Monday, December 26, 2011

To The Corps!

I spent most of my military career serving either as a Topographic Officer (21C) or a Terrain Analysis Warrant Officer (215D) in the Army Corps of Engineers.  It was clear throughout most of my career that the Engineer branch really didn't know what to do with us.  US military doctrine said that the Corps of Engineers 'owned' the topographic and terrain analysis (military geography) discipline, but owning and effectively managing are two different things.  The field was so small and specialized that the Engineers tried to manage it by exception, as though we were all infected by some pox and couldn't be treated as real Engineers.  

However, this was not always the case.  For several decades in the first half of the 19th century two military engineer organizations ran parallel to each other in the US Army.  One organization was filled with officers with mostly limited engineering backgrounds.  This group was detailed to handle general engineering support to field units, tackling simple engineering tasks like improvements to local fortifications, managing the construction of tracks and trails in support of military movement and doing local reconnaissance and field sketching in support of military operations.  These were the regular Engineer forces assigned to the field Army.  The other group was filled with the cream of the graduating classes from West Point and some of the top graduates of the few engineering schools operating in the US the time.  This group handled most of the civil works improvement projects along the coastlines and interior waterways and mapped the new western territories and opened them for exploration and settlement.  This last group truly was the civil engineering force for the new nation and was known as the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

Uniform button design for officers assigned
to the Corps of Topographical Engineers.  From the
1832 Uniform Regulations:
"Buttons--gilt, seven eights of an inch diameter, slightly convex: device,
 the shield of the United States, occupying one half of the diameter:
T.E. In Old English characters, occupying the other half;
small buttons, one half inch diameter: device the same." 

From roughly 1812 to 1863 the Corps of Topographical Engineers operated as an independent organization, sometimes as a separate branch within the War Department, sometimes as a wholly autonomous section within the Army Engineers.  The 'Corps' was little more than a roster of officers detailed to the Topographical Engineer branch.  There were no enlisted personnel assigned and Topographical Engineers were usually dependent on local Army commanders to provide the needed manpower for projects.  What the Corps of Topographical Engineers did have was some of the best civil engineering minds in the nation.  At a time when trained engineering expertise was hard to come by - civil engineering as a defined discipline wouldn't emerge until well after the Civil War - the Army and Congress often turned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers to handle most of the early public works planning and management.   Topographical Engineers explored and mapped the Great Lakes region, managed canal construction and waterways improvements and even surveyed and planned lighthouse locations.  In the 1850s, when the federal government needed to have the lands acquired from Mexico and the newly incorporated State of Texas explored and mapped, they sent in the Topographical Engineers.  When Congress needed to know if there were suitable routes through the Rocky Mountains for the planned transcontinental railroad they sent the Topographical Engineers to have a look.  Once the Oregon Territory dispute was settled with England the Topographical Engineers moved in to map the rugged interiors of what is today Oregon, Washington and Northern California.

Regulation on how officers assigned to the
Corps of Topographical Engineers are to be detailed,
or appointed to duties.  Excerpted from the
'Army and Navy Chronicle', January 2, 1840

In 1863 the Army folded the Corps of Topographical Engineers into the regular Corps of Engineers and a proud organization that provided immeasurable service to the nation disappeared.  I guess it was inevitable since there was a desperate need for trained Engineer officers to support the Federal armies during the Civil War, and there was growing overlap in the roles of the two organizations.  

The Corps of Engineers love affair with it's mapping and surveying mission waxed and waned over the next 150 years.  Engineer officers still found themselves assigned to important topographic missions as America settled it's western territories, rushed to map its newly acquired territories after the Spanish-American War, threw armies across the seas in World Wars One and Two and stared down the Soviets during the Cold War.  I believe the peak of the Corps of Engineers interest in and dedication to its topographic mission came with the establishment of the Army Map Service in WWII.  The Engineers realized they had to get damned serious damned fast about this mapping thing and developed the doctrine, equipment, techniques and technology necessary to produce maps and related products to support a world-wide war effort.  This effort continued well into the Cold War, and it was the Army Map Service (and later the Army Topographic Command) that gave us groundbreaking developments such as the Universal Transverse Mercator grid system, the Military Grid Reference System and early research work on an earth-centered geoid that ultimately became WGS 84.

As the Cold War wound down the Corps of Engineers interest in its mapping mission wound down too.  As more and more map production was pushed to the national level (to the Defense Mapping Agency, which became the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which became the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) and mapping systems moved from paper to digital and became embedded in  battlefield command and control systems, the Engineers seemed on a headlong march to shed their traditional topographic role.  Inevitable?  Perhaps.  Wise?  I don't think so.  Topographic knowledge is the foundation of military expertise.  Great generals like Napoleon, Lee and Grant, and Patton all talked about the necessity of being able to visualize the battlefield, the ability to identify 'good ground'.  Someone will always have to paint the battlefield picture for the generals, and that's the job of the Topographic Engineer.

Although the Corps of Topographical Engineers has faded into history they are not forgotten.  There is a small but active group that keeps the history of the early Topographical Engineers alive through research and reenactments.  They are the U.S Corps of Topographical Engineers.  Their website is a great resource for anyone interested American history and the story of how America grew in the early 19th century.

U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers website.

So here's to the Corps!  To a group of dedicated Topographical Engineers that explored, mapped and helped build this great land.  Ladies and gentlemen raise your glasses.

To the Corps!


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Brain Droppings

Naaah, I haven't been ignoring this blog.  I've just been busy.  It's just one of those times when one's personal and professional life get a little crowded and you get distracted.

So anyway, what have I been working on that is related to maps, mapping, topography, GIS, et. al.?

Actually, quite a bit, although the activity is more of a low murmur rather than a series of 'ta-da!' moments.  Let's begin...

ArcGIS Online.  Aaah, the software I hate to love.  I can't discuss too much detail right now because we are involved in the beta test program (and that imposes some confidentiality rules on us), but it is starting to look like the new ESRI ArcGIS Online for Organizations program is shaping up to be something of a game changer for enterprise web mapping, particularly for small and medium organizations that can't afford or don't need heavy iron IT backbones to get their jobs done.  The ArcGIS Online program is part of ESRI's cloud GIS strategy and I for one like the direction it's going.  This program will allow many - perhaps a majority - of organizations that develop and deploy GIS web maps to leave their in-house IT departments behind.  It is not a complete solution, but it takes the field a lot further down the path of IT independence than we've ever seen.  Anything that helps destroy the perception that GIS is just another IT discipline is great.

By the way, you do have your ArcGIS Online accounts set up, don't you?  And you are using the free ArcGIS Online web mapping tools right?

Mobile Mapping.  This is loosely tied to the ArcGIS Online initiative.  We are testing some new mobile solutions that utilize the ArcGIS applications developed for Apple's iOS (iPad and iPhone) and Google's Android OS (smartphones and tablets).  While you will still need ArcGIS Server (but hey, that can reside in the cloud now, too), these new mobile apps make it easier to create and deploy lightweight apps that include a basic level of interactive field data creation and editing.  I'm sure we'll see more of this at the next ESRI User's Conference.  It's slick!

To The Cloud!  Lately I've been absolutely fascinated by the concept of cloud computing and I've been poking around in that realm just to see what's possible, what's not possible and what will be possible in the months or years to come.  Folks, this is the future of computing.  As Steve Jobs would say, it's 'the next big thing'.  Surprising then that Apple is still stumbling at getting their cloud computing programs up and running.  The idea of an OS-agnostic computing environment that maintains all your information in a secure data store on the internet (i.e., the cloud) and can be accessed from any computer through a simple web browser is compelling.  Apple, Google and Microsoft are in a mad race to stake out their territory in the cloud, but it's clear that Google has taken an early and substantial lead.  That's not surprising, given that cloud computing has been at the core of Google's business strategy been for years.  That's OK because Google's competitors are in a hurry to catch up, and the inevitable struggle for our attention (and dollars) will make this an exciting wrestling match.  I'm gonna' go grab a tub of popcorn and a Coke and watch the show from the cozy comfort of my iPad.

Oh, and keep your eye on the new kid on the block - Amazon.

Well, that's it for now.  What's up next?  Probably something to do with CAD & GIS integration methinks.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Spy Satellites Declassified

A KH-9 Hexagon Imagery Satellite.  The thing's as big
as a Greyhound bus!

On 17 September 2011 the US declassified the KH series of satellites and their mission information.

Guess now I can tell my wife what I was doing for most of those 23 years I was in the Army.

What's not discussed in the story, and I won't go into too much detail until I know for sure it's OK to discuss it in full, is the contribution these satellites made to the DoD's world-wide mapping program.  Suffice to say, without these birds we would not have been able to accurately map the vast territories of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China and all the other hostile places we thought we might have to go fight in.

More to follow...  Maybe.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Software I Hate To Love

In the Geospatial Engineering world there is one Big Dog software developer and a pack of miniature chihuahuas snapping at its heels.  The Big Dog is ESRI, developers of the ArcGIS suite of software products.

ESRI dominates the GIS (geospatial information systems) software field in the same way Microsoft dominates the computer operating system field - there are competitors but nobody even comes close to the market share that ESRI developed and has held for decades.

But unlike Microsoft, ESRI didn't get to where it is by being predatory and imposing crushing licensing agreements on its clients.  ESRI got it's market share the old fashioned way - by simply being the best product in the market for the target consumer group.  ArcGIS is the software product that moved the traditional discipline of topography out of the paper map and overlay era and into the computer-based, analysis driven discipline of Geospatial Engineering.

ESRI was started by Jack Dangermond, someone I refer to as a "Birkenstock wearin', Volvo drivin', granola crunchin' hippie."  In the late 1960s and early 70s, building on pioneer work that had been done on early GIS concepts and development in Canada (where the discipline of GIS got its start), Dangermond created a land cover analysis program called ArcInfo and released it as a commercial product in the early 1980s.

Early versions of ArcInfo were hindered by limited computer processing, storage and graphics capability.  Geospatial analysis is very much a visual discipline - you're making maps, after all.  Early desktop hardware simply didn't have the capability and capacity to bring the full visual mapping experience to the user.  Up through the mid 1990s only expensive Unix workstations could handle that level of processing.  This all changed around 1995 when desktop computing power started increasing exponentially with each new processor design while at the same time hardware prices dropped like a brick.  Almost overnight inexpensive desktop computers appeared that could easily handle the processing and graphics demands a software package like ArcInfo placed on them.  I was working as a GIS program manager for the US Army when this hardware revolution hit the field and watched as in less than two years inexpensive desktop PCs caught up with and then quickly surpassed the processing power of the Unix-based Sun, Silicon Graphics and HP  systems we had been relying on.  What also helped was Microsoft's release of WindowsNT at about the same time.  Finally we had a serious network-ready enterprise operating system running on high capacity hardware that didn't make our budget guys weep every time we said we needed to do an upgrade.

ArcInfo is the flagship product of the ESRI line and is extremely powerful software.  But in the 1980s ESRI realized that not everyone needed the processing power of ArcInfo (nor could they afford the nausea-inducing cost of an ArcInfo software license).  ESRI introduced a lightweight version of ArcInfo that included most of the visualization capability of the high end package but left out the heavyweight analysis and data development functionality.  They named it ArcView.  It was priced right - something small organizations and even individuals serious about GIS could afford (if I remember correctly the GSA schedule price for a single ArcView license ran around $600 in 2000).  The vast majority of today's GIS professionals cut their teeth on ArcView.

But ESRI's real contribution to the GIS profession is the development of data types that both support complex spatial analysis and can be shared across different software platforms.  It is Dangermond's vision that GIS-based mapping and analysis solutions should not be a stovepipe, but a shared resource.  This drove ESRI to develop the concept of the geodatabase.  A geodatabase is a collection of data in a standard relational database management system (RDBMS) like Oracle or SQL Server, but the data has very unique spatial values (location in x, y and z coordinates) assigned to it.  This means that GIS software can leverage the spatial values to relate the data in a location context and other RDBMS-based software systems can easily share their information with the geodatabase.   The geodatabase only needs to store GIS-unique features and can pull and do analysis against associated data in another database.

ESRI also developed a version of the geodatabase that does not require a high powered relational database management system as it's foundation.  About a decade ago ESRI introduced the concept of a file-based geodatabase designed for use by small organizations or groups.  The file geodatabase is a simple to create yet powerful and extremely flexible data format that brings most of the power of the relational database and complex data analysis to the desktop machine and the individual user.

But what does the future hold?  ESRI realized long ago that the Internet was the map content delivery vehicle of the future.  Paper maps were headed to obsolescence and what Jack Dangermond describes as the 'rich web map' would quickly become the geospatial data visualization and analysis tool of the future.  He's right, but only very recently has web technology started to catch up with his vision.

For the better part of a decade it was possible to hire professional web developers to create some very nice web mapping applications built on ESRIs early web technology called ArcIMS.  The problem was that those applications were difficult to develop, difficult to maintain, and required a lot of heavy weight back-end web and database server technology.  Only large enterprises and governments could support the hardware, software, development and maintenance costs.  ESRI's web solutions were very much limited by the immature web development technologies available at the time.  It is ESRI's vision that even the average geospatial professional working for a small business or local government should be able to develop, launch and maintain high quality web maps that bring value to the organization they support.  ESRI started laying the groundwork for this vision back with their ArcGIS 9 series of software releases and the development of things like ArcGIS Server and the concept of Map Services.  Two years ago they released ArcGIS 10 that brought a lot of maturity to the concept of integrated and streamlined web mapping using the Microsoft Silverlight and Adobe Flex web development environments, and the launch of ArcGIS Online with its peek into the future concept of 'cloud services' for hosting GIS data, services and web maps.

At it's recent worldwide user's conference ESRI announced the pending release of ArcGIS 10.1 with better integrated and streamlined web development tools.  But ESRI also announced two new developments that are generating a lot of interest.  The first is the announcement that ESRI has partnered with to host robust, enterprise-level cloud services for GIS web mapping, data hosting and application development.  The idea is that an enterprise purchases an ArcGIS Server software license, passes that license over to Amazon and Amazon stands up and maintains the necessary database and web development environment for the enterprise.  This is a huge development because it can free the GIS group supporting the enterprise from the often onerous and restrictive shackles placed on it by their local IT department.

The other announcement was the pending release of the ArcGIS Online Organizational Account program.  The Organizational Account program appears to be targeted as smaller enterprises and groups that don't have the money or need to purchase full-up cloud services like those offered by Amazon.  Under the Organizational Account concept an organization will be able to purchase data and web hosting services from ESRI on a subscription basis.  It is still a 'cloud' model, but on a smaller, more tailorable scale that should allow small organizations to enjoy most of the capabilities of a full-up ArcGIS Server implementation.

The last good thing I need to discuss is another little-known program released this year - the concept of ArcGIS for home or personal use.  ESRI's software licensing fees have escalated to the point that the geospatial professional simply can't afford a copy to use to keep his or her skills sharp.  I noted above that the GSA price for an ArcView license used to run about $600 - a bearable cost if you were serious about GIS.  However, the cost for an ArcView license now hovers around $1,600, far too much for even the serious home user.  This year ESRI announced the ArcGIS for Home Use program.  Anyone can purchase a 1-year license of ArcView for $100, a very reasonable price.  Not only does this $100 include on-line software training and support, but you also get a very extensive suite of add-on modules like 3D Analyst, Spatial Analyst and Geostatistical Analyst.  The total value of the software you get for your $100 subscription comes to over $10,000.  One hell of a deal.  Of course there are restrictions attached to this deal.  The intent of the home use program is just that - you can only use it at home.  You can also only use it for personal development/training purposes or non-profit use.  Still, like I said, it's one hell of a deal.

Now, it's not all rainbows and unicorns when it comes to ArcGIS and ESRI's position in the GIS world.  All this GIS goodness is of little use unless it's leveraged in an environment with clearly defined professional standards.  Nor can you allow a professional discipline to be defined by a software application or be inexorably joined to a piece of software.  This is where ESRI's has failed the geospatial community, and they have failed in ways they can't even visualize from where they sit.

Here's the reality: geospatial engineering is the discipline, the term geospatial information systems - GIS - merely describes the tools geospatial professionals use to do their job.  Where ESRI has failed is in using its industry position and influence to help clearly delineate the difference between the two.  As a result, far too many engineering professionals view geospatial professionals as little more than button pushing software monkeys, one step up from data entry clerks.

Part of the culture Jack Dangermond has fostered and progressed through ESRI is the idea that GIS is for everyone and nobody owns it.  What he is effectively saying is that GIS is the discipline; the tools and the software drive the field, not the other way around.

While community ownership is a noble goal, ESRI's dominance of the field gives lie to that very philosophy.  Effectively, ESRI 'owns' GIS; it is by far the world's largest GIS software developer.  It has either developed or successfully implemented most of the recognized spatial analysis processes in use today.  It's data management features have driven the development of most of the spatial data standards in use today.  The vast majority of geospatial professionals worldwide learned their trade using ArcGIS.

What is lacking, however, is a clear and recognized definition of just what a geospatial professional is.  Dangermond is correct when he claims it's not his role to define what a geospatial professional should be - that is the job of the geospatial field and industry as a whole.  But Dangermond has been the biggest catalyst in the geospatial world for the last 30 years.  He and the resources he commands through ESRI have been in the best position to cajole and coerce the private sector, academia and the government to establish the roles, practices and responsibilities that define Geospatial Engineering as a formal discipline.  He should have been the single biggest champion of the concept of Geospatial Engineering as a professional discipline.  Instead he's been pretty much silent on the whole issue.

It is only in the last few years that the US Department of Labor developed a formal competency model for GIS (GIS, not Geospatial Engineering), and the GIS Professional Certification program is just starting to get its feet on the ground (after a disastrous grandfathering period that allowed perhaps hundreds of clearly unqualified individuals to get a GISP certificate and do damage to the reputation of the geospatial profession that may take years to overcome).  Great, but all this should have happened 20 years ago.

What this means is that Geospatial Engineering is not respected as a professional discipline.  I can tell you from long personal experience that geospatial professionals are looked down upon by other disciplines such as civil engineering and surveying, in large part because there are no testable and enforced standards that define us as a 'profession'.  Guess what - they are right!

Many readers are probably asking themselves "Huh?  What's he getting at here?"  I guess I'd ask the same question myself if I didn't understand the background issues.

I've been a topographer and geospatial engineer for over 30 years.  A few months back I laid out my initial arguments in a post titled In Praise of the Old Topographer.  In that post I made the argument that Geospatial Engineering is just a logical continuation of the older and much respected profession of Topographer.  I also outlined my argument that geospatial information systems, including ArcGIS, are merely the tools that the Geospatial Engineer uses to do his or her job.

With this post my goal was to identify one of the main culprits that is keeping Geospatial Engineering from fully maturing into a recognized profession, a profession with it's own standards, roles and responsibilities.

ArcGIS is that culprit.  On the one hand we have extraordinarily capable software that is almost single handedly responsible for bringing the discipline into the computer age and is poised to bring it fully into the age of  world wide web.  On the other hand, ArcGIS and it's parent company ESRI are almost single handedly responsible for holding the discipline back and keeping it from taking it's rightful place as a profession on par with other engineering disciplines.

For these reasons ArcGIS is the software I hate to love.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ohio Is Such a Mess

"On the road above the Bell Company's dock, Pennsylvania Route 68 invisibly changes to Ohio Route 38, and trees half hide some signs by the roadside.  The place could hardly be more anonymous.  Even someone familiar with the historical significance of this particular spot, who has traveled several thousand miles to find it, and whose eyes are flickering wildly from the narrow blacktop to the grassy verge between the road and river, can drive a couple of hundred yards past it before hitting the brakes.

The language of the signs is equally undemonstrative.  A stone marker carries a plaque headed "The Point of Beginning" that reads "1112 feet south of this spot was the point of beginning for surveying the public lands of the United States.  There on September 30th, 1785, Thomas Hutchins, first Geographer of the United States, began the Geographer's Line of the Seven Ranges."

There is nothing to suggest that it was here that the United States began to take physical shape, nothing to indicate that from here a grid was laid out across the land that would stretch west to the Pacific Ocean, and north to Canada, and south to the Mexican border, and would cover more than three million square miles, and would create a structure of land ownership unique in history..."

                                                                         - Andro Linklater, "Measuring America" (2002)

In his wonderful book 'Measuring America', author Andro Linklater explains in detail just how it is that the concept of property ownership, and in particular the ownership of land, is the cornerstone of the American republic.  America was founded on the concept of property rights, and there is no greater realization of that concept than the idea that the common man can buy, hold and own land and that he, his family and his descendants will prosper and profit from the ownership and improvement of land.  The land does not belong to a government or a sovereign, but to the people.  It was a radical concept in 1776 and it is still very much a unique concept in the world today.

At the end of the Revolutionary War the weak federal government was cash poor but increasingly land rich.  Under the Articles of Confederation the federal government had no authority to raise revenue through taxation - that power was still retained by the individual states.  But the states were defaulting on their obligations to provide funding for the federal government.  The federal Army had not been paid for months and was on the brink of mutiny.  We had no navy to speak of.  Revolutionary War veterans were holding IOUs from the Continental Congress that were about to come due and our overseas creditors were demanding payment.  In desperation the federal government turned to the only asset it had available - land.

The Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War gave the new American nation control of a large tract of land west of the Ohio River in what is today southeastern Ohio.  This was really the only tangible asset the federal government owned that was not already claimed by one of the 13 states.  Almost in desperation, the Congress of the Confederation  hit on the idea of land sales as a way to support the struggling federal government.  The idea was simple - divide up the land and sell it for a dollar an acre.  Cash only, no credit!

But how to divide it?  This new nation needed a land measurement and inventory system that was logical, easy to implement and resulted in land parcels that could be easily and quickly sold.  The resulting system, codified in the Land Ordinance of 1785, gave us what we know today as the township and range land survey system.  Conceptually is was simple - divide the land into six miles square sections (townships), then subdivide each township into one mile square sections, then further into quarter sections.  The initial unit of sale was a quarter section of 640 acres.

But where to start?  The Congress of the Confederation set up a committee to study the issue and appointed Thomas Hutchins, a noted military engineer and surveyor, as Geographer of the United States.  It was decided to start the land survey at the point where Pennsylvania's northwestern boundary intersects the Ohio River.  This point became the Point of Beginning for all public land surveys in the United States.

So, on a blustery day in late September, 1785, Thomas Hutchins and his survey party walked down to the banks of the Ohio River, drove a stake in the ground, set their survey instruments up and began to lay out what became known as the Seven Ranges region of Ohio.

From this Point of Beginning Thomas Hutchins set in place the land survey system that would ultimately encompass 75% of the land mass of the United States, clearly establish and define private land ownership and set the stage for the explosive westward expansion of the US in the 19th century.  On September 30th, 1785 Thomas Hutchins literally drove the stake that established the geographic fabric upon which the United States was built.

Ohio was to be the proving grounds for the township and range survey system.  Like a lot of first tries at anything problems cropped up, adjustments were made and shortcuts were taken.  Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that much of the land in what we today call Ohio was subject to prior claim.  Large areas of  northern Ohio were ceded to Native Americans under various treaties.  Connecticut claimed a large region stretching from present day Sandusky, Ohio east to the Pennsylvania border.  Virginia claimed a large tract in the south to use to compensate her veterans.  Other bits and pieces here and there were set aside.  Ohio was a patchwork quilt of land claims, set-asides, treaty lands and private holdings.

Ohio Land Claims - 1800's

But very quickly another series of problems popped up.  Congress was pressured by speculators to sell large chunks of land.  Congress saw this as a way to generate quick cash - sell land at a slight discount for immediate payment and let the speculators carry the cost of the land surveys.  The land speculators saw it as a road to riches - if they could sell fast.  But before any land could be sold it had to be surveyed and the surveys registered.  That meant the surveys needed to be done fast.  Accuracy be damned!

In the 18th century anyone with rudimentary math skills and who could afford a surveyor's compass and chain could call themselves a surveyor, and many did.  Since surveyors at the time were paid by the mile the faster they worked the more they got paid.  This meant the surveys were sloppy and niceties like calculating the local differences between true north and magnetic north were either not done as often as required or simply not done at all.

As a result, a lot of Ohio's township and range section lines take off at odd angles and don't quite form square parcels.  Eventually the errors accumulated and corrections had to be made.  Often it was the simple expedient of offsetting a north-south range line at the start of the next township line.  Since roads in Ohio tended to follow the township and range section boundaries this led to the quirky (and often dangerous) tendency of country roads ending at a T-intersections for no apparent reason, then picking up again about 100 feet east or west of the end point.  These little jogs are a modern reflection of the corrections the surveyors were forced to build into their work over 200 years ago.

Other times the errors were so extreme that there was really no way to correct them and the government was just forced to incorporate the errors into the public record as-is:

The intersection of surveys for the Symmes Purchase, Virginia Military Reserve
and standard Public Land Survey areas.  There are about three different
interpretations of true north indicated by these township and range layouts!

So there you have it.  Ohio is a darned mess.  But a fascinating mess that leaves us the physical traces of the birth of the survey system that made westward expansion possible.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Which Way North, Part IV - The Military Lensatic Compass

I'm going to kick off our formal evaluation of compass accuracy with the a design that has been in continuous use  for over 60 years and has seen use by millions of individuals.  It is perhaps the most tested compass design in history, with documented use in jungle, desert, woodland and arctic environments around the world.  It is tried and true and is one of my favorite compass designs.

It is the US Army's Model 1950 lensatic compass.

The M1950 compass is a design born of war.  It's predecessor, the M1938 lensatic compass, was developed and adopted just as WWII opened.  It was a good design that was easy to manufacture.  Equally important, the adoption of the M1938 compass allowed the Army to standardize land navigation training, simplify it and teach it to the millions of young men who were being drafted into the Army and Marines. The experiences of war taught the Army a few things about compass design.  First, it proved that the lensatic compass design was a good one.  It was accurate, reliable and versatile.  With its compass card graduated in both degrees and mils it was usable by the both infantry and artillery.  The military liked the basic design and stuck with it.

A Model 1938 (M1938) lensatic compass manufactured
 by the Superior Magneto Company of New York
Superior Magneto appears to have been the prime supplier of this
compass design during WWII

However, wartime experience also highlighted some shortcomings in the M1938 design.  It was somewhat fragile.  While not a toy, the M1938 was lightly built - just two stamped aluminum cups fitted together to form the compass bowl and lid.  It had no mechanism to lift the compass card off of the the pivot needle when the compass was closed.  A lot of compasses were damaged when the the tip of the pivot needle gouged or cracked the pivot jewel through rough handling.  But perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the M1938 compass is that it had no dampening mechanism. This meant that the compass card would swing wildly and would take a good number of seconds to settle down to the point where the Soldier could get an accurate reading.  There were some versions of the M1938, those manufactured by the W. E. Gurley Company (a leading manufacturer of surveying instruments), that included a needle lift mechanism that with practice could be used to brake or slow the compass card oscillations.  However, the vast majority of compasses were manufactured by the Superior Magneto Corporation and did not include this needle lift mechanism.

After WWII the Army incorporated induction dampening into the M1938 design.  Induction dampening is a beautifully simple concept.  It takes advantage of the inductive magnetic field generated between a swinging compass needle and a highly conductive but non-magnetic alloy like copper.  When a magnetic needle (or bar) is placed inside a cup made of copper and the needle swings (oscillates) that movement causes a slight magnetic eddy current to form.  When the needle swings to the left the eddy current pulls it to the right.  When it swings to the right the eddy current pulls it to the left.  The eddy current is self-canceling; as the needle oscillations decrease the eddy current strength decreases and very quickly the needle settles down and is aligned with magnetic north.  Simple, elegant and effective.

A late model M1938 compass with induction dampening.  This is
a transitional design, bridging the gap between the original M1938 compass
and the the M1950.  The white colored compass bowl is actually
a copper cup that forms part of the induction dampening system.
This compass was made in December 1950 by the
Marine Compass Company out of Pembroke, Massachusetts.

However, by the late 1940s the Army decided it was time for a whole new design.  The Army took the best functional elements of the M1938 compass - the lensatic sighting design and the combined degree and mil scales on the compass card - added induction dampening, a needle lift device, a much larger sighting lens and a larger thumb loop and placed it all in a beefed-up waterproof aluminum housing.  The resulting compass was designated the M1950 Lensatic Compass.  It is a rugged, versatile device that has remained in use with the US military for over 60 years, pretty much as originally designed.

M1950 Lensatic Compass
This particular compass was manufactured in February1953 by the
Marine Compass Company out of Pembroke, Massachusetts.   The
cloudy dial cover is the result of the plastic aging.  Remember, this compass
is almost 60 years old!

Same compass with the cover closed, showing the manufacturer and
manufacturing date.

Fast forward almost 60 years and the same compass design is still in use by the US military, and it doesn't look like they have plans to switch designs any time soon.

M1950 Lensatic Compass manufactured in 2010 by the Cammenga Corporation
out of Michigan.  This is a military issue compass that uses tritium inserts
for night time illumination.

The same compass with the cover closed.  At the time of this writing
Cammenga has been the sole supplier of lensatic compasses to
the US military for over 10 years.

Since 1950 this compass has been produced by a number of manufacturers, including the Marine Compass Company, Jay-Bee, Union Instrument, Cammenga and even Lionel (yes, the train people!).  However, it seems that the single biggest manufacturer of M1950 compasses was Stocker & Yale out of Massachusetts.  I don't have any specific production numbers for these compass manufacturers so my claim is based solely on personal observation.  Based on the compasses I was issued in the Army and what I see for sale on auction sites or in surplus stores it appears that Stocker & Yale had the highest production numbers.

Now, the US military doesn't just turn to a manufacturer and say "Make it!"  Like all things military there are clearly defined specifications.  It doesn't matter if you are building an aircraft carrier or a handheld compass, there must be clearly spelled out specifications!  So it is with the M1950 Lensatic Compass.  Today's compasses are built and tested in accordance with the DOD military performance specification known as MIL-PRF-10436N (Performance Specification, Compass, Magnetic, Unmounted, Lensatic, Luminous, 5 Degree and 20 Mil Graduations, With Carrying Case).

The document that spells out the design, construction,
performance and testing requirements for the
lensatic compass

(I should note here that the current specification does not use the 'M1950' designation.  I'm not sure when the US military dropped the designation, but for our purposes we'll continue to call it the M1950.  It's the same compass.)

The discussion of this performance document is important because the M1950 compass is the only US produced handheld compass I am aware of that is built to a specific performance specification, and is regularly evaluated against this performance specification by an outside agency.  If any test batch of compasses fails the evaluation the devices never make it out of the factory.  The M1950 is a purpose-built device designed to meet a clearly laid out specification not just for accuracy but for shock resistance, water resistance, illumination, thermal shock, durability and service life.  Manufacturers of other compasses may have their own internal standards (and many are quite good), but the M1950 is the only handheld compass you can buy that is designed to meet demanding military standards and is rigorously tested by an independent agency to ensure it meets those standards.

So just how good is the M1950 compass in the real world?  Pretty damned good!  The 58-year old example I show above that was made by the Marine Compass Co. is still perfectly serviceable and would probably meet all of today's performance specifications for accuracy and durability.  I have other examples in my collection that have clearly seen hard use, some with broken components or cracked dials, but they still provide reliable and accurate readings. The M1950 compass is a device that is hard to kill.

I believe that the key to the M1950's ruggedness is the fact that is it not a liquid dampened design.  Liquid dampening (where the compass needle or card is suspended in fluid to reduce oscillation) is very effective but is a more fragile design than the induction dampening used in the M1950.  With the liquid filled design the compass needle or card must be sealed inside a leak proof capsule*.  The problem is, compass manufacturers have not yet figured out how to make a leak proof capsule.  I have over 15 liquid filled compasses in my personal collection.  About half have air bubbles inside the capsule, a sure indicator that the fluid is leaking.

How accurate is the M1950 compass?  Every M1950 I've used (and after a 23 year Army career I've used a lot of them) has at least met, and many exceeded, the performance specification for accuracy.  Now this is where I need to come clean on my evaluation of the M1950.  It is not the most precise handheld compass available.  This compass' biggest design limitation is that the compass card is divided into only 5 degree increments; pretty coarse even for handheld use.

Compass card of the M1950 compass.
Note the inner degree ring (in red) laid out in 5 degree increments.  The outer
ring (in black) is set out on mils (6400 mils to a circle).  

This means that the average user, the common Soldier, can only discern and measure to half of that increment - 2.5 degrees.  Experienced users - mostly infantry and artillery Soldiers who use a compass regularly - can frequently get accurate readings to between 1.5 - 2.0 degrees. But to be realistic, 2.5 degrees is about as good as anyone can expect to get with this compass card layout.  The M1950 compass card design is a compromise.  The military needed to include a mils scale for use by the Field Artillery.  Mils offer more discreet division of the circle (a mil is 1/6400th of a circle), allowing for more precise azimuth determination - very important when you are calling in artillery strikes on distant targets.  To accommodate the mils scale it needed to be printed at the outer edge of the compass card, leaving less space to print the degrees scale.  This results in a coarse, less precise degree scale.

The military performance specification states that the compass must be accurate to within 40 mils.

" Magnetic performance and compass error.  The compass shall be placed in a horizontal position on a fixed point and by means of the sighting mechanism, the compass shall be sighted on three targets of known magnetic azimuths approximately 120 degrees apart.  With no remedial action by the operator, before, at, or after, a reading shall be taken at each target.  The difference between the known azimuths and readings taken is the compass error.  An error greater than 40 mils or failure of the compass to function correctly shall constitute failure of this test."

Since one degree = 17.8 mils, 40 mils is slightly less than 2.5 degrees.  Let's round up and call it 2.5.

I have tested my 2010 production Cammenga compass at a known azimuth station and found it to be accurate to just over 2 degrees when used in the handheld mode and sighting on targets up to 150 feet away.  This compass very easily meets the performance specification.

Before I wrap up this blog post I need to add that the M1950 compass was merely one component of a land navigation system that the Army developed and adopted at the end of WWII.  Along with the M1950 compass came dramatic changes in how the Army mapped the world, developing standardized maps with overprinted grids (the Military Grid Reference System) and plotting tools.  It was all designed to simplify land navigation for the common Soldier, and is was so successful that the methodology is still in use today.

The US Army's standardized land navigation 'system' included the M1950 compass,
standardized topographic maps, plotting tools and training materials.  It was an
extraordinarily successful program that is still used today.

Let's wrap this up.  Here is my bottom line - I consider the the M1950 compass to be the best general purpose handheld compass available.  It is a proven design that is built and tested to exacting standards.  They are readily available new or used to civilians and are one of the best examples of trickle-down military technology I've seen.  If you spend any time in the outdoors you need a compass.  You might as well get the best available.  Get a M1950 Lensatic Compass.



*One compass manufacturer, K&R out of Germany, claims to make a leak proof liquid capsule but I don't think they have been on the market long enough to have proven the claim.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The US National Map

Earlier this month the US Geological Survey (USGS) released their latest version of The National Map Viewer.

US National Map View of Maumee, Ohio

The same view of Maumee, Ohio with the aerial image
background turned on

The US National Map is not a map per se.  You can't ring up the USGS and say "Send me a copy of the National Map."  It doesn't exist as a single product.  The US National Map is a collection of digital geographic and geospatial data that, when brought together, forms the foundational map of the United States.  Here's how the USGS describes it:

"As one of the cornerstones of the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) National Geospatial Program, The National Map is a collaborative effort among the USGS and other Federal, State, and local partners to improve and deliver topographic information for the Nation. It has many uses ranging from recreation to scientific analysis to emergency response. The National Map is easily accessible for display on the Web, as products and services, and as downloadable data. The geographic information available from The National Mapincludes orthoimagery (aerial photographs), elevation, geographic names, hydrography, boundaries, transportation, structures, and land cover. Other types of geographic information can be added within the viewer or brought in with The National Map data into a Geographic Information System to create specific types of maps or map views. The National Map is a significant contribution to the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) and currently is being transformed to better serve the geospatial community by providing high quality, integrated geospatial data and improved products and services including new generation digital topographic maps."

OK, like I said, it's a collection of digital geographic and geospatial data that forms the foundational map of the US.  Geeze, I think government bureaucrats get paid by the word.

Here is the USGS's introduction to the National Map program and the National Map Viewer:

The National Map Viewer is the USGS's on-line portal to all the data that makes up the National Map.

The Viewer is pretty good (if you are at all interested, it is built on ESRI's ArcGIS Server technology) and offers some neat functionality.  It will provide location information in a number of formats, including US National Grid coordinates, it has a pretty robust reverse geocoding feature (click on a building on the map and the map returns the street address for that location) and it will provide spot elevations from the national elevation dataset.  You can do area and distance measurements, add text and simple graphics and even add data from external sources like a GoogleEarth KML file or a web mapping service.  You can also bring up indexes for the USGS's standard map products like the US Topo series of maps and link to them for download as GeoPDF files.  For advanced users the Viewer offers some pretty good search and query builder functionality, so you can find specific data that is embedded in the data layers.

There are some shortcomings, however.  The print function is essentially useless and is perhaps THE major drawback of this Viewer.  About all it does is grab a screen shot of your viewer and dumps it to a PDF file.  The USGS needs to wake up and realize that people still want quality paper maps and with today's technology it should be easy to print a fully detailed paper map with things like a grid, scale indicator, geographic extents, legend, etc.

The Viewer also exhibits a common issue found in web-based maps - map content naming conventions can be pretty obtuse and downright confusing.  While the Viewer does pretty good with the base data layer naming conventions, when you start using advanced features like the Query Builder you start to interact directly with the database field names.  For example, if I'm building a query to identify all the wetlands in my county I'm presented with a list of 'Columns' (which are the database field names).  Those column names are confusing and don't mean anything to most humans.  We get to pick from selections named 'ATTRIBUTE' or 'OBJECTID' or 'SHAPE_Area'.  There is an easy solution to this - the GIS professional building this map can establish what are called 'field alias' names - a human-friendly nickname for each of the information fields.  ATTRIBUTE can be displayed as 'Wetland Attribute', OBJECTID can be displayed as 'Wetland ID' and SHAPE_Area can be displayed as 'Wetland Area'.  This naming convention issue usually reflects the fact that GIS professionals with little cartography experience compiled the data for use in the Viewer.  (If I seem to be nit-picking here it is because I build maps for a living using this same technology.  I know these are issues that are easy to fix and should have been taken care of before the Viewer was opened up to the public.)

These shortcomings aside, the National Map Viewer is pretty darned good.  I'd say the USGS gets a good solid 'B' for this effort.  If they'd improve the damned printing issue I'd give them an 'A'.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Which Way North - Evaluating the Compass

It's been a while since we looked at the merits and shortcomings of specific compass designs.  Over the past six months or so I've been testing and evaluating a number of handheld compasses from various manufacturers.  It has been something of a grail quest, searching for the perfect compass.  Along the way I've learned a lot about compass design, accuracy and usability.  In the next series of postings we'll discuss specific compasses and perhaps help you select a compass for your needs.  Not all of what I evaluated were modern compasses; I've included a few examples in this evaluation that were manufactured over 60 years ago and represent designs that go back over 100 years.

Before we get started let me state that there is no such thing as the perfect compass.  No one design can meet all needs.  The best approach in compass selection is to pick the design that best meets the needs of the job at hand.  If you are running an orienteering course you'll probably want to pick a compass specifically designed for that sport.  However, if you are doing serious backwoods land navigation you'll want a direct reading compass that can give accurate azimuths to within 1/2 of a degree.  On the other hand, if you are a geologist doing stratigraphic mapping you'll need a compass that will also allow you to measure the strike and dip of rock formations.  Always pick the tool that best suits the task at hand.

Over the next series of postings in the Which Way North series I'll evaluate specific compasses on the following criteria:

1. Basic Design - How good is the basic design of the compass, particularly if the compass was designed for a specific function?  How well does the design meet the stated goal?

2. Features - Are any added features (luminous markings, baseplate scale markings, built-in clinometers, etc.) useful and do they add to the functionality of the compass?

3. Execution - Did the manufacturer do a good job building the compass?

4. Usability - How easy is it to use the particular compass in the real world?

6. Accuracy - How accurate is the compass (in degrees) when used as it was designed and intended to be used?

Much of this evaluation will be subjective.  After all, it is my blog so I set the rules.  However, my subjective evaluation is based on over 40 years of compass use as a geologist, topographer and Army engineer officer.  I may be a bit subjective in my evaluation, but it is a well honed subjectivity.

Other things you should understand about my evaluation criteria are:

1. I value accuracy above all else.  If a compass is not accurate (within it's design parameters) then it is a piece of junk.  I don't care who made it or how expensive it was, if it ain't accurate it's junk.  I think it is important to understand how I evaluate accuracy.  I have access to an azimuth station where I test all my compasses for accuracy.  An azimuth station is a site where survey points have been established and the precise azimuths between points (in relation to true north) is established.  Each compass is checked against three points each roughly 90 degrees apart.  All are checked for handheld accuracy and if possible, supported accuracy when mounted on a jacob staff.  Each compass is tested three times in each mode and the magnetic azimuth results averaged.  The averaged result is then adjusted for local declination (as determined by NOAA) and checked against the known azimuths between each of the survey points.  The difference between the surveyed azimuth and the adjusted magnetic azimuth is the compass accuracy.

2. Ruggedness of design is next on my list of criteria.  A compass that is marketed for outdoor use should be able to withstand that use and deliver reliable and accurate service.  I'm not saying that we should expect to use a compass as a substitute hammer, but it is not unreasonable to expect a land navigation compass to easily withstand the normal bumps and shakes that come with being used out of doors.

3. Declination.  A lot of compasses have adjustable declination scales.  I do not consider the presence or absence of an adjustable declination scale of any particular importance.  In my opinion adjusting for declination on the compass gives a false sense of security.  There are far too many variables in the declination equation to allow it to be handled by a coarse declination scale built into a handheld compass.  However, an adjustable declination scale can be useful for another purpose - adjusting out any error built into a particular compass or compass design.

4. You rarely use the compass all by itself so consider it part of a land navigation kit.  This kit should also include maps of the area you are working in, a plotting scale and a notebook and pencil.  All my evaluations are done in consideration of the compass as part of this kit.

Also keep in mind that I didn't test every compass available.  My schedule (and wallet) won't allow that.  However, I did obtain the most common examples available from the major manufacturers like Silva, Suunto, Brunton, K&R and a few others.  If you have interest in a particular model or style let me know.  I may already have it on my list for evaluation or may be able to get an example to test.

So stay tuned for the plain truth on compasses!


Friday, April 22, 2011

Terrain Analysis

Last week I stumbled across this gem on YouTube -

It is a slightly dry film put out by the US Geological Survey in 1955 showing the modern (for the time) processes developed for natural resource analysis using aerial photography.

The guy narrating it sounds about as excited by his work as a dry goods salesman discussing the newest laundry soap.  Zzzzzzzzz...

But once past the dry narration I was interested by the methods demonstrated for geological, hydrological, soils and forestry analysis.  What struck me was that these were the precise methods we were taught at the Defense Mapping School as late as the early 1990s.  These photo analysis processes formed the basis for what we called Terrain Analysis, and in fact my job title for much of my Army career was Terrain Analysis Technician (MOS 215D).

This film approaches each type of analysis as an independent process - an end in itself.  We carried the analysis to the next level and merged the output from each of these four disciplines, mixed in some military-specific data like vehicle off-road capabilities, tossed in some road network analysis, some urban analysis and a pinch of weapon systems analysis and produced what we called a military terrain analysis.  Our products were usually delivered in the form of map overlays known as a combined obstacle study.  The process was very labor intensive and usually tightly focused on specific geographic areas like the Fulda Gap in Germany or the Koksan Bowl in Korea, natural movement corridors that had been used by armies for centuries.

Soldiers going into the Army's Terrain Analysis field received extensive training in field identification methods like geological and soils analysis, hydrological analysis and route engineering studies.  They were taught to observe, test and measure in the field using a variety of hands-on methods.  Next they moved to the classroom and were taught advanced aerial photo analysis techniques and applied their field knowledge to what they saw in the photos.  It was hours and hours of peering at photos through stereoscopes, analyzing texture, tone and pattens to develop a detailed analysis of the terrain and it's impacts on military operations.

Computers have taken on the burden of much of this analysis, and today you can feed a digital image into a sophisticated image analysis package like ERDAS Imagine and have it analyze huge swaths of territory in a small fraction of the time it took using the old manual methods shown in the film.  Still, it is fun to see how things were done in the good old days when men were men, hardhats were made out of aluminum and the science of aerial photo analysis found new applications in the civilian and military worlds.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Neatness Counts

Earlier we discussed the use of field notebooks and the lost art of field note taking.  I fear that neat, disciplined and structured field note taking is a lost art in the today's world of texting, instant messaging, and email.  Even in the engineering, surveying and topographic field (where I work) the use of field notebooks appears to have been brushed aside by smartphones, laptop computers, data collectors and the assorted electronic bric-a-brac that has come to dominate the field.  And yet - and yet - all this powerful technology still leaves us with critical information gaps.  The problem is not so much that people aren't writing stuff down, it is that they are writing it down in formats that are so very disjointed, disconnected and perishable.  An email here, a quick scribble on a random notepad there.  It gets lost or never gets integrated into the project file.  Months or years down the line engineers and maintenance personnel are left to wonder just where something was placed or how it was constructed because the story of that project was not properly documented.

Now, I'm not implying that the use of field notebooks will solve all of these problems.  Field notebooks are not a panacea for lousy project management.  My point is really that disciplined and structured note taking should be viewed as a key skill - and a requirement - for surveyors, engineers, topographers and other key staff.  Of course the ideal place to write all this down is in a field notebook, a field notebook that gets turned over to the organization, copied, indexed and integrated into a document management system at the completion of the project.

Neat, disciplined, complete and structured note taking.  Just what does that mean?

The disciplined and complete parts are easy.  Notes need to be made on any issue, topic, observation or discussion that directly impacts a project.  It is really nothing more than getting in the habit.  Get in the habit of having your notebook with you and writing stuff down.  Complete means get it all down.  Think of each record you create in the notebook as a miniature story - it needs to have a beginning, a middle and and end.  What you observed, when and where you observed it, what was important about it, who was there, what was agreed to, what conclusions were reached and, if necessary, sketches or diagrams that are key to the issue at hand.  Make it a complete story!

Neat and structured are two somewhat subjective concepts.  Everyone has their own style of organization and handwriting.  The important thing is to make it neat, legible and logical in structure.  Always remember that the intent is to make it easy for you and others in your organization to reference in the future.  How far into the future?  I routinely reference survey records for the airport I work at that are 60+ years old.  The neatness and structure (and completeness) of those records allow me to rely on them for locating structures and utilities that were abandoned and forgotten about decades ago.

I can only offer suggestions for the concepts of neatness and structure.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, field note taking used to be a topic taught in all beginning surveying and civil engineering courses.  Colleges, universities, government agencies (like the USGS and the USC&GS) and even individual companies used to have their own field note format requirements.  Some agencies, like the US Army Corps of Engineers, would even have entire bound books printed with pre-formatted pages.

A few agencies still provide specific field note standards.  Surprisingly, most are state departments of transportation (DOT).  For example, the Oregon DOT, provides specific guidance for field note structure.  Their Survey Field Note Standards (October 2006) provides very specific field note examples.  The same for the Montana DOT.  Their Survey Manual provides a chapter on sample notes that contractors are expected to follow.

But since this is my blog and I love old stuff, particularly old stuff that still has relevance, we're going to take a trip back to the 1950s.  A time when cars had carburetors, space travel was the stuff of science fiction and real men did surveys with optical theodolites and steel measuring tapes, and wrote everything down in hard bound notebooks.  A couple of professors at the University of Missouri put together a course in introductory surveying and field measuring.  A large part of the class involved proper field note recording.  This course was to serve as the foundation for all surveying and civil engineering instruction to come, so the instructors needed to make sure the students got started on the right foot with disciplined, accurate, structured and comprehensive field data recording.  The two professors, Clarence Bardsley and Ernest Carlton put together a gem of a book titled 'Surveyors Field Note Forms'.

Bardsley & Carlton, Surveyor's Field
Note Forms (3rd Ed.)

The book opens with a treatise on the importance of field notes and the necessity of being an accurate, error free, neat and complete note taker.

"Allow no items for the memory; all facts should be on the record."

"A good surveyor takes pride in the appearance of his notes.  A neat-appearing, well arranged set of field notes commands confidence and builds prestige in the surveyor."

"Field notes should be clear and convey only one possibly correct interpretation.  Descriptions and narrative matter should be in acceptable English.  Sketches should be drawn to approximate, or convenient, scales.  All numerals indicating distances, angles, or elevation should be carefully formed.  Particular care should be exercised in obtaining a logical order and sequence of all notes, for they should be absolutely clear and understandable to the student, other surveyors, computers*, or draftsmen."

The book then goes on to provide specific examples of problems and how the field notes should be formatted (click on any image to open it full-size):

Length of Pace Measurement

It was once common practice for surveyors to regularly measure and record their pace count over various types of terrain (flat, hilly, uphill, downhill, etc.).  Before accurate handheld measurement devices like GPS surveyors used pace count to do help them with tasks like finding property corner stakes or do rough fence line measurements.

Correcting for Horizontal Slope

Don't you just love the name 'Trachoma Hospital?

Using Rough Triangulation to Determine Distance

Although the equipment has improved, surveyors and engineers still use the principal of triangulation to determine inaccessible distances.

Sewer Stake-out

Construction stake-out, whether for sewers, buildings or roads, is still bread-and-butter work for surveyors.

Use of the Grade Rod

Field notes are for more than writing down numbers.  Often the engineer or surveyor needs to write down a description of how a particular piece of equipment was used, or a methodology that might need clarification.

Height of Object

Again, the equipment may have changed, but the procedure is still the same.

Determining Azimuth From True North

Using solar or star shots is still an accepted practice for determining the relationship to true north.

The point of the above is not really what is on the page as much as it is the legibility, accuracy and completeness of the data.  One hundred years from now, when Microsoft .pst files are lost to eternity, digital CAD files can't be opened and survey data collector files are corrupted beyond recall someone will still be able to pull a notebook like this one off the shelf, open it and clearly understand what the author wrote and was trying to convey.

Neatness does count.

As I was wrapping up this blog posting I asked Roberta (5th Grade Teacher of the Millennium) if kids in grade school still get penmanship lessons.  I was disappointed but not surprised to hear that, in her school system at least, penmanship has been sacrificed on the altar of computer skills.  Apparently the school system feels that there is not enough time to teach and practice penmanship, and since kid are all wired up to computers these days the time 'wasted' on penmanship is better put to teaching computer and 'keyboarding' skills.  How sad...


(*Note - In the 1950s the term 'computer' meant something completely different.  Back then a 'computer' was an individual who was responsible for doing final computations against the surveyor's field notes and applying statistical methods to determine the accuracy of the survey results.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Wilderness Route Finder

I grew up reading - devouring, really - the works of two great outdoor writers.  One was Brad Angier and the other was Calvin Rutstrum.  These two adventurers had been living the 'back to nature' lifestyle long before the backpacking craze hit America in the 1960s.  Both were prolific writers, turning out books and papers that extolled the wilderness lifestyle.  Angier's works were more philosophic - he fancied himself a modern day Thoreau and his books reflected that outlook.  Rutstrum, on the other hand, didn't just live the wilderness lifestyle, he actually worked in and made a living from the wilderness, primarily through guiding.  Rutstrum's advice was always more down to earth, more practical.

Some of Rutstrum's advice would cause modern day enviroweenies to fall over in a dead faint. For example, to deal with the biting insects that invariably got into your tent when camping in the north country Rutstrum recommended just tossing a DDT 'bomb' (spray canister) into the tent, zipping it up and letting the insecticide do its job.  Go off and do your chores and when you come back you'll have a bug-free tent to sleep peacefully in.  Keep in mind, however, that Rustrum's books were written from the late 1940s through the 1970s, so some procedures and 'best practices' are now out-dated and in many cases downright illegal.  Regardless, his books like 'New Way of the Wilderness' and 'Paradise Below Zero' are still considered classics of outdoor literature.

Another gem that Rutstrum wrote is 'The Wilderness Route Finder'.

My copy, purchased in the late1970s and well

 I first came across this book over 30 years ago and read it cover to cover multiple times.  I believe it is the first broad application land navigation work written for the general public.  (The Army land navigation field manual, FM 21-26, pre-dates this work by several decades.  While an excellent work is targeted at military users.)  Rutstrum approached land navigation the way he approached so many things related to the outdoors - use what works.  He presents a broad range of techniques and discusses use of a number of pieces of equipment  that can assist in navigating the high latitudes where the magnetic compass becomes unreliable due to declination issues and local magnetism.

Obviously this book was written before GPS was even a gleam in the eye of senior military commanders, and many of the pieces of equipment Rutstrum discusses are out dated or simply not available anymore.  For example, cruiser compasses have not been made for decades and have now entered the status of collector's item.  However, some of the techniques he discusses, while at first glance seemingly archaic in the world of cell phones, wireless internet and GPS, are still valid and those serious about land navigation ought to give them a try.  For example, the concept of using a marine sextant to determine latitude is quite valid, and quality used sextants are available today for less than $400.  Equip one with a bubble horizon and bring along a quality quartz watch and you could even do reasonably accurate longitude determination.  Think of it as an exercise in confidence building.

The reader should be aware that Rutstrum wrote this book specifically for those navigating in the far north regions of the US and Canada.   There is little in this book about desert or tropical environments.  Rutstrum was also a man of his time and wrote like it.  Many of the explanations are a little wordy and personal pronouns are few and far between.  Keeping in mind these shortcomings, the book is still an undisputed classic and belongs on the shelf of anyone serious about learning land navigation.