By: Abraham Mohale – Junior Curator, Communication, Sighting and Survey, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


Figure 1, WW 1- A surveyor on the battlefield.




In the 18TH century modern techniques and instruments for surveying emerged. A British mathematician, astronomical and scientific instrument maker, Jesse Ramsden, introduced the first precision theodolite in 1787. It was an instrument for measuring angles in the horizontal and vertical planes. He created this remarkable theodolite using an accurate dividing engine of his own design. This article explains the role and the importance of surveying during primitive wars, their invention, and the technical support they brought in the military excursions. The article will further describe the technical instruments, how they were used, and how they assisted and capacitated the planners of combats.


What is military surveying?


A military survey is one in which a certain amount of refinement is aimed at and is usually carried out by specially selected officers of ability and experience, generally staff officers. Military surveyors’ role was to measure land features, such as depth and shape, based on reference points. They examine previous land records to verify data from on-site surveys. Surveyors also prepare maps and reports. One of the most important duties of surveyors was to determine the range of sounds and flash in order to produce adequate counter battery fire. These were also termed observation battalions, as most of the jobs consisted of observing and notating, then putting that information to work. Military survey plays an extremely important role in any construction project. Construction surveying can take many forms. It is primarily used to establish the location and alignments of roads, bridges, railway lines, communication setups, pipes and other man-made objects that assist the infrastructure, and placing of military equipment and weaponry at the right camp or place. The other main use of military surveying is in the documentation process while transferring ownership from one person to another. It helps in defining the boundaries and land area calculations. Military sighting and surveying provided accurate locations of the principal military installations, airfields, air beacons, and radio range stations, and establish geodetic positions in specific localities where required for other military purposes.


Ancient surveying techniques


By 2 600 BC, the Egyptians had taken this concept and created the earliest surveying instrument, namely the plumb board, the A-level, T-level and plumb square. This was the first of the plumb bob that paralleled the surface being measured. The worker could then make a more precise visual judgement as to the trueness of plump horizontal level. Earliest bobs were stones and their shape, although often egg-like, really didn’t matter. These simplest of tools remained virtually unchanged for the next 4 400+ years. Four thousand years ago, the concepts of math were basic, yet the Egyptians were able to achieve wonders. They used the predecessors of modern surveying instruments to engineer many feats from canals to pyramids. An ancient Egyptian survey crew used measuring ropes, plumb bobs, sighting instruments, and levelling instruments.


Rope stretcher


According to ancient legend pictures found in Egyptian tombs show scribes and their assistants, carrying ropes tied with equally spaced knots. Speculations are that the ropes were used to create triangles to establish boundaries after the yearly flooding of the Nile, which helped to build the pyramids.


Groma Surveying

The groma was a Roman surveying instrument. It comprised a vertical staff with horizontal crosspieces and had a plumb line hanging vertically at each end. It was used to survey straight lines and right angles, thence square or rectangles. They were stabilized on the high ground and pointed in the direction it was going to be used. The Romans recognized land surveying as a profession. They established the basic measurements under which the Roman empire was divided, such as a tax register of conquered lands. Roman surveyors were known as Gromatici.     


Sighting and surveying instruments

Figure 2. Prismatic Compass, a navigation and surveying instrument (Picture from


A prismatic compass is a navigation and surveying instrument which is extensively used to find out the bearing of the traversing and included angles between them, waypoints (an endpoint of the course) and direction.


Figure 3. A tripod, in the sighting and survey collection at the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH).


A tripod is a three-legged stand designed to support a camera. Cameras are mounted to a tripod, also referred to as a ‘stick’ for stability. Tripods utilize a fluid head. This also allows the camera to pan left and right or tilt up and down.


Figure 4. Course and speed calculators, on display in the Brink Hall, at DNMMH.


It is a simple preprinted instrument on which a navigator can draw triangles of velocity with a chino graph pencil, (easily removable) without the need to draw straight lines with a pencil. Pilots of single-seater aircraft having to do their own navigation, used a special type of csc which could be strapped onto the knee, and which incorporated a simple navigation log.


Figure 5. Telescope in the sighting and survey collection of the DNMMH.


A telescope is an optical instrument designed to make distant objects appear nearer by using an arrangement of lenses, or curved mirrors and lenses, by which rays of light are collected and focused and the resulting image magnified.


Figure 6. Holographic mirror in the sighting ang survey collection of DNMMH.


A holographic mirror is a reflection type holographic optical element that works as an off-axis mirror. It realizes an upright see-through screen serving as a virtual-image display and virtual camera.


Figure 7. Mortar sight, with the barrel of a gun (Picture from

A mortar is a portable, short barrel, muzzle loading artillery piece that fires explosive projectiles at low velocities, short ranges, and high arcing trajectories. The weapon is contrasted with larger artillery pieces, which fire at high velocities, long ranges, and low, direct trajectories.




Even after centuries passed, the purpose of surveying has remained somewhat the same, establishing boundaries, creating maps for navigation, and developing the land. While the purpose of surveying remains constant, the tools used to accomplish them have evolved drastically with human advancement. There are other ancient methods of surveying like the plane table, Gunter’s chain, and theodolite triangulation method. From ancient times warfare was not only about firing a gun, pistol, or rifle, but about planning, tactics and technical support. There was also a need for technological advancement and military intelligence planning, The military institutions required new technical instruments and inventions to advance and plan accordingly for combats.





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