History of GIS


1. History of GIS

2. Computer Mapping

3. Early GIS

4. Modern GIS

5. Study Questions


1. History of GIS

First Map

The first known map comes from a clay tablet produced in Mesopotamia around 2500 BC. The map delineated land ownership of the area. Although this clay tablet is the oldest surviving map, there were certainly many other maps written on other mediums that did not survive.

Mental Map

The very first map was not drawn, but in the human mind. Based on a mental map, the first maps may have been drawn in the sand with a stick, with one person telling another where basic necessities like food and water could be found. This exchange of information could explain the shortest travel route between two locations.

Initial/Interactive Maps

The first interactive maps may have been the sand maps drawn with a stick. We still use this same concept when we draw a map on a napkin, and the second person asks where a specific landmark is in the area. This was the downfall of the paper classeroom maps. They were static, and people couldn't interact with them. Today, with computers, the interactive map is back.


2. Computer Mapping


The plotter was the first graphic peripheral capable of printing maps. The plotter has a pen, which draws out lines, controlled by x,y motors. There are two types of plotters: a drum plotter where the paper is mounted on a drum roller; and a flat plotter, where paper is placed flat and a long arm moves across it. the first plotter appeared in 1959, from CALCOMP, initially priced from $100,000-200,000.The plotters were rated by speed, but were mechanical devices, with multiple breakdowns, and poor reliability. The plotter era ended in 1990, but plotters are still available commercially. To go to an interesting hardware web page, click HERE.

Refresh Display

In the early 1960's, refresh display allowed graphics to be displayed on a phosphor screen. The phosphor material would glow a green color when excited by a stream of electrons. The light given off was short-lived, so the screen would have to be re-drawn, or refreshed, thirty to sixty times a minute. Again, this technology was expensive, and only worked well with simple graphics.

Storage Display

The storage display was a step up from the refresh display, with a flood of electrons constantly exciting a film of phosphor. This meant the graphic stayed on, and did not have to constantly be redrawn. This technology began in the late 1960's, and was phased out as memory display advanced.

Memory Display

Xerox developed memory display technology in the early '70's. This concept used computer memory to maintain the screen display. The first screen was a black-and-white grid of dots, 1 bit per pixel. This type of screen is still used today, although the pixels are now 8, 24, or 32 bit, producing hundreds to thousands of colors.


3. Early GIS

CGIS (Canadian GIS)

Canadian GIS was started in 1964, with a goal of concentrating land use, soils and water information of the vast, unexplored tracts of Canada. The main interest of the Canadian government was using this information for agricultural development in sustainable areas. The Canadians were the first to use a scanner to input raster maps.

Remote Sensing

The development of remote sensing in GIS began in 1972 with the launch of LANDSAT. This series of satellites gathered huge data sets of the earth's resources. The problem was, there was no computer system capable of handling the large volumes of data, so, most of the data was not analyzed.


There are three eras of computers: the mainframe, minicomputer, and the microcomputer. The IBM mainframe was large, taking up entire floors, and very costly. The 1960 minicomputers were smaller, allowing the graphic display to be located next to the machine, cutting down on distance. Lastly, the microcomputer was introduced in he middle '70's, and allowed more people access to processing power.


4. Modern GIS

Project based GIS

This type of GIS allows individuals to investigate very specific research questions. Technology is used to answer these questions. One such question would be: has the vegetation growth pattern changed along the Platte River due to dam construction?

Enterprise based GIS

Enterprises like cities, stated and private companies us GIS to keep track of infrastructure and transportation routes.

Societal GIS

This is the most recent stage of GIS, where educated persons can use the technology to help solve problems for society. Whether this application is viable remains to be seen.


5. Questions

- Define a mental map.

-Differentiate between a mental and interactive map.

-Descrive the evolution of computer displays.

-List the components of early GIS

-What are the areas of modern GIS.

Submitted by Sonja Sebree on 2-1-98.