From Pigeons to Planets - 10 Fun Facts in Geospatial History

June 22, 2022
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How am I supposed to absorb all this information at once?? This was my first thought when starting my career in the geospatial industry. My name is Ella McConnell, and I am the marketing specialist for When I started working for in March of 2022, I was overwhelmed by the massive amount of information I found when looking up basic terms and possible blog topics. I am learning slowly but surely about GIS, photogrammetry, and lidar. To gain a better understanding of this industry, I decided to research the history of the geospatial industry and write a blog article of my findings. I invite you, the reader, to read this article whether you have been in this industry for 40 years or you are brand new like me. See if you learn something new!

Here are my top 10 fun facts in Geospatial History:

John Snow Maps Cholera Outbreak

In 1854 there was a mass cholera outbreak in London. The towns people did not know where the outbreak was stemming from. One of the townsmen, John Snow (no, not from Game of Thrones) decided to map who had the disease and where they lived to pinpoint where the outbreak was coming from. He found out the outbreak was stemming from a shared water pump. Once this was discovered, they were able to prevent further spread of this virus. This is the first known use of geospatial analysis. 1

Image Source: here

First Aerial Image

Jump forward a few years to 1858 when the first aerial image was taken. A man by the name of Laussedat used a kite to take the first aerial images (later known as photogrammetry) and later in 1862, he also experimented taking the images with balloons. 2

Image Source : here

An Eye From the Sky

In the early 1900s, scientists were working on figuring out the best way to take aerial images. Julius Neubronner had a fleet of pigeons with small cameras attached to them to take images of the ground while the pigeons were flying. Through experimenting with different ways of imaging, eventually, as technology advanced, the community of “surveyors” agreed that planes and satellites were the most effective at taking the images. 3

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The Father of GIS

Roger Tomlinson is widely known as the “Father of GIS”. Roger passed away in 2014. He worked for the Canadian government (out of Ottawa, Ontario- which is where I grew up!) in the late 1960s and he created the first computerized geographic information system. This geographic system he created is still used by Canadian municipalities for land planning.  4

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Grandfather of GIS

Howard Fisher is regarded as the “Grandfather of GIS” he created the leading GIS software of the time in America. He created something called symap in 1964. “Symap” Stands for Synagraphic Mapping System. Though Roger Tomlinson’s creation was before Howard fisher’s they are both widely respected and known for creating GIS systems. Due to Fisher being such an influential person in the history of GIS, there is an award given out at Harvard every year to undergraduates who show excellence in GIS. This award is called H.T. Fisher Prize. 5

Image Source: here

The First Lidar

The first attempts to use light as a means of measuring distance was in the 1930s. Scientists used searchlights to measure the atmosphere and the height of clouds. The invention of a laser didn't happen until 1960, after that invention was created it made it easier for GIS analysts and surveyors to scan and measure areas by flying a plane using lidar. 6

Lost City in the Bolivian Amazon

Lidar is a truly amazing tool. This is an example of how lidar is being used today to discover things we would have never known without this tool. In the Bolivian Amazon, vice news reports that using lidar to cut through the dense forest, they were able to find a hidden city! There are 80 square miles of undiscovered buildings, canals, causeways, ramparts and so much more. This city was active between 500-1400 A.D. They were also able to find 24 sub-cities 15 of which were unknown to archeologists. I find that to be incredible. I can’t wait to hear more about this discovery and more to come. 7

Image Source: here

Everyday Uses

GIS, photogrammetry, and lidar are used in so many everyday applications that a lot of people don’t realize. For example, a universal tool that almost everyone uses is google maps. These tools are also used in 911. GIS analysts work to configure data gathered by surveyors to pinpoint addresses so that when someone calls 911 the dispatcher can send the police, firefighters, or EMTs to the victim's precise location. Another way these tools are used is in digital twin cities which are digital make-ups of cities used for city planning.  Smartphones are now able to 3D scan and capture that 3D object on the phone. This feature can be used for building 3D models of houses, rooms, and much more. All of which have accurate sizes and data which is gathered through the phone using video and lidar. 8

NASA Uses of GIS

The future of mapping is exciting. GIS is a crucial part of mapping space. NASA uses satellites to image and scan space and different planets. NASA uses advanced GIST to map and try to find the origins of these planets and how they have evolved. They also use GIS to assess the health of our planet and the future of climate change. 9

Image Source: here


AR and VR rely on photogrammetry and lidar. 360-degree cameras and lidar are commonly used to create virtual reality worlds and environments. The headsets used for VR have cameras that scan objects and interior spaces, which can be used to eventually map a user's space in 3D. Mark Zuckerberg the founder of Facebook/Meta is making a real-life version of Ready Player One (a fantastic movie, I would highly recommend watching). He is creating the “Metaverse”. A place where people can use VR headsets for virtual meetings. In times that we have had recently with the pandemic, this is helpful because you can virtually be in the same room and have meetings all on this headset. It is also beneficial to families, for example, you can have a movie night with relatives while all being in a separate house and still interact with each other through the VR headset. With AR, a 3D scan of an object using lidar can be visually superimposed in a real environment. For example, using GIS data with AR and VR to map utility resources.  Here is a video example of using AR and VR with GIS for city planning. 10

Though I have so much more to learn and explore about the geospatial industry, these 10 facts popped out to me the most when researching this topic. I cannot wait to see what else is found in the Bolivian Amazon, there are probably other hidden and untouched cities like this across the world. It is exciting to see what the future holds. Speaking of the future, we don’t even need to be in the same house as our families to be able to sit down and watch a movie together. This is a great way for people to connect even when they cannot see each other in person. This rapidly expanding industry is a blessing to be part of. At we value the history and the future of this technology. We are always interested to learn more. If you have any other interesting facts that I did not mention, please feel free to reach out on our LinkedIn pages.


Map a historic cholera outbreak | Learn ArcGIS 1

Photogrammetry 01: A Brief History -1840 ’til Now | AR-eye 2

GSP 216 ( 3

Roger Tomlinson, Geographer ( 4

The Enduring Legacy of Howard Fisher - Apogeo Spatial 5

lidar | scientific technique | Britannica 6

‘Mind-Blowing’ Lost City With a Cosmic Link Discovered in the Amazon ( 7

Lidar is one of the iPhone and iPad Pro's coolest tricks: Here's what else it can do ( 8

How Mapping Is Used by NASA & Applications of GIS in Space - USC GIS Online 9

The most advanced AR system for GIS - vGIS Utilities - YouTube 10

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