This article may reference Continental Mapping, GISinc, or TSG Solutions. These three legacy companies merged in January 2021 to form a new geospatial leader.

By: Anthony Scardino

Welcome back to our “What is GIS?” blog series. We previously discussed the earliest history of mapping and what differentiates GIS from a map. This week, we’re going to expand a little bit further into where GIS originated.

1950s – The Atomic Age

Early in the 20th century, the process of drawing on glass plates evolved into the process of printing on plastic film. This advancement allowed map makers to break maps into several layers. Plastic film enabled maps to be combined to view maps as a whole or individual layers. Add in the use of light tables, and you have a good vision of the typical process through much of the 1950’s.

1960s – Tomlinson is the Man

As computational power progressed in the 1960’s, GIS began to make leaps and bounds. These bounds were led by Dr. Roger Tomlinson while at Spartan Air Services. Working with the Government of Canada, he led the conceptualization and creation of the Canada Geographic Information System. Tomlinson truly revolutionized with the first computerized GIS in the world. Its use of data management, measurement, and having a true embedded topology led Tomlinson to be considered the “Modern Father of GIS.” He is also given credit for coining the term “geographic information system.”

1970s – Large Leaps!

Of course, I’m skirting over a few details. Otherwise, we would be in a classroom, and I’d have an overhead projector. Something I must note is the US Census and their work in digital input. DIME (Dual Independent Map Encoding) was a major step in storing geographic data.

But, it was the late-1970’s with public domain GIS systems coming into development that began the geospatial revolution. Harvard Laboratory Computer Graphics developed the first vector GIS called ODYSSEY GIS. Additionally, two public domain GIS systems (MOSS and GRASS GIS) were in development and later released in 1979 and 1984 respectively.

Founded in 1969 as Environmental Systems Research Institute, Esri released the first commercially available geographic information system in 1982. ARC/INFO provided its users with tools to input data, process, and provide spatial output. From this platform, they released PC ARC/INFO is 1986 with the advent of the Intel microcomputer. These leaps into the public sphere enabled Esri to become the foremost leader in GIS software.

1990s – GIS To The People!

Like pretty much everything, the internet transformed GIS. The early 90’s brought the very first map server, Xerox Parc, and the first digital on-line atlas, the Canadian National Atlas. Along with cheaper, faster, and more powerful computers, GIS data and software became available to the public.

2000 – GPS Floodgates Opened

A change in the year 2000 opened the door for many advancements within the United States that we’re seeing today. In May of 2000, President Bill Clinton ordered the discontinuation of GPS Selective Availability. GPS Selective Availability was the intentional degradation of public GPS signals implemented for national security reason. This opened the doors for innovation within navigational systems. Along with the multitude of satellites being launched, data had become more accessible and accurate than ever.

2019 – The Present

Join us in our next iteration as we discuss the current state of GIS and dive into a few examples of GIS in the current market.

Check out our previous post on GIS to learn the foundation, capabilities, and what you can actually do with GIS here.