Reprinted from Autumn 1986 Reflections, a publication of First American Title Insurance Company
A grunt. A thump on the chest of his eldest son. The sweep of an arm from a rock by a river to a distant tree.
Some prehistoric father had just described a property line. In doing so, he tapped a wellspring of dispute, lawsuits and war that still flows.
He also invented the title business and the surveying profession.
Some 200,000 years later, the earliest grants of land in America still involved the broadest sort of property description. But, as the populations grew and land was subdivided, the necessity arose for more precise descriptions of property. At first, the old world practice of "metes and bounds" sufficed. Property was described in distances from landmark to landmark. To conform those descriptions, men were employed to survey, define and mark boundaries. George Washington, this land's first county surveyor, was among them.
A GRAND SCALE - Metes and bounds were adequate in the original 13 colonies, Kentucky, Tennessee and parts of other eastern states. But the vast western territories received a simple scheme of grand scale. So the Congress of a young United States approved the subdivision of public lands into a grid of 36-square-mile townships, and square-mile sections.
The corners of each were to be measured from the intersection of north/south meridian and east/west baselines.
To that end, teams of surveyors were dispatched by the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. For the better part of 100 years, they took the measure of the land, using instruments that had been invented in the 16th and 18th centuries and techniques that evolved as they went along.
The results were less than perfect. Today's land surveyors spend much of their time finding and correcting the errors of their forerunners in the interest of clearing title.
Of course, today's surveyor has the advantage of soaring technology. Surveying instruments have changed more in the past 10 years than in the previous 200. And those changes will ultimately impact the way that property is measured, described and held.
LITTLE CHANGE - The instruments used to survey America changed little from the early 1800s well into the twentieth century.
An 1813 surveying text notes that, in New England, most work was done with a magnetic compass and a surveyor's chain.
The compass, invented in 1511, was in wide use until 1894. The chain was invented in 1620 by Edmund Gunter, an Englishman. It was made of 100 iron or steel links and was 66 feet long. Eighty chains made up one mile. Ten square chains made one acre. Gunter's chain was in universal use until the steel tape measure replaced it in the last decades of the 18th century.
The transit was first made in 1831 by Philadelphian William J. Young. It was an adaptation of the theodolite invented in 1720 by John Sisson of England. Sisson had combined a telescope (invented circa 1608), a vernier--a device for subdividing measurements by 10ths (1631)--and a spirit level (1704) into a single instrument.
Young's improvement was to permit the telescope to revolve, or transit, upon its axis--a useful feature when prolonging straight lines or taking repeated readings to confirm accuracy. Improved versions of Young's transit were still in use for land surveying in the 1950s and are still broadly used in the construction trade.
INACCURACIES - Early surveys were often grossly inaccurate. The iron chains stretched with use. An error of one link (about 8 inches) in 3 to 5 chains was considered normal.
The magnetic compass was a major source of error. It is subject to daily, annual and lunar variations in the earth's magnetic field, solar magnetic storms, local attractions and static electricity in the compass glass.
Optical glass varied in quality. There were no standards for equipment and many manufacturers. And, of course, no way to re-calibrate equipment damaged 100 miles from nowhere.
Survey procedures were often less than precise. If a tree blocked a line of sight, a surveyor might sight to the trunk, walk around it and approximate the continuing line.
One modern text referring to 19th century surveys cautions that "No line more than one-half mile can be regarded as straight."
Of course, precision seemed unimportant when the land seemed endless and, at $1.25 an acre, cheap. Especially to a surveyor who was paid by the mile.
Other factors contributing to inaccuracy included a lack of supervision, a shortage of trained surveyors, an abundance of hostile Indians, bears, wolves, wind, rain, snow, burning sun and rugged terrain.
TECHNOLOGY SOARS - The technological boom of the past 15 years has quantumly increased both the accuracy and precision of land surveys.
In the 1860s an error of only 1 in 1,500 feet was considered highly accurate. By today's standards, an error of 1 in 10,000 feet is reasonably accurate and measurements accurate to 1 in 1,000,000 feet are possible.
A 19th century compass measurement that came within 60 seconds was acceptably accurate. Modern electronic instruments are accurate to within one second (a second is 1/3,600 of a degree).
The most stunning breakthrough of modern technology has been in the measurement of distance. Electronic Distance Meters (EDMs) have replaced the steel tapes. EDMs operate on the basis of the time it takes a signal to travel from an emitter to a receiver, or to reflect back to the emitter. Short range EDMs use infrared signals. EDMs designed for distances from 2 to 20 miles use microwaves. "They are accurate to within 3 millimeters on a clear day and adjust for atmospheric haze distortion and curvature of the earth," says Duke Dutch of Hadco Instruments, a major southern California distributor of survey equipment.
Surveyor's transits now incorporate digital electronics that read down to one second.
Instead of jotting his calculations and notes in a field book, today's surveyor plugs an electronic field book into his electronic transit. The electronic field book is a magnetic tape recorder with a digital display and keyboard. It automatically records each observation made by the transit.
Before the electronics boom, surveyors used a bulky plane table to manually plot maps in the field. Today's surveyor can hook his electronic field book to a computer. Special coordinate geometry software speeds the process of checking observations and, through interface with a plotter, making maps.
During the past several years, the EDM, electronic transit and electronic field book have been combined into a single unit called a "total station."
"Surveyors who don't have the latest technology simply won't survive," observes Dutch. "They won't be competitive. These instruments cut the time and cost of a survey by as much as 40 percent."
A COMING CHANGE? - The almost microscopic accuracy of electronic surveying equipment, when combined with advances in astronomy and satellite technology, may soon change the way property is described. It may even stimulate basic changes in title law, according to Paul Cuomo, section chief with the Orange County, California, Surveyor's Office and treasurer of the California Land Surveyors' Association.
"The basic problem," Cuomo says, "is the perpetuation of monuments."
Under current laws, surveyors' monuments denoting corners have priority in the determination of boundaries. In most cases, the boundaries defined by a monument will stand even if the original survey was in error and a new survey demonstrates that fact.
If old corners are obliterated, they may be reconstructed from physical evidence or testimony. If they are lost entirely, as is often the case, a new survey must retrace them from some known monument.
Monuments are pledged under, washed away, rotted away or simply moved as often as not. And sometimes they cannot be found because they were misplaced in the first place. (An error of one degree by a 19th century surveyor translates into 90 feet at one mile.)
Cuomo foresees a day when boundaries will be precise and permanent--with or without monuments.
"All it would take is to tie all future surveys to the State Plane Coordinates System," he says. That system is a nationwide grid of survey stations established over the past 40 years. Each station's location was precisely plotted astronomically. Each is in sight of others, so triangulations are convenient.
"Any survey of record tied to this system could be recreated on the ground, exactly, forever. All that would be required would be a record of the northing and easting," says Cuomo.
In surveyor's parlance, that means a notation of the exact longitude and latitude of at least one corner of the property. That notation would be include in the property description in the deed.
Formerly, such a notation required time-consuming observations and calculations that were prohibitively expensive. The advent of rapid operating, optically superior and highly precise electronic survey devices changes the picture.
"It will take major changes in the law," says Cuomo. "And we'll have to get everyone to agree: the courts, the lawyers, the title companies. But it will happen someday."
And, when it does, the line that someone's ancestors drew from the rock by the river to the distant tree will hold. Forever.