Surveyor's Chain

Back Home Next

Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


To surveyors and collectors alike, the link chain symbolizes a rugged era, when surveying tools and techniques were literally defining America.  The chain was a precision part of a surveyor's equipment and, as such, had to be calibrated and adjusted frequently, yet was sturdy enough to be dragged through rough terrain for years.

Owning a link chain now captures a bit of this glorious past; to heft it enhances the kinship one feels with the surveyor who toiled in the field long ago.  As collectors, we need to identify the type of chain we own, in order to understand its history.  Each chain bears the clues of its use, such as the wire gauge used, the materials and design used, the lengths of the whole and of each link, the manufacturer's stamps, the presence or absence of brazing, the tally-tags, and the presence or absence of linking rings.  Noting these components will make it possible to approximate the date and purpose of your link chain with the aid of period manufacturer's catalogs.  The following is a nicely detailed account from the 1910 Manual of the Principal Instruments used in American Engineering and Surveying, published by the W. & L. E. Gurley Company of Troy, New York.

Sizes of Wire - The sizes and diameters of iron and steel wire commonly used in making surveyor's and engineer's chains are as follows:  No. 8, .162 inch;   No. 10, .135 inch;   No. 12, .105 inch;  No. 15, .072 inch; and  No. 18, .047 inch.

Land Surveyor's Chain - The ordinary Gunter's or surveyor's chain is sixty-six feet or four poles long, and is composed of one hundred links, connected each to each by two rings, and furnished with a tally mark at the end of every ten links.  A link in measurement includes a ring at each end, and is seven and ninety two one hundredths inches long.  In all the chains which we make the rings are oval and are sawed and well closed, the ends of the wore forming the hook being also filed and bent close to the link, to avoid kinking.  The oval rings are about one third stronger than round ones.

Handles - The handles are of brass and form part of the end links, to which they are connected by a short link and jam nuts, by which the length of the chain is adjusted.

tallytags.JPG (28261 bytes)Tallies - The tallies are of brass, and have one, two, three or four notches, as they mark ten, twenty, thirty or forty links from either end.  The fiftieth link is marked by a rounded tally to distinguish it from the others.

Half Chains - In place of the four pole chain just described, many surveyors prefer a chain two rods or thirty three feet long, having only fifty links, which are counted by tallies from one end in a single direction.

Iron and Steel Wire - Our surveyors' chains are made of Nos. 8 and 10 refined iron wire, and of Nos. 8, 10, 12 and 15 best steel wire.  Steel chains are preferred on account of their greater strength, although they are more expensive than those of iron.

Engineers' Chains - Engineers' chains differ from surveyors' chains, in that a link including a ring at each end is one foot long, and the wire is of steel Nos. 8, 10 and 12.  They are either fifty or one hundred feet long, and are furnished with swivel handles and tallies like those just described.

Brazed Steel Chains - A very light and strong chain is made of No. 12 steel wire, the links and rings of which are securely brazed.  The wire is of a low spring temper, and the chain, though light, is almost incapable of being broken or stretched in careful use.

Our brazed steel chains have been found exceedingly desirable for all kinds of measurement, and for the use of engineers upon railroads and canals have very generally superseded the heavier chains.

Vara Chains - The meter is used as a standard measure of length in many countries, and chains of ten and twenty meters are often ordered.  The chains are made of iron or steel wire, each meter being divided into five links.  As a meter is 39.371 inches long, a link, including a ring at each end, measures 7.874 inches.

A ten meter chain has fifty links and a twenty meter chain one hundred links.  Each meter is marked with a round brass tally numbered from one to nine in the ten meter chain, and from one to nineteen in the twenty meter chain.

Marking Pins - In chaining, eleven marking pins are needed, made either of iron, steel or brass wire, as preferred.  They are about fourteen inches long, pointed at one end to enter the ground, and formed into a ring at the other end for convenience in handling.

Marking pins are sometimes loaded with a little mass of lead around the lower end, to serve as a plumb when the pin is dropped to the ground from the suspended end of the chain.



Back Home Next