History of Cartography

Thematic Maps and Atlases

5111.4 - General overview of analog and digital topographic mapping techniques used by the U.S. Geological Survey

Wednesday, July 5
9:30 AM - 9:50 AM
Location: Hoover

Since its inception on March 3, 1879 the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been charged with the mission of surveying and mapping the states and territories of the United States. One objective of this mission is to procure the highest level of results at the lowest price possible. Over the last 132 years technological advancements have drastically changed the methods the USGS uses to produce and distribute topographic map products to the public. When examining the history of topographic mapping methods at the USGS, there are two distinct eras, Analog and Digital, consisting of five overlapping periods.
The era of Analog topographic mapping techniques was dominated by three popular methods. The first and most complex mapping technique implemented by the USGS was the period of Copperplate Engraving. This period lasted from 1885 – 1942, and there is no quantitative documentation about its efficiency that is known at this time. With the introduction of high quality photolytic film that could be used for cartographic line work, copperplate engraving was gradually phased out; pen and ink drafting became the new standard for topographic mapping. The drafting period lasted from 1941 – 1955, and this new method greatly increased the production efficiency of topographic maps. In 1955 the method of scribing was implemented by the USGS and help production effeciency reach all time highs. This drastic increase can be attributed to the use of new tools such as the electric dotter, designed and built by the Central Region Color Separation Section, which increased production rates, shortened the amount of training for new scribers, and improved the quality of the line work (Weishapple 1967). The scribing period spanned 40 years from 1955 – 1995, until it was finally phased out by digital topographic mapping methods.
The Digital topographic mapping methods at the USGS were first introduced in the early 1970’s and lasted until around 1996. The first period of digital topographic mapping or digital cartography focused specifically on digitizing older analog maps. The goal of this effort was to create a Digital Cartographic Database (DCDB). There were also three primary products resulting in data structures that arose from the digital cartography period; Digital Line Graphs (DLG), Digital Elevation Models (DEM), and Land Use Data Analysis (LUDA). In 1982 USGS published the first computer generated topographic map. The 7.5 minute, 1:24,000 scale Birch Tree, Missouri quadrangle was compiled and finished at Mid-Continent Mapping Center in Rolla, Missouri to serve as a prototype demonstrating the possibilities of utilizing computer technology in the topographic map production process (Topographically Speaking 1982).
The current period of topographic mapping began in 2001 with the creation of The National Map (TNM). TNM is used to produce the US Topo, the current topographic map of the U.S. The three products that arose from the digital cartography period evolved to become three of the eight layers of TNM. Every year approximately one-third of the US Topo maps are updated. The result of these technological advancements has escalated the efficiency of the USGS’s topographic mapping techniques dramatically. As highlighted by this paper, the USGS has a rich history of continuous innovation that continues to this day.

Kalen S. Brady

Student Geographer
U.S. Geological Survey

Kalen Brady works in the Topographic Applied Research Section in the Innovations Office as a Career Intern with the National Geospatial Technical Operations Center ( NGTOC ) in Rolla, Missouri. Kalen received his Bachelor of Science in Conservation Biology and General Biology from Missouri Valley College, and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in GIScience at Northwest Missouri State University. Kalen has worked for the Missouri River Bird Observatory collecting data on marsh birds, and has travelled on two occasions to Belize to conduct research through a non-profit marine conservation organization.


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Imre J. Demhardt

Garrett Chair in the History of Cartography
University of Texas at Arlington

Since 2008 Imre J Demhardt holds the the Garrett Chair in the History of Cartography. His research interests include post-enlightenment cartography, colonialism and regional studies of Central Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and North America.


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5111.4 - General overview of analog and digital topographic mapping techniques used by the U.S. Geological Survey

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