertical equator.  The other problem is that there are no fixed or unmoving celestial bodies - stars or planets - that could offer an easy reference for longitude measurements like Polaris does for latitude measurements.  All the useful celestial bodies are in constant motion overhead.  What was needed was first a fixed reference line - a meridian - and then in reference to that line the minute-by-minute locations of all useful stars and planets as they marched across the sky.  The designation of the meridian also drove the publication of accurate nautical charts for use by merchantmen and navies.  This was a monumental task that only governments could support.

The realization that establishing a meridian and charting the night skies was a national necessity coincided with the scientific revolution of the 1700s.  Nations were willing - even eager - to put their money and their best minds to the task; it became an issue of national pride among the major seafaring nations.  Most also saw it as a national security issue.  These efforts were some of the earliest examples of directed research - scientific investigation not for the sake of enlightenment but to meet a specific economic or military goal.

As a result everybody who fancied themselves a bigshot on the global stage established their own meridian and published navigational charts and celestial almanacs referenced to their meridians.  Most also required their navies and merchant fleets to use their meridian.  Countries such as England (Greenwich), Spain (Madrid), France (Paris), United States (Washington D.C. and Philadelphia), Portugal (Lisbon), Norway (Oslow), Russia (St. Petersburg) and Japan (Kyoto) all developed their own meridians.  Even non-seafaring nations like Switzerland and Romania tried to get in on the act.

By the mid 1800s the worldwide nautical charting community had become a seafaring Tower of Babble; not everybody spoke the same positional language.  At the same time the development of reliable steam power was driving an explosion of commercial shipping activity.  As merchant marine activities became more globalized ship captains, owners and insurance companies began demanding standardized navigational charts and nautical almanacs.  A ship captain sailing from Boston needed to know that when he got to Lisbon and needed a new chart he could walk into a chandler and purchase a chart that uses to the same meridian he was trained to use and was comfortable with.  Seafaring nations realized that a single universally recognized meridian was a good thing.  But whose meridian would be the winner?

In 1884 the President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur, got representatives from all the key nations together in a big room at the State Department in Washington D.C. and told them to figure it out.  By this time the US really didn't have a dog in the fight; although we were willing to accept Greenwich, England as our standard Prime Meridian we were open to switching and were not going to push a US-based solution.  My guess is that most of the attendees saw the US as something of a neutral party in this argument, which is why they agreed to show up and work things out.

The 'International Conference For the Purpose of Fixing a Prime Meridian and a Universal Day' was convened on October 1st 1884 and ran for the full month.  The proceedings can be found on the Project Gutenberg website.  The proceedings are an interesting read from a historical, scientific and political perspective.  The delegates from France did a lot of talking, extolling the glories of the Empire and the primacy of the observatory in Paris.  In the end however Greenwich in England won out, in large part, I suspect, because at the time over 72% of the world's shipping used nautical charts based on the Greenwich meridian.  The Greenwich solution had the weight of numbers behind it and came without a lot of Gallic preening and posturing.

And so we have the Final Act:

Note who decided to take a pass on the final vote.  Sore losers I guess.

The conference addressed and adopted a number of other issues including the designation of a 'universal day'.  This is why we have Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT (also referred to as UTC) and the standard solar day starts, and ends, at Greenwich.

After the conference the US Congress moved quickly to adopt Greenwich as the standard prime meridian for all US-based mapping and charting.  The US Navy and the Royal Navy began working jointly on the development and maintenance of nautical almanacs for celestial navigation and the sharing of nautical charts.  This is a collaboration that continues to today.

So there you have it.  Something a seemingly mundane as the starting point for all longitudinal measurements around the world actually has a history that impacts us today.