1850s Surveyor Kit | Time Travel Iowa

Surveyor tools were instrumental in the development of our state and the planning of our communities. Surveying in Iowa began in the early 1800s before it was a state. The Grout Museum District in has examples of surveyor tools used by one of Waterloo, Iowa’s earliest settlers.


For as long as people have been settling, we have been surveying. Surveying has been an important part of the development of our human environment since the beginning of recorded history. The Grout Museum District has surveyor tools from one of Waterloo Iowa's earliest settlers.

Surveying is the work of examining, measuring and recording the area and features of a piece of land, usually to construct a map or to plan a building or town. Surveying in Iowa began in the early 1800s before it was a state. By the middle of the 1800s, much of the area was surveyed and many towns started to be planned.

Charles Mullan and his wife America Mullan came to Waterloo in 1846, the same year that Iowa gained statehood. They were in fact one of the earliest settlers right behind the Hanna family.

Nicholas Erickson, Registrar, Grout Museum District: In the early 1850s, Blackhawk County hired Charles Mullan to plat its plots, streets and so forth, city blocks. Charles Mullan was a jack of all trades. He was Waterloo's first justice of the peace and Waterloo's first postmaster. So he was a learned man.

Erickson: This is a middle-1800s surveyor's kit. Here we've got a surveyor's compass, otherwise known as a circumferentor, pins with cotton flagging so they don't get lost in the dirt, and then a surveyor's chain, otherwise sometimes called a Gunter's chain.

The circumferentor was used to measure changes in elevation. By lining up two points in the sights, a surveyor could determine the angle of change. The Gunter's chain consisted of 100 links, each measuring 7.92 inches, for a total of 66 feet of measurement.

Erickson: Around the facing of the compass here is 360 degrees all marked out. However, they are marked into quadrants. So four sections of 90 degrees.

Erickson: So this here is a plumb bob and it is just a lead weight on a string. All surveying begins with a known previously surveyed starting point represented here by the X of masking tape. Normally I'd use one of these stakes, push it into the ground to mark my first point. The plumb bob will always be straight up and down, no matter what kind of terrain we're working on, no matter where the legs of the tripod are, which puts our instrument on point every time. The instrument is affixed to the tripod with a ball and socket joint, which allows a free range of motion.

Erickson: The next step is to level the instrument. Now, there's a little bubble level here that Charles Mullan would have used, but the liquid inside has since dried up so I'm going to use one that I brought from the wood shop.

Erickson: The next step is to measure our distance with the end of our line using the surveyor's chain. The chain begins at our known point and the surveyor's assistant, Sami in this case, pulls the chain all the way to the end point.

Surveyor's tools like the circumferentor were instrumental in the development of our state and the planning of our communities. Without them, many of the buildings, roads and cities you see today would not have been possible.

Erickson: Surveying is pretty important, especially in the establishment of settlements. Say you have two folks arguing about whose claim is whose and then in the olden days, right, when Iowa was the Old West, what they used to call the middle border, this could be a life and death issue. It was the job of the surveyor to make sure that there was no question about someone's boundaries, that the plots had been surveyed, the books had been filed, the plats had been filed and anybody has an argument you take it up with the county or the city rather than your neighbor.

Look around your community. Imagine how things looked before human settlement. Consider what it was like to be one of the first to plan, map and survey our state. Would these early Iowans have envisioned the major cities and interstates that now cross the land?

Surveying continues to develop. Today, surveyors use advanced technology like 3D scanning and GPS, although many of the basic surveying methods are still used, much like those Charles Mullan would have used in the mid-1800s.

Funding for this video provided by the Liberty Fund at Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and Margaret J. Gurau of Ames, Iowa. This project is also supported in part by the State Historical Society of Iowa, Historical Resource Development Program.


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