~a guest blog post by ADGIS student Barb Robitaille

I often wonder if modern day technologists take the time out of their busy schedules to think back to when GIS started. Before satellites, GPS, computers, and accessible data; the days of historic GIS.


Can you imagine waking up in the morning not knowing what shape the earth is? Feeling like you know land is out there, but not sure where? GIS started with cave paintings and rock carvings – hard to imagine as we sit at our computer desks viewing Russia with little effort. It continued to the next level by curious scientists, scholars, mathematicians, and explorers. Because of their dedication to discovering the world, we now know the shape of the planet; we’ve become more informed and analyzing data has become easier because of historic GIS.


One great example of the first uses of GIS is by Dr. John Snow, a physician back in the 1800’s who traced the source of a deadly cholera outbreak on a hand drawn map. While everyone believed it was transmitted in the air, Dr. Snow’s suspicion that it was a water borne disease lead him to map the city, and place marks at the location of every death. In short time the hand drawn maps indicated there was a suspect water pump right in the middle of all the deaths, which turned out to be the pump with contaminated water. This discovery saved many lives.

That’s a pretty amazing use of maps and analysis of spatial patterns before any electronics could help!


The first GIS was launched in Canada in the 1960’s by Dr. Roger Tomlinson: The Father of GIS who worked within the Department of Forestry and Rural Development. This new system was used to collect and analyze environmental data to determine land capability of Canada. His adoption of GIS reduced the government’s task from three years to several weeks, and the cost from eight million dollars to two million. The Canadian government gave him the highest civilian award in 2001. The engraving on the award reads,

“He pioneered its uses worldwide to collect, manage, and manipulate geographical data, changing the face of geography as a discipline.”


It was the rapid development of computers in the 1980’s and 90’s that enabled GIS to grow exponentially to what it is now. We should be grateful for open data, the internet, and the software developers that make our jobs a little easier.

But most of all, I feel that we should honour the pioneers and great minds who started the legacy of GIS.


They helped shape what it is today, and their roots still go deep in today’s technology.