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Fifty Years of GIS - Part 1

By Joe Francica posted 11-13-2018 22:07

  

Shortly, we’ll turn the page on our calendars and 2019 will be upon us. It will mark 50 years of commercial GIS. In 1969, two companies opened their doors and began their journey toward developing some of the most impactful technologies used today. Intergraph (now Hexagon but began operations as M&S Computing) and Environmental Systems Research Institute, or Esri, were launched in that year; Intergraph by Jim Meadlock, an ex-NASA engineer from the Apollo program; and Esri by Jack and Laura Dangermond; Mr. Dangermond, was a Harvard-trained landscape architect. Today, these companies are joined by many others in fostering the applications and innovations associated with location intelligence and geographic information systems (GIS), such as Trimble, Autodesk, Pitney Bowes, Bentley Systems and others. So, GIS reaches a milestone that marks a mature, yet still growing technology that is finding new applications in business intelligence, advertising technology (adtech), smart cities and many emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, big data, machine learning and Blockchain.

One person, however, is recognized as the “father of GIS.” Roger Tomlinson, a Canadian geographer, is credited with the development of the first computer-aided mapping system in the early 1960’s. Tomlinson was a true “gentle giant” of a man, standing 6’5” or better with a deliberate, academic cadence to his spoken word and a distinct British accent. He worked in many capacities in both government and academia and established his own consulting practice for many years until his death in 2014. [I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Tomlinson speak at many Esri UC conferences.]

During the decade following 1969, a singular development catapulted computer mapping: the launch of Landsat by NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior in July 1972. Landsat 1 a multi-spectral imaging platform in a sun-synchronous orbit, captured digital images of the Earth’s surface, and returned to the same geographic location to re-image that area every 18 days. Data were beamed to ground-receiving stations around the world and archived at the Earth Resource Observation and Science (EROS) Center, a U.S. Geological Survey facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Landsat’s spatial resolution was 80 meters or essentially the size of a football (US and International) field. During the next 40 years, follow-on missions were launched with both better spatial and spectral resolution providing the longest, temporal coverage of the Earth’s surface. [I worked at EROS during the early 1980’s and had the distinct honor of working side by side with some true innovators of remote sensing science.]

Early mapping software in the 70’s allowed for the digitization of vector data with the ability to reference points, lines and polygons to a geographic coordinate system. Visualization on line-printers and later computer terminals was possible but very little analysis was built into these early mapping software programs. However, raster data image analysis and visualization on mainframe and mini-computers to support Landsat data scientists was taking off. The GE Image 100 workstation and the Interactive Digital Image Manipulation System (IDIMS) by ESL were the mainstay software solutions in the late 70’s and early 80’s that were capable performing advanced image integration and computational modeling. [Classified Landsat imagery was sometimes printed using a large line printer that used alpha-numeric characters and a black ribbon; to get a color composite image, the ink cartridge was changed four times (red, green, blue and black inks) and the same paper was re-threaded each time.]

Some early “desktop” computers running Z80 processors with 8” floppy drives were developed for image visualization were prototyped in the early 80’s at EROS. Other early GIS systems were hybrid marriages of AutoCAD and dBase. ArcInfo by Esri and the Modular GIS Environment (MGE) by Intergraph were mini-computer based GIS software systems followed shortly by Atlas Graphics (later Atlas GIS) by Strategic Mapping, Inc. and MapInfo by MapInfo Corporation in the mid-80’s on DOS-based Intel 386 desktop computers. [I was fortunate to use all of the aforementioned GIS solutions and saw their rapid adoption.]

Geographic Data Technology (GDT) opened for business in 1980 in Lebanon, New Hampshire, one of the first street centerline data companies. GDT had a contract from the U.S. Census Bureau to leverage TIGER, the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing System, one of the first complete digital maps of the US. In 1983, ETAK, a Menlo Park, California company that utilized the newly published TIGER digital street files, began to manufacture one of the first in-vehicle navigation systems. However, due to the constraints of technology at the time, it took multiple CDs to hold digital street files of each city that ETAK chose to sell along with the hardware, including CD players and a small green screen display that sat near the passenger-side well of the car. [I remember interviewing for a job at ETAK and seeing what was then a very crude navigation system but at the time it was revolutionary.]

Nielsen, Claritas, National Planning Data Corporation (NPDC), CACI, Donnelley Marketing Information Services (DMIS), Business Location Research (BLR) and MapInfo were demographic and points of interest data product suppliers in the 80’s and early 90’s. Wessex, a small Chicago-based data company commercialized TIGER by delivering the data for only $995, far below the price of competing data packages. The coalescing of GIS software and data companies caught the attention of Fortune Magazine and Business Week in 1989, both of which ran articles on GIS. Forbes Magazine, published an extensive article in January 1992 on how Arby’s, the fast-food restaurant chain, was using GIS to locate stores and refine their target marketing. [Hal Reid, the VP for Innovation for Arby’s at the time, was profiled in that article and is a close colleague of mine].

Also during this period of the early 1990’s, Microsoft Windows provided a more intuitive graphical user interface that software developers leveraged to broaden the user base of GIS. More desktop GIS companies began to sprout: Tydac published the Spatial Analysis System (SPANS) and Scan/US Inc. published software under the same name; both utilized a quadtree data structure for thematic mapping. Tydac and MapInfo recognized the early potential of targeting business users for GIS. MapInfo chose to port their software from DOS to Windows. Tydac chose to port their software to IBM OS2…not the best business decision. MapInfo also won a contract to provide geographic and demographic data to Microsoft that allowed users to create thematic maps using Excel.

Also in the early 1990’s the first, GIS-specific magazines began publishing. GIS World started a monthly periodical, which quickly branched into region-specific magazines, GIS Europe and GIS Asia followed by conferences and later a magazine specifically for the business applications of GIS entitled, Business Geographics. [In 1991, I began writing the first column dedicated to “GIS in Business” for GIS World and later served as the editor of Business Geographics in the late 90’s.]

These early companies pioneered GIS and set the stage before the Internet became an essential tool in GIS and before the advent of spatially-enabled databases, Microsoft MapPoint and Google Earth. More to come in Part 2.

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06-19-2019 09:49

​​Great post, Joe!!

03-24-2019 08:58

Nicely done, Joe.  Once the technology moved to the desktop, I think a few notes on the early adopters would be interesting. My experience in the mid-90's was that wireless telecom companies found desktop mapping (MapInfo Pro in my case) to be extremely useful. I think PB can still count many of these as customers 25+ years later.

Hope things are going well!

03-21-2019 16:08

Thanks for the history.  Great to read about all of this happening during my lifetime.

11-28-2018 07:51

What a journey. Thanks for the historic view, Joe, sometimes it's good to remember how it all began. I sure learned a few new things but I have only been part of this for a couple of decades :-)

Not only did MapInfo Corp. provide Microsoft with data, MapInfo Corp. also provided the software that made creating the thematics maps possible. This was a predecessor to MapX, if I remember correctly.

11-21-2018 04:24

Thanks a lot for this history.