February 21 – Happy Birthday, Edouard-Gaston Deville

Posted on February 21, 2014

Have you heard of phototopography? How about photogrammetry?

Yeah, me neither! Actually, even my spell checker hasn't heard of the first one!

But actually, this field (which has two names, and which was first perfected by today's birthday boy) is really important—and even something we take for granted:

It is the use of photography to make maps.

Some descriptions of photogrammetry say that it is a non-contact method of making maps. In the past, people had to actually walk or sail in order to survey land, in order to make the measurements that assured that the map would be fairly accurate and therefore useful.

Who was Deville?

Born in France, Edouard-Gaston Deville attended naval school, served in the French navy, and learned about surveying. He moved to Canada at age 25 and began to work as a surveyor and astronomer. He was quickly promoted to top surveyor, and for many years he directed Canadian surveying activities.

So, you know what Canada is like, right? It is the second largest nation in the world, after Russia, and a lot of it is high mountains or remote Arctic lands. At the time that Deville developed new surveying techniques, in the late 1800s, there was no Google Earth or satellites in space, of course, and even the airplane hadn't yet been invented. However, photography was nearly half a century old and was revolutionizing many aspects of life. Deville wanted to use it to survey Canada's mountains in a faster, cheaper way.

He had to design a rugged but lightweight field camera that could be carried up to the top of a mountain. Once the camera was in place on a mountain peak, the surveyors pointed the camera at the horizon and took panoramic photos of the nearby peaks. Each photo shot was carefully recorded with a measurement of the angle of the camera to the survey station. Surveyors did all their measurements and took all their photos during the short Canadian summers, and during the longer winters they would make their calculations and draw their maps. The first such mountain survey was started in 1886.

It turned out that, not only were these techniques much faster than traditional surveying techniques—and cost only about a third as much—the results were more accurate. Soon Deville became a sought-after expert in mountain surveying, and people all over the world asked his advice, read his pamphlets and textbook, and copied his camera and techniques.

As you can imagine, when air flight became possible, surveyors could use Deville's camera to create aerial photos. This helped Canadian surveyors accurately map the flat-but-remote northern areas of the nation.

This is Mount Deville, named
for today's birthday boy.
It is in Yoho National Park in
Canada--and, oh, my!--is that
place GORGEOUS!!!

More on maps...

  • Check out these child-drawn maps created in the 1700s and 1800s. Students often carefully copied and colored maps in order to learn geography. Do you think the parts that don't match modern maps are inaccurate because the kids wereyou knowjust kids, or do you think that they were pretty accurate copies of what people knew back then?

  • Use Google Earth to create a map of your own neighborhood.

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