The Evolution And Application Of GIS In Surveying

Land IdThe Evolution And Application Of GIS In Surveying


By Land id

Mar 10, 2022

The earliest known land surveyors walked the Earth all the way back in 1,400 B.C., and while much about surveying has stayed the same, the tools and methodologies they used have changed a great deal since then. One of the biggest advancements? GIS. 

While modern surveyors no longer have to rely on ropes and stakes to gather data, they do have more of it to manage. Luckily, the application of GIS in surveying can make a huge difference. With GIS technology available at the ready, surveyors can do more with their data than ever before. 

Below, we’ll walk you through the history of land surveying, covering its origin, the tools land surveyors have used, and the application of GIS in surveying today.  

The Evolution Of Surveying

1400 B.C. 

The earliest known surveyors, dating all the way back to 1,400 B.C. Egypt, would measure distances by stretching a piece of rope treated with beeswax and resin. This surveying method earned them the name “harpedonaptae,” which translates quite literally to “rope stretchers”. While it wasn’t the most technologically advanced method, it got the job done. 

400 B.C. 

While it may have been a Greek invention (we’ll likely never know for sure), the Groma became a trademark of Roman surveyors as early as 400 B.C. The instrument contains a vertical staff with horizontal cross-pieces, which surveyors used to survey straight lines and right angles (making it a good option for assessing rectangular pieces of land).  

300 - 200 B.C.

The magnetic compass was born during China’s Han or Qin Dynasty, between 300 and 200 BC. Like the application of GIS in surveying, the applications of the magnetic compass in surveying weren’t discovered until later on – the device was initially used for spiritual activities such as fortune-telling and Feng Shui.

120 B.C. 

Around 120 B.C., the Greeks were hard at work. In addition to using geometry to facilitate more precise land division, they also invented a surveying tool called the diopter, a device using a cogwheel and water level to make terrestrial and astronomical measurements.


Another surveying milestone was reached in 1086 England when William the Conqueror ordered the creation of a “Domesday Book”. The book included expansive records of land and landholding in England, and is the largest and most in-depth land survey we have of pre-industrial society. 


English mathematician Leonard Diggs is largely credited with the invention of the theodolite after describing (and naming) it in his 1571 book, Pantometria. The tool helped surveyors measure horizontal and vertical angles using a tripod and a compass (later replaced by a telescope), increasing the precision of land surveys immensely. 


While the concept of triangulation had been around for some time, it wasn’t until 1615 that Dutch mathematician Willebrord Snell popularized using this technique to measure long distances. With triangulation, surveyors gather measurements for one side of a triangle, then use math to accurately determine the length of the other two sides based on the angles. 


Gunter’s chain, named after its 1620 inventor Edmund Gunter, was an incredibly influential surveying tool in the colonial period and 1800s – in fact, much of the US and Canada were surveyed using this device. Gunter’s chain is 66 feet long, consists of 100 links, and is used to measure distances. 80 chains equal one mile, and 10 square chains equal an acre.

The 1800s 

Surveying is crucial in the planning and development of cities, roads, and railways, so when the industrial revolution came about, the demand for land surveys exploded. 

The Application Of GIS In Surveying

GIS and surveying go hand in hand. At their core, surveys are about gathering spatial information, and GIS is used to manage, analyze, and visualize spatial data. Accordingly, the invention of GIS was a game-changer for the surveying industry – and there isn’t just one application of GIS in surveying. GIS can be used to enhance every stage of a surveying project. 

To start, before a surveyor heads out to the field, they have to do a great deal of planning and research, during which GIS will be of huge assistance. GIS stores and gathers information from prior surveys, allowing professionals to quickly locate and access important documents. 

After the surveyor has located the information they need to get started, GIS technology will once again come in handy. Professionals can upload raw data such as measurements and sketches directly into the application, and the technology will allow them to locate individual features with incredible accuracy, instantly determine areas, and create precise maps using the survey data gathered. 

And in addition to storing and visualizing data, manipulating data is yet another application of GIS in surveying. Not only can surveyors change the data’s format for use elsewhere, they can also integrate other data sources, allowing them to make decisions based on a more comprehensive view of the land. 

Modernize Your Surveys With Land id™

The art of surveying has evolved quite a bit since it first emerged in ancient Greece. We went from ropes and stakes, to rudimentary technology, to the advanced GIS-based tools we see today. While conducting a survey is still no small feat, the right technology can go a long way in simplifying the process. 

Land id’s (formerly MapRight) intuitive GIS mapping software offers everything professionals need to facilitate a quick, accurate, and incredibly easy survey. With Land id™, you can upload any data you need – prior surveys, coordinate locations, parcel data, topographic maps – you name it. You can easily draw shapes, create boundary lines, and measure distances from your device, allowing you to map out your survey exactly how you want. And with the buffer and cut tool, you can divide properties and draw buffers around boundary lines to further personalize your map. 

So, are you ready for a simpler surveying process? Start your 7-day free trial of Land id™ today!

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