Looking back at some of the fine antique survey instruments produced in years past to answer the seemingly simple questions of how far away and in what direction another point on the earth lies, it is amazing how far we have come. Innovations like the Vernier compass, Dumpy and Wye levels, special transits to allow surveying of mining operations and others were some of the finest examples of optics and machining of their day, rivaling the works of the clock makers.
I came across an old Keuffel and Esser Engineer’s Expedition Transit among the interesting items on antique survey instrument web sites. It was made in 1903 and fits in a box measuring about 11 by 9 by 5.5 inches. It made me think of a recent discussion on a LinkedIn flyfishing group about the size of lakes and ponds. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a surveyor could answer that question using measuring chains and transits like the one in the picture, perhaps after a bit of figuring involving a hand-cranked calculating machine.
Nowadays, at the beginning of the twenty first century, my wife took a walk around our pond with our pocket-sized Garmin Oregon GPS and it calculated the area at a little under 1/3 of an acre. Most people use a GPS for navigation and are unaware of some of the other capabilities, but she reads owners manuals. I thought it was interesting that a calculation requiring special tools and skills a hundred years ago is now just a little-noticed feature on a modern GPS.
One might think that these developments would cost some work for professional surveyors, since anyone with a GPS can get very accurate information about position, course and speed, land or water area, etc. I think the surveyors are enjoying their new technology at least as much as ordinary individuals. A Surveying Total Station is an expensive piece of equipment, but it can practically double the productivity of a surveyor while increasing accuracy. It is expensive until you compare it to a surveyor’s time on the clock. Similarly, Rotary Laser Levels can cast a perfectly level line across a grade or onto a structure. That capability saves so much valuable time that rotating laser units with receivers and remote controls sell for thousands of dollars and easily pay for themselves during their useful life.
The technology built into a modern GPS, total survey station, or self-leveling rotary laser is pretty amazing, but I guess the Keuffel and Esser transit was considered an amazing piece of technology back in 1903. In 100 years, will people be collecting old Leica Total Stations or Topcon Rotary Lasers? They lack the Steampunk beauty of current antique survey equipment to my eye, but who knows how they will be seen in 100 years?