How did surveying work in the late 19th century?
May 28, 2009 10:08 AM   Subscribe

How did surveying work in the late 19th century? I'm looking for a brief layman's overview of tools & techniques.

I'm specifically interested in British explorers in Africa, surveying as they went. But I'm assuming the tools & techniques would be pretty standardized. (Right?)
posted by gottabefunky to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There is a book called "The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named " which is quite an excellent read. It matches the time-period you're looking for and I would imagine that British explorers would face similar problems in India and Africa.
posted by Lucubrator at 10:29 AM on May 28, 2009

This article about mapping Switzerland by Gugerli is the first one that comes to mind for me from around that time period. Section 4 covers some of the techniques and difficulty with measurement (p. 6 in this document). It's not exactly a layman's document, but it's a place to start.
posted by BlooPen at 10:40 AM on May 28, 2009

I swear I saw a documentary along the lines of The Great Arc book mentioned above and am trying to dig it up now. It was fascinating stuff, and I'm going to keep digging around for the title.
posted by jquinby at 11:11 AM on May 28, 2009

Made to Measure is an excellent history of (predominantly) 19th century land surveying in British Columbia, which would have some colonial similarities to India (many early BC settlers were veterans of the British colonial service)
posted by Rumple at 11:13 AM on May 28, 2009

err, similar to Africa, that is.

There is also the (not wonderful) Virtual Museum of Surveying.
posted by Rumple at 11:15 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

One of the big tools used for surveying is a theodolite. It evolved into the transit in the 19th century.

James Burke, in Connections, covers the use of it for ballistics via triangulation, then for mapping.
posted by plinth at 11:21 AM on May 28, 2009

I think the documentary I saw must have been this one. Sadly not online for viewing any more. :(
posted by jquinby at 11:27 AM on May 28, 2009

If you're interested in the larger avocation of mapmaking you may enjoy the book The Mapmakers which does have a good chapter or two on surveying techniques in the middle of what is otherwise an awesome book.
posted by jessamyn at 11:55 AM on May 28, 2009

I have an old (1871) book called The Engineer's, Mining Surveyor's and Contractor's Field Book that is full of tables, instructions etc on the surveying techniques of the time. Coincidently, it is in my pile of books to sell. Memail if you are interested in purchasing it, or if you want me to describe more of its contents.
posted by Kerasia at 3:59 PM on May 28, 2009

There are a variety of other books on surverying available there in full text: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Those range from the 1850's to 1939. The first one professes to be written assuming no prior knowledge of surveying.
posted by Jahaza at 4:33 PM on May 28, 2009

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