Who Coined the Phrase Geographic Information System?

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Roger Tomlinson, also known as the Father of GIS, is famed for being a pioneer in the field of Geographic Information System (GIS).  His early work fifty years ago with the Canada Land Inventory (CLI) in 1962 is widely recognized as the beginnings of GIS.  Prior to the computerization of maps, geographic data was manually overlaid onto other printed maps in order to answer spatial questions.  This involved the use of a base map (similar to today’s base maps) that contained background geography such as roads, terrain, and hydrology.  Clear plastic sheets containing additional mapped data would then be overlaid onto the base map so that spatial relationships could be analyzed.    It was a very time consuming and inefficient process and Tomlinson describes in a 2009 interview in Esri’s ArcWatch magazine how he was inspired to come up with a better and more efficient way to overlay spatial data for analysis.

Tomlinson had been thinking about the feasibility of digitizing maps and combining them with statistical data when he had a fortuitous meeting on an airplane in 1961 with Lee Pratt the head of the Canada Land Inventory (CLI).  Pratt was seeking to produce a map covering land use of over one million square miles of Canada’s rural land.  The map, envisioned with overlays covering agricultural lands, tourism, forests, and wildlife areas, would be used for the management and inventory of Canada’s resources.  After a discussion by Tomlinson about his idea of computerizing overlays, Pratt hired him to produce a feasibility study three months later.  The economic and technical feasibility study Tomlinson presented in August of 1963  to the Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Administration (ARDA) suggested a $3 million price tag to create a computerized version as opposed to an estimated $8 million cost to create the map manually.  Preceding that feasibility study, Tomlinson had also presented a paper entitled, “Computer Mapping: An Introduction to the Use of Electronic Computers in the Storage, Compilation and Assessment of Natural and Economic Data for the Evaluation of Marginal Lands” at the National Land Capability Inventory Seminar in Ottawa in November 1962.

Origins of the Term Geographic Information System

Tomlinson ended up spearheading the development of the Canada Geographic Information System, the world’s first GIS.  Tomlinson is also widely credited with coining the term Geographic Information System.  His article, A Geographic Information System for Regional Planning ( from Papers of a CSIRO Symposium, edited by GA Stewart.) published in 1968, was highlighted in a recent Esri article in the Fall 2012 edition of ArcNews on the 50th Anniversary of GIS which described it as “The first known published use of the term Geographic Information System in August 1968.”

I wanted to do a little digging on the veracity of that statement given that Esri highlighted and transcribed in 2010 the 1967 promotional film produced by the National Film Board of Canada called Data for Decisions, (subtitled the Geographic Information Systems of the Directorate of Regional Planning Information Systems for the Canadian Land Inventory of the ARDA) which is narrated by Roger Tomlinson.  The film describes the origins of the Canadian Land Inventory’s GIS.


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The film, however, doesn’t mark the first published occurrence of the term, Geographic Information System.  A report published in December of 1965 by Michael Dacey and Duane Marble from the Department of Geography at the University of Illinois, Evanston was titled “Some comments on certain technical aspects on geographic information systems“.  The report’s distribution list at the end of the PDF includes Roger Tomlinson.  Unfortunately, this report also doesn’t provide an indication as to the origin of the phrase Geographic Information System.  This leads to the impression that the term was already familiar at least with the audience targeted by the report.

The search continues for an earlier published source than the 1965 report that uses the term Geographic Information System.

Film About the Beginnings of the Canadian GIS

A screenshot of a younger Roger Tomlinson from the film:

Roger Tomlinson, 1967.

Roger Tomlinson, 1967.

The film provides an interesting look at the beginnings of GIS and how technology was used in the 1960s to created computerized maps and overlays.  The video can be viewed on YouTube in three parts:

Esri has consolidated relevant documents by Roger Tomlinsons on the origins of GIS in Canada:


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