40 Years of Change in Land Surveying

This picture is of my Dad, Johnny Earl Maxwell (middle), my brother Joel (right), and an Uncle who’s land they were surveying. Joel is the only one of us who didn’t survey professionally. My brother Allen and I both followed in Dad’s footsteps to become land surveyors. But we were all introduced to this life early. As soon as we could chop a limb with a bush axe we were on the survey party. We learned to look back and stay on line, to tape distances, and to listen to orders barked out by Dad. “Your other left” being his favorite. “Right a hair,” a couple hundredths or “right a fuzz,” less than a hair, were measurements we also learned. We learned hand signals, because if there were radios, Dad was too cheap to buy them. Of course we would have run the batteries down playing with them anyway. But, beside the personal memories, I wanted to talk about the changes that have taken place in Land Surveying in the last 40 years or so.

Land Surveying Equipment

One of the first things I notice from this mid to late 70’s picture is that we, like most other surveyors, used a Surveyor’s Transit. I went with Dad to buy this used one, for about $700 at the time. Considering that in 1976 he bought a brand new pickup for $3,000, this was a lot of money. This instrument required you to read a vernier to obtain both the horizontal and vertical angles, to the nearest 20 seconds if I recall.

The distances were measured with a 100-foot steel tape. After lots of practice, and measuring the distance twice, we could probably get to within a tenth of a foot accuracy.

All the field notes were taken in a field book and then we hand calculated the traverse closure with latitude and departures. The drawings were done by hand with a protractor and scale.

Today we use a Total Station, which is a combination theodolite, electronic distance meter, and a data collector. Everything is digital and stored for you in the data collector, usually to the nearest second or two and the hundredth of a foot. This data produces coordinates which are then transferred to the computer for final drafting.

GPS on Railroad Track

All of this is much more precise than the older methods, and I haven’t even mentioned GPS yet. GPS has taken coordinates and precision to a whole other level. But thick tree canopy is still kryptonite to GPS.

Another recent invention is the Laser Scanner, which I re-posted a video about on Facebook recently. I may write an article about this instrument at a later time, but it’s a game changer for many applications, primarily as-built surveys.

Land Surveying Software

As I mentioned above, we wrote down all of our measurements in a field book, and then used a simple trig calculator to calculate latitudes (change in easting) and departures (change in northing) between two points. From this you would add up all of these changes for each line and hopefully get back to Zero. The error you got was the linear closure error. We summed the interior angles to compare to “(n-2) x 180 degrees”. And then the drawing was done by hand. Area was calculated by the DMD, double meridian distance method, a very long hand calculation process.

Today we have the data collectors attached or built-in to the Total Station and then can transfer that data directly to the computer, directly into a Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) program. Closure is checked in the program, then we either make some adjustments, or go on to connect the dots and then automatically label the bearings and distances of the boundary lines. Acreage is calculated with the push of a button. The legal description can also be written almost automatically, except for a few personal preference edits.

Surveying Precision is Better

The definition of precision is “the repeat-ability of a certain measurement.” With more and more precise measuring tools, the closer you can get to the actual measurement of an angle or a line. This then gives more precise area measurements. All measurements have errors. But, generally, the more precise your measurements, the more probable your accuracy, or “closeness to the actual measurement” you should be.

This is a good thing considering that the value of land is extremely more than 40 years ago. Even small mistakes now are a big deal. When distances were measured with a Gunters’ chain, measurements were within one link, about 8 inches, or 0.66 feet. Today we should be 30 times better.

Land Surveyors are Different

Of course, the old man is older still today, but that’s not what I mean. Land Surveyors today are expected to have MUCH more knowledge than in years past. In most states a 4-year land surveying degree is required to become a land surveyor. In addition, the experience required is increased.

A surveyor is also expected to have a clear understanding of the laws that govern land surveying today. There are many cases from the courts that have changed the way land disputes are decided, and surveyors must stay up to speed on these. But there are also older legal principles which haven’t changed over the years. And, I personally think that we as surveyors haven’t done enough study of this facet of land surveying. There are a few issues today that divide land surveyors as to the proper way to handle them. One, for example, is the division of a section into aliquot parts. Should you re-measure the entire section out with our more precise methods and re-divide the section into quarter-quarters, or should we hold to corners long accepted as the quarter-quarter corners? I believe the latter, but there are those who will debate me on that.


Is land surveying better today, or are land surveyors better? Well, we have better equipment and software, and we have access to more knowledge than ever before. So, it’s possible for us to do a better job and faster, but it still takes a conscientious and studious practitioner to be a better land surveyor.

J. Keith Maxwell is a Land Surveyor and Civil Engineer in Alabama. He started surveying in the Cheaha mountain area of the state and has since gotten out of the woods completely, mainly sending others out. He feels it’s much nicer looking back fondly than actually being out there chopping bushes.