The Source Civil Engineering Magazine Book re-creates 18th-century roots of US surveying

Book re-creates 18th-century roots of US surveying

By Ray Bert

Surveying in Early America: The Point of Beginning, An Illustrated History, by Dan Patterson and Clinton Terry. Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati Press, 2021; 155 pages, $34.94.

Human understanding of basic surveying techniques dates back at least to ancient Egypt, and such techniques are evident in large early structures of civilizations on every continent. Surveying in Early America looks at the practice and effects of surveying in Colonial America and the early years of the newly independent United States of America, with a focus squarely on the 18th century.

In its 150-plus pages, the book packs in plenty of rich detail about surveying history, practices for the different types and purposes of surveying, and the tools of the trade. But what also makes the book stand out dramatically are its 100-plus images, many of which are full-color, historically accurate, extensively captioned photos depicting surveying activities from the time period, taken by award-winning photographer and co-author Dan Patterson with the assistance of a reenactors group known as the Department of the Geographer. This organization of reenactors is obsessively dedicated to historical accuracy with the mission of portraying a working interpretation of the Continental army’s Department of the Geographer during the period from 1777 to 1783. (The second co-author, Clinton Terry, is an associate professor of history at Mercer University.)

The authors dedicate a short opening essay to arguing the value of such images — carefully researched and produced in this way — to increase the understanding and relatability of eras from which visual primary sources simply do not exist, enhancing “the interpretative narrative, (and) adding clarity and color, literally.” Though our modern eyes see the images and instantly know that they are re-creations, the knowledge that this happened with meticulous attention to period knowledge and detail makes them compelling.

book cover showing black font against a white box over the top of a wood and glass compass

Though by no means dominating the book, the attention to this time period demands substantial coverage of George Washington. However, “using Washington as a central figure in this story is not an exercise of historical determinism or revering of a great man as a means of oversimplifying the complex,” the authors note. “Washington was at the forefront of the profession of surveying.” They note that his skill in the discipline may have both informed and presaged his acumen as a military leader while also highlighting that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln also worked as professional surveyors during their lives and that Teddy Roosevelt — the only other face on Mount Rushmore, as it turns out — likely knew how to survey as well.

Reminding us that the surveying profession was not just a tool during a period when the nation was first built but an instrument that actually shaped the way in which it was mapped and built (and that remained in many ways unchanged until the latter part of the 20th century), Surveying in Early America is a uniquely fascinating addition to the histories of the country and an aspect of the engineering profession.

(Note: Civil Engineering readers who are keenly aware that the United States is set to officially retire the U.S. survey foot in 2022 because it differs ever so slightly from the international-friendly version adopted in 1959 should note that the time period of this book stops well short of 1893, when the U.S. survey foot was introduced. Therefore, when discussed in this book, “a foot” refers its original pre-1893 length, defined as one third of a yard.)

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