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History of USGS Topographic Mapping
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MS: Well, good afternoon, distinguished guests, colleagues, friends, USGS family. And when I say USGS family, I include everyone in this room, irrespective of what organization you are from. Welcome. It is honestly a pleasure to have you all here today, helping us celebrate a very special occasion in our history. And I just want to extend from my heart our deepest thanks for being here. And I also want to say that throughout the day today, I have just been really thrilled and overjoyed to see the reacquaintance of old friends. People meeting in the hallways who haven’t seen each other for years. People meeting in the cafeteria who haven’t seen each other for many years.

People meeting before this event in this room where we are now who have all gathered here today to help us with this celebration. So if our celebration has strengthened friendships with old colleagues or reintroduced you to folks you haven’t seen for a while, we’re very pleased about that. And I myself have met many good friends that I’ve developed over the years whom I’ve not seen for quite some time. So it’s a wonderful pleasure to see you all here today. Now some of you may be familiar with the USGS, enough to be asking yourself a question, which is, Hmm, 1879. That seems like it was 130 years ago. That was the formation of the geological survey.

So what’s this 125th anniversary all about? Well, I confess the US Geological Survey was in fact formed in 1879. We are 130 years old as an organization. But I did some historical research, actually when I first came back to the USGS about a year and a half ago. And I found what I believe to be the birth date of the systematic topographic mapping program of the United States. And actually Anne Castle, our previous speaker, referred to it. And so it is from that date that we are measuring the 125 years of the geological survey.

And so, this man, our second director, John Wesley Powell, Major John Wesley Powell, service in the Union Army during the Civil War, on December 5th, 1884, with these bold words, asked Congress for the first appropriation to do a systematic nationwide mapping effort. He said, “A government cannot do any scientific work of more value to the people at large than by causing the construction of proper topographic maps of the country.” And with that, the national mapping program was born. Powell went on to say in his testimony that for one-third of the US Geological Survey’s budget, which at the time, one-third of the budget was $170,000, he would deliver, in sixteen years, nationwide systematic topographic mapping.

You can recognize 16 years from 1884 isn’t 1992 when we actually did finish systematic mapping. However, to Powell’s credit, I will say, when he described the national mapping program, he talked about a series of maps at scales that were generally much smaller scale than what was finally adopted by the Geological Survey in the 1930s. Powell’s maps were at scales of one to 62,500, one to 125,000, and one to 250,000. So a more manageable task. You do probably know that in the 1930s we adopted one to 24,000 scale as the standard map scale. And that’s a very much finer resolution of detail. So a much more complicated project.

Now, I will say, I’d like to introduce another character from our past, Henry Gannet. In an article in 2007 in American Surveyor magazine, they referred to him as the quad father. If you’re familiar with our map format, you know we call them quadrangles or quads, for short. It was really Henry Gannet who laid out that scheme and hence the title, the quad father. I don’t mean to diminish his, his contributions with humor, but I, this is a celebration and I will try to keep it a little light. He was a remarkable man. Not nearly as well known as John Wesley Powell, but I would argue in many ways equally as effective.

He was first the topographer for the Hayden survey. You may know there were four great western surveys done prior to the surveys being joined together in an organization called the Geological Survey. One of those surveys was the Hayden survey. And on that survey, Henry Gannet served as the topographer. When the USGS was formed in 1879, he joined immediately upon the creation of the organization, and served as the chief geographer for the USGS. He served with the USGS until his death, which I believe was 1914. He was a very dynamic leader, not just in his technical abilities but in his organizational skills.

He was one of six founding members, along with John Wesley Powell, of the National Geographic Society, which is represented here today by a couple of folks, including the chief cartographer, who was introduced earlier. He also was one of the founding members of our largest professional society for geography in the United States, the American Association of Geographers. Member of the Cosmos Club. The Cosmos Club, if you’re familiar with it in Washington, DC, was formed with Powell, with Gannet, I believe—I’m drawing a blank—Alexander Graham Bell and others were involved in that formation.

And the Cosmos Club continues today and there are probably members in the room here today. It’s a Washington landmark. Just a few more words about Mr. Gannet here. He saw very early on the need to standardize geographic place names across the United States. And he along with TC Mendenhall, another former director of the geological survey, organized the first board on geographic names. That board continues to exist today. I am the Department of Interior’s representative to the board of geographic names. Gannet served as its leader for more than 20 years, and really set the course for what has been a very effective course of events standardizing geographic place names in the United States.

And if you happened to read the Washington Post on Sunday, there was an article in there about Prince George’s County and whether or not Prince George’s should have an apostrophe, the possessive apostrophe. And our own Lou Yost, from the Board of Geographic Names here in the Geological Survey, was quoted with his opinion in that article. Lou gets a lot more press than I do. I think there’s a lesson for me there. So Powell was not alone. He had a team of really dynamic people around him, including Henry Gannet.

And I saw a quote that was from our president, past president, Abraham Lincoln, that I think aptly describes the kind of character Henry Gannet was, and those who were with him at the time. Abraham Lincoln said that “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” And that’s very much the case for the early pioneers here in the US Geological Survey. There were other pioneers along the way who kept the USGS at the forefront of the mapping sciences, some of whom are depicted on the posters behind the screen and hanging in the Art hallway at our exhibit.

Some of whom are in the room with us today, and we have introduced several of those, but there are many others who have dedicated their careers to our mission. We treasure our heritage and we recognize our responsibilities to build on the tremendous legacy that we have. The USGS mapping program has been a success because thousands of employees over 125 years have given their heart and soul to the mission of mapping America. And it really shows in the love of the work that people here in this organization have. I’ll step aside from my script for a personal anecdote here.

Just to say, I arrived here first at the US Geological Survey in 1993. And I had worked in a number of other federal organizations both military and civilian, and I thought I had been in organizations with high morale and high esprit de corps. And I have to tell you, the first three months I wandered around the halls of the Geological Survey, I was dumbstruck by how dedicated, how enthusiastic, and how much the people who work here love their jobs. I thought I had seen high esprit de corps. I didn’t know what that meant until I came here to the Geological Survey. I value our employees greatly.

You will meet two employee representatives later today in the program, along with a distinguished retiree who will be receiving an award to recognize the work of all of their colleagues, both present and past, and we honor that tradition. For those of you who have a deeper history, or have a deeper interest in our history than I’ll be able to cover here today, I want to let you know that we have just published a very nice document. This is it. There are many of these out on one of the tables in the exhibit hall, and you’re welcome to pick one up and take it with you.

Actually, the next three slides I have have quotes that come directly from this document, and they’re quite humorous. And it’s very enlightening. I will just give a little history of this particular publication. It’s the, it is the history of the national mapping program from its inception till about 1952 or three. And then it stopped. Why are we publishing it now, in 2009? For more than 50 years, this sat as an unpublished manuscript in Rolla, Missouri, and Lynn Usery [ph], one of our senior researchers, found it and said, This needs to be made public.

He edited it, he got it through the process, and now it’s an official USGS publication. It is also available on the web. If you don’t want to carry a book with you, you can get it off of our website. So I’ll show you some of the interesting quotes and a few pictures. First, let’s talk a little bit about the work force of the Geological Survey around the turn of the century. This is a photograph of a field crew, and most of our workers were field crew. This is in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, and a pretty rugged, hardy-looking group. And a pretty gallant as well, if you look at their body posture and the way they’re posing and the way they way their hats.

They’re obviously proud of their circumstances. What were the characteristics that allowed them to be selected to be a USGS topographer and work in the field? Well, according to this history, the selection criteria included qualifications such as a sturdy physique, experience in packing loads on the back, familiarity with boats and the general habits of rough camp life. Travel was variously by dig team, canoe, raft, pack train, and on foot. And these folks lived in these conditions for most of the year. When it would get so cold and the snow so deep that they could no longer work, they’d return to [sic] the field, do their office work, and then in the spring, return.

And they spent the bulk of their careers living in conditions very much like this. Now, I’ll talk a little bit about technology and use this slide as an example of one of the technologies that USGS employed in the early days. You may know that USGS was instrumental in the development of both aerial and ground photography in the science of mapping and the development of photogrammetry. You may not know, but I’ll say, and you also may know that the USGS was, I believe, one of the first organizations to design, build, and fly a lidar sensor more than 20, 30 years ago, I think?

So very technologically advanced. We led many developments in the geographic information industry. We also led developments in the buggy wheel and rag technology. And that’s what you see here. Those are topographers being drawn by a horse. And I’ll read again from our history. It says, “The topographer would drive over the roads with a plane table in his lap,” And a plane table was a device used for sketching contours, “and sketched the contours. He determined his locations and distances by counting the revolutions of a rag tied to the front wheel of the buggy.”

“This method did not possess the apparent luxurious ease. In front of the seated topographer was a harnessed horse, who perhaps could not stand still, and in fly time, May to September, “so, biting flies, “the horse kept up a continuous tap dance.” So there’s your topographer with a plane table, trying to sketch contours and the horse is doing his jig. So, if you look closely at the seat of this carriage, you’ll see the emblazoned letters USGS. This was one of our early vehicles. Pack train. We talked, I mentioned earlier that travel was often by mule, and this is an example of that.

This is a USGS field crew on Mount Goddard in California, probably again around the turn of the century, with a mule train. Again, some comments about measuring distances. So this, I should say, that the USGS is known for accuracy, and it’s our standards that have allowed us to achieve that accuracy. Here’s an early standard that perhaps has a little humorous connotation to it, but nonetheless was true, and used. “Where the terrain had considerable relief, the topographer dismounted and measured distances by pacing. He was warned not to count mule paces, as that cagey critter traveled away from camp with a reluctant shortened step and towards camp with a springy step several inches longer.”

So what was the vision that Powell and Gannet laid out, and where did it go over the centuries? This is a graph that shows you the number of 24,000 scale maps that were produced between about 1935, when we first introduced that scale, and the early 1990s, when it was completed. And what you see is 54,000 map sheets at a scale of 1 to24,000. Now I say 1 to24,000. I know there are experts out there who know in Puerto Rico it’s 1 to20,000, in Alaska, it’s 1 to63,360, and there may still be a few metric quads out there at 1 to25,000, although I think we converted most of those back.

But generally the 1to 24,000 scale series. So 54,000 map sheets. We estimate each map took between 600 and a thousand hours to create. If you multiply those numbers out, you realize that the US Geological Survey over that 55-year period invested more than 35 million hours creating the database of topographic maps that we completed in the 1990s. Quite—it’s amazing that a government program could have that level of perseverance and stick-to-it-iveness and focus during a period—I mean, think of the changes that occurred in our country between 1935 and 1990.

We had several wars. World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War I. We landed man on the moon. The internet was born. And through all of that, this organization kept its focus on creating that base product for the country. Now obviously technology changed over those years and advanced, but the product was very similar. So where do we go next? What’s next? If you look back at this slide, it looks like we finished, and we could all dust off our hands and go home. Well, that’s not true.

What we did, in the 90s and culminating in 2001, is develop a plan for topographic mapping in the 21st century. And we published it through a much peer-reviewed process in this document you see here called the National Map, Topographic Mapping for the 21st Century. What it described was a need for seamless, continuously maintained nationally consistent set of base geographic data, developed and maintained through partnerships, serving as a national foundation for science, available over the internet, and the source for revised new topographic maps.

Between 2001 and 2008, we did a pretty good job on most of that. We didn’t do a whole lot on the new topographic map part until 2008, and Kari Craun, who follows me, will speak to what we’ve done in 2008. It is a remarkable set of accomplishments related to revitalizing the topographic map series. Why is it important that we have a national mapping program? I’ll just give you two thoughts of mine. One is that, and again, I love quotes, so I’ll, this is one of my favorite quotes. Thomas Jefferson, more than 225 years ago, said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” I think that was very profound.

And we in the Geological Survey believe that geographic information, that is, maps and all of their digital counterparts which describe our nation’s landscape and infrastructure, are an important part of the information that citizens need in order to participate in an informed way in our democratic system. Perhaps more directly our products contribute to the science of the USGS in all of the disciplines, biology, water, geology, assuring that the Department of Interior, our Assistant Secretary and her colleagues, have the best available science to make science-based decisions when they make decisions regarding land and resource management for the United States.

Two last slides. This is from a wonderful book written by Donald Worster [ph], who actually spoke in this room about six years ago on his book. The title of the book was From a River Running West. It’s a biography of John Wesley Powell. This quote appears on the last page of the book. It says, about Powell, “Dogged in hope, driving in energy, he remained to the end incapable of imagining that his native country would ever fail in its promise.” And I see employees in our organization every day who bear those same characteristics.

And that’s why the US Geological Survey has had 125 years of success. Interestingly, Powell is seated at the same desk that sits upstairs in Marsha McNutt’s office, that she sits at. And just one last slide. This is a website that you’ll see again, but if you’re interested in more about us, This is the, the photograph is John Wesley Powell and his crew going ready to launch down the Green and Colorado Rivers for their exploration, really of the Grand Canyon.

It’s a fantastic story, and it does put me in mind of one last quote. The famous Roman Classic poet, Virgil, recorded in about the year 50 BC, a very profound statement. He said, “Fortune favors the brave.” That has certainly been true for Powell, and I would argue, also true in the history of the USGS topographic mapping program. Thank you very much. [applause]


Title: History of USGS Topographic Mapping


On December 3, 2009, more than 300 people gathered at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) headquarters in Reston, Virginia, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of USGS topographic mapping. The ceremony opened with a special production by Duke Ellington School of the Arts Concert Chorale, and continued with presentations featuring discussions:

  • on the benefits of topographic maps,
  • the history of USGS topographic mapping,
  • the announcement of the new USGS digital topographic map product (US Topo)
  • the introduction of the new National Map Viewer  
  • advise on future directions from Dr. David Cowan
  • and concluded with some special award presentations and a display of historic pictures and artifacts

Location: Reston, VA, USA

Date Taken: 12/3/2009

Length: 20:17

Video Producer: U.S. Geological Survey

Note: This video has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in its entirety. Some videos may contain pieces of copyrighted material. If you wish to use a portion of the video for any purpose, other than for resharing/reposting the video in its entirety, please contact the Video Producer/Videographer listed with this video. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this video.


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