The History of Geodesy

At the same time in Alexandria, Egypt, he found that the sun cast a shadow equivalent to about 1/50th of a circle or 7.12°. Eratosthenes combined this measurement with the distance between Syene and Alexandria, about 4,400 stades.

If we plug these numbers into the above equation, we get: (360°÷ 7.12°) which equals 50; and 50 x 4,400 equals 220,000 stades, or about 25,000 miles. The accepted measurement of the Earth's circumference today is about 24,855 miles (Smith, 1988). Given the simple tools and technology that Eratosthenes had at his disposal over 2,000 years ago, his calculations were quite remarkable.

As technology developed, scientists and surveyors began to use different techniques to measure distance. In the 16th and 17th centuries, triangulation started to be used widely. Triangulation is a method of determining the position of a fixed point by measuring the angles to it from two other fixed points that are a known distance apart. Triangulation formed the basis for many national surveys. By the end of the 19th century, major triangulation networks covered the United States, India, Great Britain, and large parts of Europe.


At the end of the 16th century, the Royal Society in London and the L'Academie Royale des Sciences in Paris were founded. Soon they became locked in a battle to determine the shape of the Earth. The French argued that the Earth was prolate, or shaped like an egg. The English, using Sir Isaac Newton's universal theory of gravity and the knowledge that the Earth spun around its axis, thought that the Earth was oblate, or flattened at the poles. To prove their idea, the Academy in Paris staged two expeditions, one to Peru (now Ecuador) at the equator, and the other to the border of Sweden and Finland in the northern hemisphere. Their objective was to measure the north-south curvature of the Earth at each location's latitude and determine whose concept of the Earth's shape was correct. The Academy's efforts proved that Newton was right. The Earth is flattened into the shape of an oblate sphere (Smith, 1988).

During the last 100 years, geodesy and its applications have advanced tremendously. The 20th century brought space-based technology, making geodetic measurements extremely precise. Today, NAVSTAR Global Positioning System satellites allow scientists to measure changes in the Earth's surface to the centimeter.

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