The 50th Anniversary of GIS

Some events, like birthdays, weddings, and graduations, are easy to mark on the calendar. Others, like the beginning of a social movement, or a language—or the invention of GIS—are harder to pinpoint. However, the confluence of three pivotal events in 1962 and 1963 makes this as good a time as any to celebrate a half century of GIS.

The first event was the establishment of the Canada Land Inventory (CLI) in 1962. The CLI set out to produce about 1,500 maps of land use and land capabilities at 1:50,000 and 1:250,000 scales. Though the maps were made by traditional manual methods, Roger Tomlinson (then employed by Spartan Air Services of Ottawa) convinced the head of CLI that computers could be used to automate map analysis. CLI invited Tomlinson to define the functional requirements of what would later be called the Canada Geographic Information System. His carefully considered use of the qualifier “geographic” caught on, and has created opportunities and challenges for the discipline of geography ever since.

“Typical Non-Automatic Tracing Type Transcription Device coupled to an IBM 526 Card Punch.”  In Feasibility Report of Computer Mapping System, 1963.We’ve come a long way, baby: “Typical Non-Automatic Tracing
Type Transcription Device coupled to an IBM 526 Card Punch.”
In Feasibility Report of Computer Mapping System, 1963.

In August 1963, just as Tomlinson delivered his feasibility report to the CLI, Edward Horwood of the University of Washington organized the “First Annual Conference on Urban Planning Information Systems and Programs.” Within a few years, that event became the annual conference of a new organization called the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA). “Urban and Regional Information Systems” eventually became known as Geographic Information Systems, and the 50th annual URISA conference—now called “GIS-Pro”—takes place in 2012.

Horwood spent most of a month at Northwestern University in 1963 teaching a short course about computer handling and mapping of census data. One participant in that course was Howard Fisher, an architect who taught planning and design at Northwestern. Fisher was inspired to develop his own computer mapping system, and with the help of programmer Betty Benson, soon developed a working prototype of SYMAP. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Fisher later founded the Laboratory for Computer Graphics at Harvard, where he oversaw an important strand of the evolution of computer mapping into GIS.

Whether we choose these milestones or others as the origins of GIS, the fact remains that GIS has come a long way, baby, in a relatively short period of time. Its impact extends far beyond the hundreds of thousands of GIS professionals at work around the world. The recent Penn State–Public Broadcasting video series Geospatial Revolution dramatizes the far-reaching impact of GIS and related technologies on how we think, act, and interact. At its 50th anniversary, GIS has itself become a kind of movement, and a kind of language.

More information:

An Introduction to the Use of Electronic Computers in the Storage, Compilation and Assessment of Natural and Economic Data for the Evaluation of Marginal Lands, by Roger Tomlinson.  1962.  “This is the paper that started the work on GIS in the Government of Canada.” — Roger Tomlinson

Feasibility Report of Computer Mapping System, by Roger Tomlinson.  Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Administration, Department of Agriculture, Government of Canada, August 1963.

An Introduction to the Geo-Information System of the Canada Land Inventory, by Roger Tomlinson. 1967.

A Geographic Information System for Regional Planning, by Roger Tomlinson. August 1968.

“The Canada Geographic Information System,” by Roger Tomlinson. In Timothy Foresman, Ed. The History of Geographic Information Systems: Perspectives from the Pioneers. Prentice Hall, 1998.

Charting the Unknown: How Computer Mapping at Harvard Became GIS, by Nick Chrisman. Esri Press, 2006.

An Early Excursion into Computational Geography, by Duane Marble. Unpublished manuscript, 2010.

David DiBiase

About David DiBiase

David DiBiase leads the Education Team within Esri’s Industry Solutions group. The Team promotes and supports GIS use to enrich teaching and learning at all levels, in formal and informal settings, domestically and internationally. Before joining Esri, David founded and led the Penn State Online GIS Certificate and Masters (MGIS) degree programs.
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4 Comments

  1. bigtex44 says:

    Many thanks for providing me and so many others such enjoyable and interesting employment…

  2. thadabroad says:

    How time flies… it seems like only yesterday, I was staring at my ArcView 3.0… 50 years later, it doesn’t look a day over 10!

  3. azolnai says:

    Great recap, I found some of Roger’s vids & postsd them here:
    http://blog.zolnai.ca/2010/07/bit-of-gis-history.html?m=1

  4. smcdonell says:

    Great summary but lets not forget why we have GIS, as well as how we got it. “Design with Nature” by Ian McHarg in 1969 helped to formalise the philosophical and conceptual framework that we build GIS on. Lets include him in this celebration…