Surveyors Know Better

"It ain’t the things we don’t know that get us into trouble.
It is the things we know that ain’t so."
Josh Billings (pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw)

As you might imagine, writing a column like ANTEPASADOS requires a lot of reading. Borrowing from the "experts", the folks that write books to inform others, has its pitfalls as this writer has had plenty of opportunity to observe, for even the experts make claims that vindicate Josh Billings.

Over the years I have taken note of some of these misconceptions and saved them for my readers. But since I am subject to misconceptions of my own, I ask those who disagree with my comments to let me know if it "ain’t so".

1. Only the invention of the compass made it possible to navigate out of sight of the coast line.

This widely held opinion is not supported by historic evidence. Sea faring men have always challenged the open sea regardless of distance from land, compass or no compass.

2. The compass needle points to the magnetic pole.

The compass needle aligns itself with the direction of the local magnetic field and can point to just about anywhere.

3. A bearing defines the direction of a line at any point.

This is true only if that line is a meridian or the equator. A bearing is the horizontal angle, which a line makes with a reference meridian. Unless the point of origin of direction is indicated, bearing alone has little meaning.

4. An east-west line is a straight line.

Unless an east-west line lies on the equator it is a curve.

5. Centigrade is just another name for degree Celsius.

The original Celsius scale set the freezing point of water at 100 degrees and the boiling point at 0 degrees. In 1743 this was reversed and called centigrade because of the 100-step interval. In 1948 and in honor of the Swedish inventor Anders Celsius (1701-1744) the centigrade scale was renamed Celsius making the designation Centigrade an anachronism.

6. Columbus made his famous voyage to prove that the world is round.

By 1492 most educated persons knew that the earth was a sphere, the arguments were only about the size of it. Only because he underestimated the circumference of the globe did Columbus attempt to reach India by sailing west.

7. At noon Universal Time (U.T.) the sun crosses the Greenwich Meridian.

U.T. is the same as Greenwich Civil Time. Civil time is based on a celestial object (mean sun) that does not exist. The real sun and the imaginary mean sun coincide on the meridian only four times a year. The difference between the two is known as the Equation of Time.

8. At the equator the sun passes daily through the zenith.

For a given moment in time solar declination is the same for any point on earth. At the equator the sun passes through the zenith only on the equinoxes when the declination is zero.

9. The twenty-first century starts on January 1, 2000.

On January 1, 2000 only 1999 years have elapsed since the reckoning of time (the year 1 BC was followed by 1 AD, there was no year 0). Therefore the new millennium starts after midnight on January 1, 2001.

10. A township in the public land surveys is six miles square.

Not if it is surveyed according to statute, that requires the boundaries to be formed by meridians and (implied) parallels. This makes a township a trapezoid.

11. The surveyors chain was invented by Edmund Gunter.

The English astronomer Edmund Gunter (1581-1626) devised the chain unit of 66 feet, consisting of 100 links. The chain as a measuring tool was known before his time.

12. Galileo invented the telescope.

The telescope was invented in 1608 by Hans Lippershey, a spectacle maker in Middleburg, Holland. A year later, after he had learned of the invention, Galileo did however construct his own telescope.

13. Vernier invented the vernier scale.

Pierre Vernier (1580-1637), French mathematician, only improved on an invention by Pedro Nunes (1492-1577), Portuguese mathematician, who first build the device to graduate instruments known to us as vernier. In many other countries our "vernier" is called after Nunes’ latinized name "nonius".

14. The metric system is a product of the French revolution.

The metric system was proposed more than a hundred years earlier in 1670 by Gabriel Mouton, the vicar of St. Paul’s Church in Lyons, France. Despite legislation by the republican Directory in 1795, later repealed by Napoleon, its use became mandatory in France only during the reign of Louis Philippe in 1840.

15. An inch is defined as the twelfth part of a foot.

It is the other way around; the foot is defined in terms of inches. Since 1959 the inch is defined as: 1 inch = 2.54 centimeters exactly. For surveying purposes, the definition that was made by Act of Congress in 1866: 1 meter = 39.37 inches exactly, is still legal in some states (including New Mexico). Note that the 1959 definitions shortens the statute mile by about 1/8 inch.

16. Mount Everest is the worlds highest mountain.

This is true only because heights is measured from sea level. If measured from the center of the spheroid, Chimborazo in Ecuador is about two miles higher and thus sticks further out into space.

17. The Spanish started the practice of granting land in cardinal directions measured from the village church or the town limits.

This argument is laid to rest by Deuteronomy 25: 13-15.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
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