Collecting Obsolete Surveying Instruments
Written and submitted by Ron Blauch
The electronic age brought about tremendous revolution in so many industries. One of the most pronounced of these revolutions was in the world of the land surveyor. Surveying tools and methods had remained largely the same for two centuries. Distances were measured with steel tapes or chains, angles were measured with a sighting apparatus and a graduated arc or circle. Electronic devices now measure distances with light and radio waves and angles with a potentiometer. Constellations of satellites are used to pinpoint locations on the earth’s surface.
In the wake of this revolution are left behind the compasses, transits, levels, altimeters, tapes and a host of accessories once used by surveyors to measure the surface of the land. They have become collectible because not only are they beautiful specimens of fine craftsmanship, but they accomplished the mapping of the earth, provided the orderly division of land to individual ownership and rights, and provided the raw data for site development and the means to build our legacy of bridges, buildings, utility systems and all the rest of our infrastructure.
As with any other antique and collectible tool, rarity, aesthetics and condition play a large role in valuation. The instruments were finely crafted of brass and other metals with great precision. Before the industrial age, they were made by hand in small shops. As factory methods developed, manufacturers developed standard models that could be produced. Models varied for special uses, precision and pricing. In addition, most manufacturers made instruments of lower precision for the construction and farming trades.
A collector may focus on the extremely rare earliest compasses or special purpose instruments used for mining or celestial observations of great accuracy. These can cost thousands of dollars. A more affordable collection would involve those items that the average surveyor would have used to perform property surveys or topographic surveys. A fifty year old American made surveying transit may be available for a few hundred dollars and a nice surveying level for less. The list of collectible accessories is long including tapes, chains, plumb bobs, level rods and on and on. Many can be found for a few dollars here and there.
It is perhaps the quality of the optical scopes, level bubbles, fine adjustments and engraved graduated circles that makes one appreciate the craftsmanship of these tools. The brass and finishes make them attractive in a way. Considering the role these things have played in the settlement of the nation and in the construction of our landmark achievements, they command a respect not unlike that given the hand tools of our craftsmen. Both required a skilled and knowledgeable user.
The old tools of the surveyor show up at antique malls, flea markets, on line and auctions. Because of their precision and original higher cost, they were often retained by firms beyond their usefulness. Many collectors have a nostalgic affection toward the instruments they may have used or seen around during their careers. For those who do not know much about them, there are a few resources on the old tools, but much can be learned by seeking out old surveying textbooks and manufacturers’ catalogs and there are several forums online where collectors exchange information.
With the advance of technology at what seems to be the speed of light, there is much to admire about the tools of the surveyor left behind. The large American instrument making firms have largely succumbed to the advance of technology and globalization, but their old instruments display a beauty of machining craftsmanship created by skilled hands and used by skilled hands for centuries. Collecting these monuments to craftsmanship can become a passion.