The GIS History Project


David M. Mark, Nicholas Chrisman, Andrew U. Frank, Patrick H. McHaffie, John Pickles

with contributions from

Michael Curry, Jon Goss, Francis Harvey, Ken Hillis, Roger Miller, Eric Sheppard, Dalia Varanka

Authors addresses and affiliations


The GIS History Project was launched in 1996, to attempt to foster and coordinate research on the history of GIS. The Project plans to establish an archive for published, semi-published, and unpublished documents about the early history of GIS. Interviews will be conducted with key individuals, and where possible, will be recorded, transcribed, and archived. The project will also study these materials, looking for evidence of the influences of technical, social, and institutional contexts on innovation in early GIS, and in the diffusion of those innovations. Of particular interest will be the degree on independent re-invention or rediscovery of key ideas, a phenomenon that may be under-played in the literature because of the tendency to claim prior knowledge when it is later discovered that someone else had already come up with the idea. Five case studies have been identified for high priority research: The GBF-DIME files of the US Bureau of the Census; the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis; the Minnesota land Management Information System; Triangulated Irregular Networks for terrain representation; and a comparative study of ESRI and Intergraph, focusing on corporate cultures. This paper presents an overview of The GIS History Project, the methodological framework for the research, the justification for the choice of high priority case studies, and a progress report on the Project in general and the case studies in particular.

1. Introduction

The GIS History Project was launched late in 1996, with the following goals: This Project began as a high priority research theme within the NCGIA's Research Initiative 19, "GIS and Society: The Social Implications of How People, Space, and Environment are Represented in GIS" (Harris and Weiner, 1996). However, The GIS History Project has been conceived as a broad effort to document the history of this technology, and study that history from many methodological perspectives. In this paper, we describe the project and its motivations. Then we will present some high-priority case studies for the project, and give a preliminary report on each of these.

2. Geographic Information Systems

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are computerized systems for the storage, retrieval, manipulation, analysis, and display of geographically referenced data. Since they can include physical, biological, cultural, demographic, or economic information, they are valuable tools in the natural, social, medical, and engineering sciences, as well as in business and planning. GIS also is a $2 billion per year high technology industry, and the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), base data for GIS, is a key element in the National Information Infrastructure.

At the same time, GIS is a young field. Although its antecedents go back hundreds of years in the fields of cartography and mapping, GIS as such began in the 1960s, and thus many of the individuals involved in the earliest stages of the invention and definition of GIS are alive today. With the maturing of the GIS industry and the development of a "geographic information science" surrounding the technology (Goodchild, 1992), the time is right for a study of the history of GIS based primarily on in-depth interviews with the innovators and founders themselves.

The main goals of our research are to uncover and document the technical, social, and institutional factors that shaped the early development of GIS, and thus have had a major influence on GIS as we know it today. To what extent were alternative representations considered and rejected? What were these "roads not taken"? In what ways did institutional mandates, or computing environments, influence choices in how to implement GIS? What were the formal and informal public/private partnerships and influences at the time? And to what extent were ideas being exchanged at the time, or being independently re-invented? Our findings should have implications beyond the GIS field per se, and we hope to be able to make generalizations about key factors in the birth and development of computing technologies more generally.

At the heart of the research we propose are two questions central to NCGIA Initiative 19. First, how have particular logics and visualization techniques, value systems, forms of reasoning, and ways of understanding the world been incorporated into existing GIS techniques and in what ways have alternative forms of representation been filtered out. In this first issue, we wish to clarify the nature of the development paths taken within GIS and to map out possible alternatives that are or may be available. Addressing the choices made and the possibilities not chosen will require a detailed textual reading of the debates and decisions about system choices and foundational logics within GIS over the past 35 years, using interviews, published papers and books, conference proceedings, and private papers. The aim here will be a thorough investigation of representational logics within spatial data handling technologies, with particular attention being paid to the ways in which we can incorporate alternative cultural and social conceptions of social and natural objects (property, land, resource relational values, historical meaning) within GIS, and the possibilities for extending GIS to incorporate new ways of understanding the world. In this regard, we will pay particular attention to the extent to which GIS privilege particular conceptions and forms of knowledge, knowing, and language, and the extent to which it is possible in electronic imaging systems to develop the kind of reflexivity that many see as essential to a critical social science. But, as well as considering the ways current systems enable and/or constrain particular representational paradigms, we also will investigate the possibilities and challenges that new technologies such as virtual reality and multimedia pose for current theories of representation.

Second, in what ways have particular systems and uses of GIS resulted in differential levels of access to information. Specifically, we will address the need for a historical analysis of the ways in which GIS have developed and diffused (who funded development, what options were considered and rejected, what institutional and intellectual linkages were forged in the development of GIS, etc.) and empirical analysis of contemporary patterns of production, marketing, and use. The project also deals with the institutional settings within which GIS is practiced and asks to what ends is GIS put, and what notions of access, representation, and use underpin these practices.

3. Critical History of GIS

At the Initiative 19 Specialist Meeting in Minnesota (March 1996; see Harris and Weiner, 1996), researchers identified three research areas as components of a critical social history of GIS. The first involves precursors and preconditions for the development of GIS. These include the intellectual and technological prehistory of GIS, and premodern and early forms of GIS. These issues require a 'deep history' of how systems of representing geographic information developed, such as metrication, land surveys, military surveillance, and mapping expeditions. That is, what were the precursors and ways of understanding the world that provided the conditions of possibility for GIS to emerge in the forms that did? A second area of importance in the history of GIS is the history of applications of GIS in different cultural and political economic contexts. As noted above, GIS is not a single, homogenous set of technologies and practices. There is enormous internal variation within the rubric captured by GIS, and there are important differences in the ways in which GIS functions as a social practice. That is, there is a sociology, political economy, and geography of GIS development and use. In this part of the research we propose to study some of the ways in which different geographical, institutional, and social settings have produced different types of GIS theory and practice.

The third key area is the development of contemporary GIS software and data. Although some new GISs have been developed starting with a clean slate, current GIS is dominated by software and data models whose intellectual and conceptual lineage can be traced directly back to innovations in the 1960s. The nature of current GIS cannot be fully understood without a historical perspective on how it got to be the way it is.

We have decided to focus on this third area during the initial period of the project. For a variety of reasons, the early case studies focus on the development of contemporary GIS in the United States. However, the broader "GIS History Project" will foster research on the first two topics above, and will attempt to study GIS History in other countries, especially in Canada and in Europe. Topics identified for study in the development of contemporary geographic information systems include (but are not restricted to): choices of technology and logics along the way; public-private relations in the development of GIS technology; the political economic context of the development of GIS; the marketing of GIS technology; the representation of women in the GIS community; and the different institutional contexts of GIS use (research, marketing, defense, etc.).

4. Significance

Geographic Information Systems (GISs) were developed in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily in the public sector. In the 1970s and 1980s, a vigorous GIS industry developed, with clear US leadership. GIS software, data, and services are a $2 billion industry at present (Frost and Sullivan, 1995), and the industry is believed to be growing at about 20 per cent each year (Frost and Sullivan, 1995). GIS also has had a major influence on the discipline of Geography in the 1980s and 1990s, variously seen as a critical factor in reviving academic geography (for example, see Abler, 1988) or an unhealthy influence that distorts the discipline.

In the 1990s, a literature critical of GIS technology has emerged, raising questions of ethics, equity, technological biases, access, and privacy, to name a few. Recently, a literature reviewing the early history of GIS also has developed, although almost all of this is autobiographical in nature. GIS is maturing: it is being criticized as it is institutionalized in academic and government settings and is widely used in private corporations; the story of its institutionalization is being written by early developers as they reflect on their careers. This coincidence of a relatively new technology, with most of its founders still alive, and a critical literature with sound theoretical framing, presents a rare opportunity to bring the insights from the critical literature and the experiences of the pioneers of GIS together, to evaluate and interpret the decisions made and the paths taken or abandoned in the institutionalization of a technology.

One important way in which we will be able to investigate how contemporary GIS came to be the way they are is through an ethnographic analysis of contemporary developers and uses. Three 'sites' seem to be particularly important in this regard:

a. Key institutions: Which institutions provided an intellectual and material context for the development of GIS and how did their interests, operations, and ways of life affect the development of technology?

b. Key processes/events: Where were the main critical theoretical and technological turning points in the development of GIS technologies, how did these occur, and how did they affect further development?

c. Key individuals: Who were the main actors in GIS and how did their personal experiences, motivations and decisions affect the evolution of the technology and its institutionalization?

5. Literature Review

5.1. Prior Work on the History of GIS

In the last decade, several works on the history of GIS have been published. Almost all of these have been in the form of 'memoirs' by the participants themselves. These works are very valuable in documenting facts about various early efforts in GIS. This section provides a brief review of those works.

Although a few retrospective case studies had been published earlier, a key early work on the history of GIS was a special 1988 issue of the American Cartographer entitled "Reflections on a Revolution: The Transition from Analogue to Digital Representations of Space, 1958-1988," edited by Roger Tomlinson and Barbara Petchenik. This issue contains several papers that review the early history of key GIS developments. Of particular interest are Tomlinson's (1988) account of the early days of the Canada Geographic Information Systems (CGIS), Dangermond and Smith's (1988) discussion of the early days of Environmental Systems Research Institute, Chrisman's (1988) overview of activities at the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis, and Rhind's (1988) review of activities at the Experimental Cartographic Unit in the United Kingdom. In 1991, The Cartographic Journal published a similar historical special issue, "British Cartography 1987-1991: An Overview"; that, however, focuses more strongly on cartography in a narrow sense, and is less relevant to the current project.

Coppock and Rhind's 1991 book chapter provides one of the few overviews of the history of GIS that cuts across many institutions and attempts to describe activities by many individuals. The paper includes a fascinating chart compiled by Donald Cooke, that shows some of the connections or flows of ideas among place, institutions, systems, and individuals. Like the other works, however, the tone of this chapter is a presentation of facts about people, places, dates, and developments, with relatively little analysis of institutional constraints or social contexts. Still, it provides a valuable compilation of information about many of the early GIS projects.

A key recent work on the history of GIS is a forthcoming book (Fall 1997), edited by Timothy W. Foresman of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The book contains 20 chapters, mostly by people involved in the early days of GIS and related technologies, reflecting on their experiences and the events around them. Donald Cooke's chapter on the GBF-DIME project and the US Bureau of the Census was provided to us by Mr. Cooke (Cooke, in press), and was extremely useful to us in getting our DIME case study started (see sections 7.1 and 7.7, below). We expect that many of the other chapters will be equally valuable to this project.

5.2. Critical Literature on GIS

The first serious engagements between GIS and social theory occurred over issues related to the politics of knowledge and the social impacts of use (Pickles, 1991, 1995; Lake, 1993; Sui, 1994; Miller, 1995; Sheppard, 1995). In his critique of GIS as the new imperialist geography, Taylor (1990, 211-212) suggested that GIS emerged as a two-part strategy on the part of unreconstructed quantifiers who had by-passed the critiques levied against the empiricism of spatial analysis, and at the same time captured the rhetorical ground of a progressivist modernism (or naive post-industrialism) by readily accepting the switch from knowledge to information. Many practitioners of GIS saw these claims as exaggerated at best and false at worst, or, as Openshaw (1991), argued they represent reductionist assertions and derogatory and confrontational language; knockabout stuff that emerges from a reactionary desire to protect a particular system of order and power. Thus, for Openshaw, the crisis to which Taylor points is redefined as contrived and should be replaced by a notion of creative tensions between at times complementary at times competing, but equally productive, intellectual projects.

By the decade of the 1990s, social theorists within the discipline began to take aim at what they saw as the transformative capacities of GIS both in disciplinary and broader social terms. John Pickles' 1991 essay on The Surveillant Society, Derek Gregory's (1994) claim that GIS positivists represented the new Victorians, and Neil Smith's (1992) charge that the war against Iraq-the Gulf War-represented the first GIS war, incensed many practitioners and theorists of GIS. How could these neophytes and outsiders levy such charges, particularly against the only part of the discipline that really exercised rigor in its work and power regarding other disciplines and funding agencies?

The book "Ground Truth: The Social Implications of Geographic Information Systems," edited by Pickles (1995) aimed to locate discussion of these questions in a variety of these possible interpretative frameworks, and thereby to provide illustrations that might lead others to deepen the analysis of the intellectual and practical commitments and impacts of GIS. This was also the goal of the 1995 special issue of Cartography and Geographic Information Systems-GIS and Society-edited by Eric Sheppard (Sheppard, 1995).

The papers in these two collections, as well as workshops held in Friday Harbor, Washington (1993) and South Haven, Minnesota; (1996) were important in the emerging theory of GIS. They led to a set of assumptions that have been absent from debates about GIS until recently. Questions of origins, epistemology, data selection and data access, forms of representation, and the politics and ethics of information have generally been seen as marginal to the more technical questions of systems development and application. At these meetings they were seen as essential for any discussion of GIS and Society. GIS is thus seen as a set of institutionalized systems of data handling and imaging technologies and practices situated within particular economic, political, cultural, and legal structures. They can thus be thought of as spatial data institutions (Curry, 1995) and socio-technological ensembles (Latour, 1993). Understanding GIS as both a set of social practices and institutions embedded in a particular discourse is, perhaps, unique in the history of the engagement between GIS and social theory. Certainly, such social constructionist, genealogical, or post-positivist theoretical frameworks have been virtually absent until recently in the debates over GIS.

Developing a history of a technology like GIS can fall into two distinct (and opposite) traps. On one hand, it is common to write a "Whig" history that simply is swept along by the flow of events and ends up with a sense that the particular results were inevitable. In writing the history of technology, this tendency often appears in the form of "technological determinism" (Feenberg, 1995), a belief that technical progress is unilinear and unaffected by other forces (such as society). As a reaction to determinism, many scholars have demonstrated linkage between social, cultural factors and development of technology. Taken to the extreme, this approach places all the causation in the social realm, constituting another kind of determinism. The GIS History Project will balance these two extremes, in a position similar to Latour's (1993) "symmetric anthropology." Latour, and others who study the sociology of technology and science, emphasize the local and contingent nature of "constructing a fact" (Latour and Woolgar, 1979; Bijker and others, 1987). Usually, it is only much later that a particular technical decision will appear to be obvious or fated to succeed.

In some historical accounts, a short form is used: "X had an idea." This fits into the rather ideological form of Kuhn's (1962) presentation of paradigms in science. The individual agent is placed on a shaky pedestal when it is also rather common to observe nearly simultaneous "inventions." The fact that a number of independent groups develop similar technical solutions simply demonstrates that the total environment had prepared all the ingredients for this particular idea to emerge. In the History of GIS Project, we plan to look for situations that seem to be independent developments to examine the relative importance of information flow between groups and the influence of overall context. For an interesting discussion of multiple discoveries in science and technology, see Lamb and Easton (1984).

5.3. Science and Technology Studies

Recent works in the area of science and technology studies, such as those of Latour (1987), Bijker and Law (1992), Bijker (1995), Pickering (1995), and Star (1995a, 1995b), examine the ways in which technologies develop within institutions, and are evolving practices flowing from human activity. Most deal with recent the history of recent technological change, and examine issues in ways that are more or less consistent with the approaches being employed in our proposed GIS history project. The works listed share, with differences of emphasis, the view that we need to see technological systems as outgrowths of human practices and decisions that are locally situated.

On this view, technological and scientific systems are separable, but often share an allegiance to similar views about space, reason, and the individual. And these views, in turn, come to be taken as natural and inevitable, particularly as science and technology are used together to construct institutions and landscapes that seem to support these ideas. In part, this is a matter of rendering invisible alternative paths. The task of the student of science and technology, then, is to sort out the ways in which individual decisions, technological objects, and institutions have together created what is now accepted as (in our case) geographic information systems, to uncover paths not taken and the ways in which the systems define what is allowed and not allowed.

Works by Harding (1986) and Haraway (1989, 1991) also provide relevant contexts for our examinations of the history of GIS. These scholars begin to reconfigure the sociology of science from positions that are explicitly feminist, non-essentialist, and context-sensitive. Harding (1986) provides a strong theoretical framework that suggests five themes to organize inquiry into the history of science: equity studies; science in the service of hegemonic projects; gender and the selection of questions and definition of research programs; false dualisms and gendered epistemologies; and relational epistemologies. The issue of science in the service of hegemonic projects is especially relevant here, since mapping (and, by extension, GIS) has long been linked with the appropriation, partitioning, classification, and commoditization of the worlds.

6. Research questions

The general research problem breaks down into a set of five specific research foci that will structure the investigation of processes of conceptual, technical and institutional innovation captured by our selection of case studies. The foci-technical, philosophical, historical, political economic and socio-cultural-overlap considerably and are presented here as a heuristic that informs our in-depth interviews with GIS developers and practitioners, not as a set of interview questions. Moreover, the precise content of the questions addressed will be determined by the nature of the case studies (see below), each of which contains a number of key conceptual and practical innovations that have proven seminal in the development of GIS (and also many false starts and failures), the critical history of which we want to uncover, analyze and interpret. The following outlines some specific research questions for each of the five foci:

Technical. In the technology area, we will attempt to determine the exact nature of key technical innovations in GIS. How was the innovation related to other contemporaneous technical and technological developments outside GIS? What were the implications of these technical developments for the nature and use of geographic information systems? For example, how did technical innovation change the practice of cartography, or of spatial analysis? We will examine both how, and why, these technical developments were incorporated into the general practice of GIS, and thus standardized. We will also explore why other related technical developments were not incorporated into general practice of GIS.

Philosophical. What assumptions about society, space/place, and information technology were made by GIS developers, and how did a particular innovation reinforce or change this? How were philosophical conflicts and/or ethical/moral dilemmas in the development of GIS systems resolved, confronted or ignored?

Historical. What were the necessary conceptual and technical antecedents of particular innovations in GIS? How-via what means of communication and social networks, and in what forms-did key concepts and practices diffuse, evolve or reemerge from historical institutions?

Political-economic. In what broader political-economic and more specific institutional context (e.g., private or public) was the innovation made, and what were societal and institutional goals that led to the provision of resources to support it? How was the innovation applied, or resisted, within different institutions, and why? How did particular innovations affect the nature of the relations between non-profit, commercial and governmental institutions in GIS? How did the innovation affect the relations of production of GIS (in terms of intellectual versus manual labor, and gender, for example) in various institutions? What were implications of the innovation and its institutionalization for governmentality?

Socio-cultural. Who were the key human agents and institutional actors involved in the innovation, and what was the nature of their social relations? Did this group of GIS practitioners identify themselves as a community, both then and now, and if so on what basis? What networks of interaction and protocols of communication structure, or structured, this community? How is the development of particular innovations and the "history of GIS" being constructed by practitioners? How are these communities structured and how does the construction of identity and collective history operate to exclude others?

7. The Case Studies

A case study approach has been selected to provide a set of related but relatively discrete projects on particular conceptual and technical innovations that have proven seminal to the development of GIS. Five case studies will provide the focus for the research. These case studies emerge from a review of the existing historical literature, and the combined experience of members of the research team, as being representative of the private, governmental and non-profit institutions, and also of the key intellectual and practical problems involved in the development of the broad field that has become GIS. Also, the GIS community was small in its early days, and many projects were connected in various ways; thus we are confident that the pursuit of interviews and research on a judiciously selected set of case studies will expose most of the major themes in the history of the field. The selected case studies also are a logistically feasible "first cut" at researching a complex intellectual, technological and institutional history. The value of intensive case study research has recently been demonstrated by the fascinating works of Rabinow (1996) and Latour (1996).

Selected for detailed study are: DIME and the US Census; Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics (and Spatial Analysis); Minnesota Land Management Information System (MLMIS); Triangulated Irregular Networks (TINs); and ESRI and Intergraph (comparison of corporate cultures). In the following sections, we describe these in turn and justify their selection. Lastly, we provide a progress report on one case study in progress, the US Census' GBF-DIME files.

7.1. DIME and the US Census

The development of the GBF-DIME files (Geographic Base File, Dual Independent Map Encoding) by the US Bureau of the Census in the late 1960s has been selected as the highest priority case study for this project. In the GBF-DIME project, the Census embarked on an unprecedented program in computerized geography. The explicit coding of the topology of street segments, with numbered nodes at each end and numbered areas each side, was a major technological innovation that eventually revolutionized GIS. The GBF-DIME files also grew into the 1990 TIGER files, that are a critical part of the framework data in the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The DIME files, and the organizations formed to produce them, also became the foundation for the geodemographics industry. We selected GBF-DIME as our first Case Study, and have begin work on it. The partial case study is reported below, to give an idea of the nature and probable findings for case studies on this topic.

7.2. Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics (and Spatial Analysis)

There is little doubt that the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics, later renamed by adding "and Spatial Analysis" to its title, was a key institution in the birth and early development of GIS in the United State. A large number of the founders of GIS in the academic and commercial sectors spent time at the Harvard Lab in the 1960s and 1970s, as staff, students, or visitors, exchanging ideas that would shape the field. People from the Lab went on to influential roles in the budding GIS industry as well as in academia. Chrisman (1988) and Steinitz (1993) have written articles about their experiences at Harvard. We will examine the factors that led to the establishment of the Lab, and its dual role in the early development, as a place that encouraged visitors and fostered intellectual exchanges, and as a software house within an academic institution.

7.3. Minnesota Land Management Information System (MLMIS)

The Minnesota Land Management Information System (MLMIS) was established in the 1960s, as a joint project between the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota State Planning Agency. The project drew heavily on both faculty and student expertise from the university, particularly on John Borchert from the Geography Department. Unlike a number of other early state GIS implementations that did not last long enough to demonstrate their potential with completed studies, MLMIS flourished and expanded, and became an integral part of Minnesota's state planning apparatus. MLMIS represented geographic space through a coarse 'raster' system, a regular grid of 40 acre cells (to conform to tax assessors' data); nevertheless, despite this coarse resolution, MLMIS was able to produce pioneering and influential studies that cemented its position and led to its use by over 200 clients by the end of the 1970's. This is especially remarkable considering that two of MLMIS' most important early studies involved extremely controversial issues, and recommendations that went counter to the positions favored by entrenched interests in Minnesota-owners of tens of thousands of lake shore cabins, and the timber industry.

This case study will examine the institutional setting of MLMIS, and the particular people involved in the creation of the MLMIS GIS. The goals are to try to: determine why Minnesota developed a GIS at such an early stage; examine the implications that the timing of this development had on choices that were made concerning technology (choice of platforms, output devices, presentation possibilities); analyze the technical, institutional and intellectual contexts influencing the choice of GIS methodology (especially the choice of a raster-format GIS); trace whether and how the vision of landscape captured in the MLMIS design reflected then-dominant conceptions of landscape in geography (particularly those of Carl Sauer); and document the kinds of studies that were carried out at different periods in the history of MLMIS (which ultimately became the Land Management Information Center-LMIC). We anticipate that the changing foci of MLMIS studies as the technology and use of GIS evolved will provide us with an excellent case study to examine the interactions of political, economic, technological, intellectual and social processes among multiple layers of government, academia, and the business community of Minnesota.

7.4. Triangulated Irregular Networks (TINs)

The TIN, or Triangulated Irregular Network, represents a topographic elevation surface by a partition into non-overlapping triangles with elevations at their vertices. TIN has been selected an a high-priority case study for a number of reasons. For one, the TIN model was apparently discovered or invented in several different places and research groups at about the same time; thus it makes a good example for the study of ideas whose "time has come." The best known TIN project, which coined the term, was led by Thomas Poiker (formerly, "Peucker"), and was funded at a Canadian university (Simon Fraser University, or SFU) by an agency of the US Defense Department (Office of Naval research, or ONR). The main focus of the project was solving the problem of matching a radar altimetry profile against a terrain model onboard an aircraft as a navigation aid to pilots. However, this almost certainly was a slightly disguised version of the cruise missile guidance problem. Thus, the context was clearly of military interest, almost certainly weapons-related, and yet the project was unclassified and at a non-US. academic institution. A key question will be whether anyone outside the ONR knew the context of the project at the time. Another interesting aspect of TIN is that the approach diffused into a major commercial software package (ARC/INFO) through the hiring of a student who had studied with one of the researchers from the SFU/ONR TIN project; thus a study of TIN will contribute to our knowledge of how innovations diffuse from the academic sector into commercial software. We will also study the apparently independent developments of the TIN model at a consulting firm in Ohio, W. E. Gates and Associates, in a geological context by Christopher Gold, then at the University of Alberta (Canada), and in Europe. Sources of 'inspiration' for the invention of TIN will be sought in each case, to see if there was a common 'spark' or whether this is a true case of independent invention and re-invention. This case study may also pursue some other academic, non-classified efforts to develop profile matching algorithms.

7.5. ESRI and Intergraph: Comparison of Corporate Cultures

Most would acknowledge that the two dominant commercial GIS producers in the United States are ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) and Intergraph. Estimates usually indicate that together they produce at least half of the GIS software in the country. The two firms project very different corporate images, and have very different histories. This case study will compare the two organizations in terms of their initiations, growth paths, and market foci. While each produces general-purpose GISs and sells them to all GIS market sectors, they nevertheless are somewhat specialized toward different GIS applications. We will examine whether this differentiation is by design, or due to the nature of the software, or whether it is a historical accident. The two companies also project different corporate images, and can be seen from visiting their Web pages ( and Again, we will attempt to determine whether these images are calculated to maximize sales and customer and employee loyalty, or whether they reflect the attitudes of firm leadership, or whether they too are simply accidents of history. These questions are important, because, since these companies dominate GIS, the image of GIS projected by these companies helps to define GIS among GIS users and others.

7.6. GIS History in Europe

The priority of the GIS History Project in Europe is to document the European contribution to GIS development wordwide. It is certainly true that industrial activities in the past decade in the United States appear to dominate the GIS market and development in these companies seem to eclipse contributions from other parts of the world. If one goes back to the early years of GIS, we clearly see that experimentation and early development in Europe were substantial. Research contributions from Europeans have been strong throughout the history of GIS. If the Project includes some background of the research and development efforts in Europe, one might be able to see some of the linkages between the general situation and the impact it had on research, development and later industrial exploitation,

7.6.1 Different situation in Europe for GIS

World wide, the recognition of limitations in the processing of spatial data and the awareness for the potential of electronic data processing was different. The traditions and organizational structure of spatial data processing was different in Europe from that in the United States.

7.6.2 National Mapping Agencies

Europe has many independent National Mapping Agencies (more than it has countries, a total of some 30 agencies doing topographic mapping at scales of 1:25000 and smaller), whereas the US has only a single civilian topographic mapping agency (the US Geological Survey), plus the Defense Mapping Agency. The European mapping agencies typically have much broader charges than the mapping part of USGS, often including parcel mapping, cadastral mapping, etc. Some of these agencies (eg., in Sweden and Austria) started experimenting with computerized database for cadastral mapping at an early state. The Ordnance Survey of the United Kingdom founded a laboratory to explore the new technology. Later IGN of France installed a strong research and development laboratory. In Germany, the independent mapping agencies of the Laender formed a consortium to effect the change from a traditional mapping and cadastral organization to a modern structure based on electronic data processing. This list is not complete, but includes most of the more important efforts.

Even with this limited spectrum, one can see 20 years later that the experimental laboratories had profound effects on the organizations which funded them: both OS and IGN have moved substantial parts of their production into the electronic age and are leaders in the production of digital data. They are probably the only countries where complete digital coverage for the whole country with large scale topographic maps is available. It would be wrong to attribute these practical successes and leadership position solely to the R&D laboratories--for example, the one at the UK Ordnace Survey has been closed for several years now. Other efforts have contributed perhaps even more, but it is at least a surprising coincidence that the European NMA with experimental facilities appear to have a significant lead compared to others. One can also see that efforts which came from within the organization to use database technology to improve land registration were successful very early. These efforts were limited to the descriptive part and did not process positional data early on, they were limited to what was doable with the computer hardware, communication systems and database technology of the time. The systems were and are extremely successful, widely used and have improved the cadastral organization in Sweden and Austria profoundly. It might surprise, that no other countries seem to follow along these lines, even today, when technology is further developed and an implementation would be easier. It is certainly worthwhile to trace these two developments to learn what were the key points which made them succeed.

The somewhat similar project of the consortium of the German Laender had a much more comprehensive scope and was--typically for a consortium--a compromise between many different approaches. The project was well managed but labored slowly through a contorted road of political discussions and conflicting interests of the partners to a late success: today data are produced, the systems are used--but country wide coverage is not yet attained at the small topographic scale. These efforts are poorly documented, but the people involved could be available to relate first hand experience. It should be collected now.

7.6.3 Towns and public utilities

Similar to the United States, towns and public utilities saw the potential in the computer technology and developed with industrial partners what today we would call GIS software and implemented computerized mapping systems. These efforts can be found in the early years of UDS (Urban Data System) conferences. A success story is certainly the town cadastre of Basel, a system which linked legal records with parcel maps and extended to include public utility lines. The cities of Lille, Newcastle, and others, built systems at the same time, not all becoming fully operational. It would be useful to systematically collect some key information about these early GISs from the published literature (mostly gray literature) and to see if there are some useful observations. It should be helpful to compare these efforts of European towns with similar efforts in the United States. Stress should be to document the failures as well as the success stories--one can learn more from failures both in Europe and in the rest of the world! What we hope to see here is the balance between the influence of technical possibilities and organizational and administrative impediments. We assume that projects that attempted too much often failed, and that projects that were technically feasible could still fail, if the administrative structures were not right. It remains to be identified what "not right" means, and whether these assessments for the United States and Europe are the same. This would be useful when considering the situation in countries where GIS for towns are just starting.

7.6.4 European GIS companies

It seems that the European companies which worked with early GIS efforts have not been as successful as their US counterparts. Ferranti (UK), Contraves (Switzerland) [somehow surviving as Straessle] and probably others were involved early on (probably also Koninglike Wappenfabriek in Norway, and Messerschmidt-Boelkow-Bluehm in Germany). Ferranti had a GIS/CAD system for cadastral mapping operational in late 1970, but did not continue development and disappeared from the GIS market. Both of these companies were high-tech companies, mostly working for defense. How do they compare to the early GIS companies in the United States? Why did they not continue theier GIS product lines? Collecting this information may be more difficult, but many of the people involved are still living and can be interviewed. Much can be also seen from the proceedings of the early GIS meetings in Europe.

Surveying instrument companies, especially Wild and Kern (now merged with Leica), started GIS software development efforts--perhaps under the impression of the successful Basel project and other similar projects in Switzerland. They followed very different approaches: for example, adapting a US product (Synercom) to the European market, starting a completely new product in a R&D facility in Canada (System 9) and developing a complete new, very limited, database oriented design in house (Kern). The three resulting products survive today, but did not make it to the top ten of GISs. Siemens, Laser-Scan (a UK company) and the firm now called Smallword are other examples of early players in the GIS field, that have survived and still offer products on the market. To describe the contorted development lines of these products would be extremely revealing, especially if compared with similar US companies.

7.6.5 Professions

Many of the differences in the history of GIS in European countries can be explained by considering the educational system and the professions involved in the GIS. Some countries--central and northern Europe, especially the German speaking countries, but also Greece--have a very effective education for surveying engineers; other countries develop surveyors for cadastral operations in professional training courses. In the German speaking countries surveyors and the national mapping agencies were dominating the discussion of GIS (a first GIS meeting was held in 1979 in Darmstadt, organized and attended by mostly surveyors). Geographers in Europe had only a limited influence on GIS (compared to the United States) as they are mostly involved in teaching, but computer scientists were very active in many countries. To trace these chains of influence and see how they affect development would provide a contrast to the history of GIS in the United States.

7.6.6 Universities

European universities were and are active research centers in several GIS related disciplines. Computer Science, especially in Germany, discovered GIS early as an attractive research motivation and contributed to spatial access methods. Geographers in the UK were involved in GIS and spatial analysis and influenced GIS development. Cartographic research at several locations investigated the use of computers very early (Zurich, Hannover, and several others). An important factor reducing the early success of GIS was that the professional standards of European cartographers made it very difficult to accept the computer generated products in practice.

7.6.7 Trans-Atlantic Interactions

Before closing this section, it is important to note that while many events can be localized to Europe, there was (and still is) a very fruitful exchange of researchers, professionals, and students between Europe and North America. Undoubtably this occurred between other parts of the world as well. Like the history of geography that has Semple studying under Ratzel, and Hartshorne basing a substantial part of his work on Hettner's thinking, we can find parallels in GIS. Many of the key GIS pioneers in North America were born in Europe and did their first degrees there before establishing themselves as professionals in North America. Similarly, many key players in Europe completed their doctorates or took their first full-time academic positions in North America before returning "home". North American conferences on GIS have almost always had significant numbers of participants from Europe, and some of the European conferences have been modeled on those from North America. Trans-Atlantic crossings by people and ideas must be an important thread in studies of the history of GIS.

7.7. The Story of DIME: A Progress Report on a Case Study

Although there were many important antecedents, the story of GBF-DIME began in the summer of 1965, when the Census Advisory Committee on Small-Area-Data was established (Smith, 1967). In January 1966, the Census Small Area Data Advisory Committee began to develop plans for a 'case study,' and in June of that year, the Census Use Study (CUS) was established in New Haven, Connecticut; the New Haven office of the study was opening in September 1966 with a director, an assistant project director, and a staff of five people (Census, 1970). The year 1967 was busy at the CUS, which played a major role in a pre-test of mail-out, mail-back procedures to be used for the 1970 census. The test census in New Haven was conducted on April 1, 1967 (Census, 1970). The CUS also began "computer mapping experiments" in February 1967, and started "geographic base file research" in April. The programmers at CUS were struggling with the inefficiency of inherent redundancies in the conversion of analog maps into numerically encoded renderings. In effect, each street intersection in a normal US. rectangular street grid was being digitized 8 times (Cooke, in press).

Donald Cooke, who at the time was a programmer on the CUS staff, reports that the problem was overcome based on principles of map topology presented to the CUS staff by Census mathematician James Corbett (Cooke, in press). The encoding scheme later known as DIME (Dual Independent Map Encoding) was developed. The key idea was to number the nodes (street intersections) and the areas (typically blocks). By encoding street segments in terms of the areas to the left and right of them as well as the nodes that they connected (to node, from node), the topology was encoded with redundancy that allowed automated checking for consistency. This redundant coding of nodes and areas adjacent to each 1-dimensional object is at the core of the 'chains' or 'arcs' structure underlying modern vector GIS data models such as DLG (USGS Digital Line Graphs), SDTS (Spatial Data Transfer Standard), and the polygon layers in commercial systems such as ARC/INFO.

In the summer of 1967, the significance of the innovation was more practical: it supported efficient digitization and error removal, and laid the ground work for choropleth mapping of census results. George Farnsworth of the CUS christened the new process "DIME" (Dual Independent Map Encoding) in August 1967, Cooke and Maxfield wrote a paper about the encoding, and they were "squeezed" into Robert Barraclough's session on computer mapping at the 1967 URISA meeting the following month (Cooke and Maxfield, 1967; Cooke, in press). While not on the CUS staff, Barraclough was at the time part of a technical advisory committee to CUS. Thus, this key innovation in the history of GIS went from the spark of invention to academic publication in a period of 3-4 months! GBF-DIME files were digitized for all US cities during the 1970s, and were a key component of the current TIGER system that in turn is a critical part of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The prominence of the DIME encoding in the history of GIS, as seen by academics, has almost certainly been enhanced by its very early publication.

The story presented above seems simple and straightforward. However, there are some very interesting developments surrounding the Census Use Study. One centers around a parallel technical development, Robert Dial's "Street Address Conversion System" (SACS), and the other involves the promotion of commercial uses of DIME and small-area census data that contributed to the development of the US Geodemographics industry.

7.7.1 SACS: Street Address Conversion System

In 1964, Robert Dial completed a master's research project that was published in the form of a research report entitled "Street Address Conversion System" (Dial, 1964). This highly innovative research was conducted under the direction of Professor Edgar M. Horwood of the University of Washington, a founder of URISA in 1963. Dial's SACS system was similar in intent to DIME, but different in a number of ways. An important SACS innovation, not found in DIME, was the use of a grid for indexing nodes. Early in 1965, Dial described SACS to William Fay, head of the Geography Division of the US Census, at a lunch arranged by Alan Voorhees (Dial, personal communication, 1996). Dial reports that the Census person appeared very impressed with the approach (Dial, personal communication, 1996). Recall that this was some 3-6 months before the Census established the advisory committee on Small-Area-Data.

Donald Cooke reports that he and William Maxfield, the Census Use Study programmers who developed DIME, were not aware of Dial's SACS approach in 1967 (Cooke, in press). But this does not mean that no one at the Bureau of the Census knew about it. The Census Use Study in New Haven was operating rather independently from the Geography Division of the Census in Suitland, Maryland (Cooke, in press); William Fay headed the Geography Division until 1971 (Cooke, in press), and had championed ACG [Address Coding Guide] and resisted DIME (Cooke, in press). In 1967, Calkins (1967) presented a paper to the 46th Annual Meeting of the Highway Research Board, that reported on the application of Dial's SACS scheme to Ottawa, Canada, and cited Dial's 1964 report. Several people from the US Bureau of the Census or otherwise associated with the Census Use Study, including Robert Barraclough, Morris Hansen, and Robert Voight, also presented papers at that same Highway Research Board meeting. Two researchable questions are evident here. One would be a technical comparison of SACS and DIME in formal terms; the other is to interview key individuals from the CUS, the Geography Division of the Census, and elsewhere in the URISA and transportation communities, to determine sequences of events during 1967, and who knew what, when, about SACS and DIME.

7.7.2 Data Uses in the Private Sector

The evolution of the Census Use Study, and particularly the push to promote the use of Census data in the private sector also deserves attention. The New Haven office of the CUS closed in June of 1969, except for Health Information System activities (Census, 1970), and the Southern California Regional Information Study (SCRIS) was established by CUS the following month in Los Angeles (Census, 1973). The CUS organized a number of workshops, and of these, the one held at the Asilomar conference center in Pacific Grove, California, on October 4, 1973, is especially interesting. This workshop was entitled "Data Uses in the Private Sector," and although many of the speakers were from the public sector, other participants were largely from the private (Census, 1974). Vincent Barabba, at the time recently appointed Director of the Census Bureau by President Nixon, gave a talk that stressed commercial uses of census data. It was around this time that some of the major geodemographics firms, such as Claritas, began providing marketing services based on geodemographic analysis. We will investigate the connections between the census data workshops and the early days of the geodemographics industry.

7.8. The Harvard Lab for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis: Another Case Study Progress Report

The Harvard Lab for Computer Graphics (reorganized as the Harvard Lab for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis in 1968; Steinitz 1993) was one of several sites in the early development of GIS where seminal innovations in the processing and display of geographically referenced data took place. Many of the present generation experienced their first taste of computer cartography through the widely distributed automated mapping application SYMAP, completed at the lab in 1966.

The lab was established by Howard Fisher in the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard University, through initial funding from the Ford Foundation. Its placement in the GSD provided a context for its early development that was insulated from the principal theoretical debates raging in academic geography at the time, sometimes described as the "quantitative revolution". It's proximity to other competing institutions (e.g. MIT, Yale) allowed the easy interaction of the lab staff with other scholars engaged in similar work, and provided a competitive impetus for innovation. Since Harvard (along with most ivy league institutions) had no departmental geography at the time, the early focus of the lab was directed toward the needs of landscape architects, urban and regional planners, and resource managers (e.g. landcover characterization, choropleth mapping of census data, or contouring statistical surfaces). SYMAP itself, however, was widely generalizable and drew from Fisher's understanding of mathematical cartography in producing isoline, choropleth, and proximal maps using a standard line printer as an output device.

William Warntz, hired as a professor in 1966, was appointed to the directorship in 1969 (Chrisman, 1988) and he brought with him a track record of theoretical syncretism and eclectic collaboration (see especially Barnes, 1992; 1996). Warntz held out hopes for a reinstatement of geography as a full departmental discipline but ultimately felt that political unrest at Harvard in the spring of 1969 distracted from efforts afoot to accomplish just that (Warntz, 1988). Perhaps the most notable achievement of Warntz at the lab was the initiation of the Harvard Papers in Theoretical Geography. Inaugurated as discussion papers by Warntz in 1967, and titled the "Geography and the Properties of Surfaces Series", these dealt largely with abstract geometric principles. Later papers flirted with Warntz's predilection for synthetic connections between disparate objects (for example, Woldenberg's 1968 paper titled "Hierarchical Systems: Cities, Rivers, Alpine Glaciers, Bovine Livers, and Trees"). The paper series was also used to present translations of papers that Warntz considered as seminal to the development of spatial analysis (for example Eduard Lill's "The Law of Travel and its Application to Rail Traffic" from 1891). Warntz was also able to maintain the independence of the lab from the Harvard administration (although perhaps creating another type of external dependence) through his attraction of substantial external funding, most notably from the Office of Naval Research during this period.

It is clear that the lab was an important early moment in the development of what has evolved in GIS over the past three decades. The contributions of the lab included the training of many creative students and researchers who left the lab to make greater advances elsewhere. Chrisman (1988), Steinitz (1993), and Warntz (1988) have written articles about their experiences at Harvard and these will serve as a valuable resource for historians of science and technology. The difficult work (just beginning) in this case study will be in establishing the ways in which language communities formed through the interaction of professionals from diverse fields (architecture, geography, planning, regional science, and programming to name a few) in a particular historical/geographical context; Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1960's. Interesting questions for investigation will be whether and how a unique rhetoric evolved among lab faculty, researchers, and staff in the early years of the lab's existence in reference to the objects under investigation and the day-to-day practices of the group, and whether and how that language was either adopted outside the lab, passed to new lab members as they were trained/socialized, or replaced by other more successful systems of language. In short, a description of the formation and maintenance of a specific institutional culture, and the extension of that culture outside the confines of the lab will be the principal task of this case study.

8. Research Methods

Research methodologies will involve literature reviews, archival research, and in-depth interviews. Individual researchers within our project will use these common data sources for their individual analysis. Team members will write individual and/or co-authored research papers focusing on questions specific to their own interests and expertise. All materials collected in the project will be archived and eventually made available to all interested researchers. Transcripts of interviews will be distributed to the research team and others through the World-Wide Web.

8.1. Interviews

The principal research method proposed in this project is the in-depth or ethnographic interview. Members of the research team will contact and request interviews from key informants selected on the basis of their participation in formative processes in the history of GIS. In most cases, they will be selected because of their close involvement in innovations in the conceptual and technical development of GIS. Others will be selected because they are representative of workers or users of the technology within the case study institutions. Each case-study site will be investigated by teams of researchers; these teams will include both people with GIS expertise and those from the social theory community. The interviews will provide a common database for the project.

With the informants' permission, interviews will be recorded and interviewees will have the right to determine whether all or selected parts of the recording should be confidential. Transcripts of interviews will be made. Transcripts edited to preserve confidentiality and will, with the permission of the interviewee, be placed in an open archive (see below). A common transcription protocol will be used in all cases.

Ideally, informants will participate in three interviews, with either one or two members of the research team present. Our first interview will be focused life history, reconstructing the individual's experiences in GIS and how she/he participated in, observed or was affected by key innovations in the field. The second will focus on the details of particular experiences, the everyday routines, actions and interactions, within the specific setting of the case study. The third focuses on reflection and interpretation of the meaning of the individual's work and life in GIS, and in particular of experiences within the case study context. If three interviews are not possible, the first and second will be combined. A second interview is vital so the interviewers can review the material and follow up on the previous interview. Interviews will be interpreted and analyzed by different methods according to the specific research question and the individual researcher, but transcripts will be both representative and diverse enough, and sufficiently deep and rich, to factually reconstruct and explain processes vital to the history of GIS and for a qualitative analysis of evolving culture of GIS.

8.2. Archives and Personal Papers

Members of the research team will also conduct archival research where collections of materials are available. Since GIS is a relatively new field, and it is only recently that those involved in its development have begun to reflect on its history, and perhaps to search and organize their personal records, we expect that much of the material remains unarchived in the hands of individuals, if indeed it remains at all. One of our goals is to classify and archive this material, both for the purpose of the collective research project and for the longer term. We will therefore request materials from key individuals and their heirs, as well as conduct searches in institutional archives of the US. Census Bureau, various universities where GIS and related research occurred. One of us (Varanka) has had extensive discussions with personnel at the American Geographic Society archives at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and we hope to reach an agreement for them to house the archives of the GIS History Project, including results of this project. As much of the archival material as possible will also be converted and placed on a World Wide Web server to make it readily available to researchers. Eugene McCann, a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, has compiled an archive of bibliographic materials on the history of GIS; this will be merged with the archive of non-bibliographic materials once that material is collected.

8.3. Published and Semi-Published Materials

We also will examine published and semi-published literature of the time. Of particular value may be compilations of GIS and related software and data completed in the 1970s (Tomlinson, Calkins, and Marble, 1976; Brassel and Wasilenko, 1979; Calkins, 1979; Peuquet, 1979). These provide an interesting snapshot of the state of developing GIS around the time that a commercial GIS industry was developing. The proceedings of the early URISA meetings and the first few Auto Carto symposia, also will provide valuable windows on the early development of GIS.

9. Expected outcomes

The data gathered from archival research and in-depth interviews will be archived for the use of the research team and, with the permission of the interviewees, will be made available for the future use of other interested scholars. The data will be made available to all members of the team, who will work both in groups and individually on analysis according to their particular interests and expertise. The research team will organize a small team workshop on the history of GIS each year, present conference papers on their work in progress, and publish individual papers in journals.

The longer term outcome will be the production of two edited volumes on the history of GIS-the first based on the case studies and examining in detail the specific individuals, working relations and environments, and institutional contexts of GIS development; the second, cross-cutting the case studies and providing an analysis of the technical, philosophical, political-economic and socio-cultural pre-conditions, contexts and outcomes of developments in GIS technology-and the construction of a research archive, possibly to be housed at the American Geographical Society. It is hoped that this collective work will inspire other scholars to collaborate and will also act as a model for the continued critical investigation of GIS and related information and spatial technologies.

10. Summary and Prospects

A World Wide Web site ; containing research priorities, links to other work on GIS history, and a bibliography, has been established. People interested in the Project are urged to contact us using the mail-to links on the Web page, or to contact David Mark at, FAX (716) 645 5957.

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