Facts about an old profession – from an old professional

Surveying is among the oldest professions, and dates back around at least 3,000 years to the ancient Egyptians, whose pyramids still stand today.

Surveyors carry out the essential function of mapping out land boundaries, terrain, distances, features, and the positioning of buildings or land in three dimensions. Surveyors map the boundaries of the natural and constructed world and enable land development and the recording of accurate land dimensions.

The modern history of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors stretches back to 1868, and only licenced professionals can call themselves a Chartered Surveyor.

There was a time when each surveyor used a unique surveying tool that would set them apart from other surveyors.

Egyptian surveyors determined land boundaries for taxation and land ownership, and created boundary markers around the River Nile to track the river’s overflows to ensure that the safety of the buildings constructed.

Surveyors in Greece and Rome were responsible for the straight lines and perfect angles that still shape the buildings and coliseums today, using a surveying tool known as a groma. This was a simple tool formed by a rotating cross bar with weighted plumb lines attached, mounted atop a vertical pole plunged into the ground using a spike. It is believed to have originated from around 400 BC in Mesopotamia (now Iraq).

Another piece of equipment used by the Greeks was the diopter, which formed a similar function as the theodolite and was more accurate than the groma.

The Greeks used their mastery of geometry to push surveying forward and even standardised surveying practices. Surveying was considered a noble pursuit, and has even been assigned gods.

The Romans assigned the god Terminus as: the god of boundaries, the protector of boundary stones that set the limits both of private property and of the public territory of Rome. A sacrifice was performed to sanctify each boundary stone and an annual festival honoured the boundary each 23rd February. He is apparently civil, but can become quite cross when rules are broken.

The name of the Greek god Hermes is derived from the name for a heap of stones, as was used to indicate boundaries or landmarks.

In 1086, William the Conqueror ordered the creation of the Domesday Book which recorded landowners and their personal property. This was of particular importance at a time when the king was considered owner of all land and the occupation of lands was key to establishing tithes.

In 1773, an English mathematician and maker of scientific instruments, Jesse Ramsden, made a significant breakthrough in surveying technology when he invented a circular dividing engine, which enabled the manufacture of accurate mathematical and scientific tools and instruments, including the theodolite, vernier scale and micrometer screw gauge.

Famous surveyors

There are many famous surveyors throughout history, not least Captain James Cook and three presidents of the United States.

Captain Cook sailed every ocean, trod every continent, and was the first to cross both the Artic and Antartic Circles, surveying every area he discovered using a brass telescope, theodolite and small station flags.

Colonel Sir George Everest surveyed much of the meridian arc from India to Nepal and led the Great Trigonometrical Survey which attempted to map the whole of the Indian subcontinent. He became the Surveyor General of India in 1830 and his name was used to name the famous mountain.

in 1748, George Washington became a surveyor’s assistant at the age of 16, and was elevated to surveyor after only a year. Prior to his more famous role in history, he went on to become a map maker and soldier, and had the reputation of being honest, fair and dependable.

The third president, Thomas Jefferson, followed in his father’s footsteps to become the Albermarle County surveyor in Virginia in 1773. He was behind the Corps of Discovery Expedition, a US army corps commissioned to establish the geography that led to the Louisiana Purchase, acquiring control over around 828,000 sq miles of territory from France.

The sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, was also a surveyor as assistant to the Cangamon County Surveyor in Illinois in 1833. He was known for his care and accuracy and settled boundary disputes. He was a self-taught man, also becoming at various times a lawyer, tavern keeper, rail splitter, storekeeper and postmaster.