Who is the Father of GIS?


It was a serendipitous meeting on an airplane that launched what is now a global industry valued at over $270 billion dollars annually.  Onboard a flight in 1961, Roger Tomlinson met Lee Pratt, the recently named head of the Canada Land Inventory who had been tasked with developing a land map covering one million square miles in order to manage agricultural land, forests, wildlife, and identify land suitable for tourism.   Tomlinson proposed a solution using computerized spatial data and thus modern GIS was born.  In the more than fifty years since, GIS has grown into a technology that can be applied in almost all disciplines needing to understand patterns across space and time. Tomlinson went on to coin the term “geographic information systems”  and it’s his contributions to geographic information systems (GIS) that earned him the nickname, “Father of GIS”. Roger Tomlinson died on February 9, 2014, at the age of 80.

Roger Tomlinson. Archival Photograph from the Tomlinson Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Roger Tomlinson. Archival Photograph from the Tomlinson Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Tomlinson’s 1974 doctoral thesis is available online:

Tomlinson, RF; (1974) Geographical Information Systems, Spatial Data Analysis and Decision Making in Government.Doctoral thesis, University of London.

On an agenda for Harvard Computer Graphics Week held back in July of 1981, Tomlinson jotted down his approach to mapmaking, writing, “impossible to map the world–we select and make graphics so that we can understand it.”

Quote from Roger Tomlinson about mapmaking. Via Library of Congress.

Quote from Roger Tomlinson about mapmaking. Via Library of Congress.

Canada’s Globe and Mail profiled Roger Tomlinson and the birth of GIS in Canada.  The article quotes Tomlinson, “The early days of GIS were very lonely.  No-one knew what it meant. My work has certainly been missionary work of the hardest kind.”  The article reviews Tomlinson’s early efforts collaborating with Lee Pratt, head of the Canada Land Inventory, in the early 1960s.

Read More: Putting Canada on the map – Globe and Mail

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