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Surveying is one of the oldest and diverse professions in the world, dating back thousands of years. Many forms of land surveying have been done since ancient man in all major civilizations across the globe. The ancient Egyptians set one of the first examples while building the Great Pyramid at Giza in 2700 BC. We have evidence that Egyptians used basic geometry to redraw boundary lines when the Nile overflowed its banks. For that purpose, they used simple tools to create straight lines and angles.

While the fundamentals and essentials of land surveying have not changed over the centuries, the techniques and methods have vastly improved. Up until the early 1900s most land surveyors had access to little more than a level, tape measure and a theodolite. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark achieved remarkable surveys traveling up the Missouri River and across the western frontier to Oregon before returning to Missouri with the same simple instruments.

Possibly, one of the best known characters in land surveying history was Napoleon Bonaparte, who aspired to conduct accurate land surveying and produce very precise maps. While in pursuit of expanding his territory he used land and property maps drawn at 1:2500 (1” on the map = 2,500’ ground distance) and 1:1250 (1” on the map = 1,250’ ground distance), considered large-scale cadastral maps today. Each map of this type represents the associated cadaster information, or legal record of real estate including the property extent, ownership and taxable value. 

Cadastral surveys and maps were widely used in past eras despite mapping problems and changes in built-up and more populated areas, as we still find today. As new technology has become available techniques and land survey methods have also advanced. These days, land surveyors use more accurate field measurement and data collection tools. Cadastral maps, which are valuable tools to modern surveyors, are often made publicly available online.

Modern land surveyors have access to some of the most advanced and sophisticated tools in the world. Total Station Theodolites (TST) are now commonly used in modern land surveying. We also use electronic distance measurement devices (EDM) that allow us greater measurement precision, Robotic Total Stations (RTS) for automating measurements, and global positioning systems (GPS) for determining ground coordinates in real-time.

A public land surveyor in our very own Helena community played a significant role in the history of advancing the land survey and mapping professions. Rj Zimmer “Zim,” PLS (1952-2015), demonstrated and promoted improvements to collection and accuracy of mapping land survey data. He was a leader and mentor in bridging the gap between surveying and cadastral mapping professions.

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Zim gave much of his time and expertise to improve map data accuracy and land surveys, to assist our emergency services, and to teach the art and science of geographical information systems (GIS). His articles were published in professional journals, he authored many training manuals, and Zim wrote two landmark books on the topics of surveying, GPS and GIS. In his final years, Zim achieved his master’s degree in geomatics engineering (University of New Brunswick, CA) and taught GIS courses as an adjunct faculty member of Carroll College in Helena, Montana.

Readers interested in commemorating Zim’s life and professional contributions at the Rj Zimmer Memorial Tree and Dedication Ceremony June 7 in Helena are welcome to call 459-0324 for more information, and send their RSVP to rjzimmermemorial@gmail.com. See http://magip.org/Memorial for the latest updates.

Jonathan Ries represents the Central Chapter of the Montana Association of Registered Land Surveyors.

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