History of GIS

From the early days in Canada to the high tech world of internet mapping, the field of GIS is older than you may think.

History of GIS

A GIS (geographic or geospatial information system) is a modern extension of traditional cartography with one fundamental similarity and two essential differences.  The similarity lies in the fact that both a cartographic document and a GIS contain examples of a base map to which additional data can be added.  The differences are that there is no limit to the amount of additional data that can be added to a GIS map and secondly the GIS uses analysis and statistics to present data in support of particular arguments which a cartographic map cannot do.  Cartographic maps are often extremely simplified as there are limits to the amount of data that can be physically and meaningfully stored on a small map.

There have been four distinct phases in the development of Geographic Information Systems.  Phase one, between the early 1960s and the mid 1970s saw a new discipline being dominated by a few key individuals who were to shape the direction of future research and development.  The second phase, from the mod 1970s to early 1980s saw the adoption of technologies by national agencies that led to a focus on the development of best practice. Phase three, between 1982 until the late 1980s saw the development and exploitation of the commercial market place surrounding GIS whilst the final phase since the late 1980s has seen a focus on ways of improving the usability of technology by making facilities more user centric.

Information regarding the uptake and development of GIS, particularly by National departments is patchy.  Currently, no widespread research into this area has been undertaken.  Where it has, some government functions, including the UKs Ordnance Survey have actively refused to release information about how technology has been adopted and deployed.

It also seems likely that the early stages of GIS development in the 20th century were characterized by individuals who were pursuing disparate goals in the field of GIS and that there was no single direction agree for research to follow.  At that time the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics, the Canada Geographic Information System, the Environmental Systems Research Institute and the Experimental Cartography Unit in the UK were the major influences in the field. A single direction did not appear until the field became the focus of intense commercial activity as satellite imaging technology meant that mass applications could be created for business and private use and at the time Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) became the dominant organisation in the field.

Beginnings of Spatial Analysis

The first documented application of what could be classed as a GIS was in France in 1832.  French Geographer, Charles Picquet created a map based representation of cholera epidemiology in Paris by representing the 48 districts of Paris with different halftone colour gradients, an early version of a heat map.  The map, published in the report,  Rapport sur la marche et les effets du choléra-morbus dans Parisis likely the first use of spatial analysis in epidemiology.

1832 shaded map showing cholera deaths per thousand inhabitants for each of the 48 districts in Paris by Charles Picquet.

1832 shaded map showing cholera deaths per thousand inhabitants for each of the 48 districts in Paris by Charles Picquet.

A similar situation led to John Snow depicting cholera deaths in London using points on a map in 1854.  The Snow map was important because it was not just a presentation of data.  An attempt was made to present an argument developed from a spatial analysis of data displayed on the map.

John Snow's 1854 Cholera Map.

John Snow’s 1854 Cholera Map.

The next significant step in the development of modern geographic information systems was in the early 20th century.   A printing technique known as photzincography was used to separate out layers from a map.  Vegetation, Water and developed land could all be printed as separate themes.  Whilst giving the appearance of being a GIS this does not represent a full GIS as there is no opportunity to provide an analysis of the mapped data.

First GIS

By the 1960s the nuclear arms program had given rise to hardware and mapping applications and the first operational GIS had been launched in Ottawa, Canada.  This early iteration of GIS was developed to store, collate, and analyse data about land usage in Canada.  The system was enhanced throughout the seventies and eighties until the mid-nineties by which time it was driven by mainframe hardware and contained data sets from the entire Canadian land mass.


Desktop GIS Debuts

During the seventies and eighties developments in spatial awareness and how to handle spatial data were being made in key academic centers such as Harvard and Esri.  In the 1990s, Esri, one of the largest GIS software companies, released ArcView which was a desktop solution for producing mapping systems via a Windows-based interface.  The ArcView standard was soon adopted by many government, business, defense, and non-governmental organizations due to its GUI interface and ease of use.

Widespread Adoption of GIS

During the next decade the internet saw the adoption of GIS technologies at lower and lower levels of municipality as costs tumbled and the technology came into reach of local authorities.  At the same time the spread of the internet provided a means by which to access an utilise standard maps as suppliers such as Esri encouraged organisations to add data sets to the map sets they were already making available across the Internet.  Key sectors such as government, non-government bodies and utilities seem to be developing an approach to sharing data and there is evidence of significant sharing across such platforms as ere has been significant sharing of data sets across shared platforms such as the Ersi offering.  Currently the industry is debating how best to resolve issues arising from data ownership on public platforms.  Significantly commercial organisations appear to be reluctant to join the growing trend of bodies prepared to share their data but this is down to the commercial advantage that such data can provide.


Visit the GIS Timeline for more detail about significant GIS events.

More Resources

Article on the GIS History Project
Article on the events behind the establishment of the GIS History Project.

Do Maps Have Morals?
Piece by MIT Technology Review detailing the dispute on the origins of GIS between its more benign academic beginnings and the more sinister military origins.

Esri Company History
History of Esri from its beginnings in 1969 to the development of the annual International User Conference which pulls in 12,000 attendees each year.

GIS History Project
Launched in 1996 the GIS History Project seeks to foster research and documentation of the evolution of GIS.

Milestones in the history of thematic cartography, statistical graphics, and data visualization
Michael Friendly and Daniel J. Denis, who are both Psychology Professors (Friendly at York University in Ontario, Canada and Denis at The University of Montana), have put together a comprehensive timeline showing “Milestones in the history of thematic cartography, statistical graphics, and data visualization.” The dynamic timeline categorizes significant events and achievements as cartography, technology or statistics and graphics. Each milestone is clickable with a summary and a link to further information. The timeline can be dragged left and right to either go back in time or forward.

Map History
All kinds of great information about the history of maps and map-making. Find out about globes, paper maps and atlases.


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