The History of GIS

By Bill Thoen

History of Geographic Information Systems: Perspectives from the Pioneers, Timothy W.Foresman, Editor, Prentice Hall PTR, 1998, 397 p.ISBN 0-13-862145-4

The history of GIS barely spans four decades now, and it's a story that springs from many origins, and mingles many disciplines.Where its future lies is not at all certain, but now is the best time to begin to ask how it all began.The generation of the pioneers is passing, and whether the destiny of GIS is to continue to blaze new trails into the information frontier, or to be just another toy for the hoi poloi who buy MS Office, its story is worth the telling.In the History of Geographic Information Systems: Perspectives from the Pioneers, editor Timothy W.Foresman collects the personal accounts of some key individuals who helped shape the events and directions which transformed GIS from a minor scion of computer science and geography into the $2 billion-plus industry that it is today.

The book contains 19 chapters, organized into seven parts, starting with reflections on the origins of GIS to speculations on its future.The sections in between describe the major sectors of activity that shaped this story, such as the applications sectors (Cadastral management, AM/FM, Agriculture and Forestry), university researchers, government agencies, and others developing GIS outside the US experience in Europe, Australia, and Canada.

The personal perspective of the chapters' authors makes the history come alive with anecdotes and reflections that can only come from those who witnessed events unfolding.Roger Tomlinson's description of the early days of GIS is particularly fascinating.It's a wonder GIS ever got started at all when lines describing polygons had to be entered into the computer via keypunched cards, topology verified by programs, and then corrections updated with more cards.All this with no plotters or even graphics screens!

Although the anecdotes are interesting, personal perspectives are history filters, too.Most of the authors are just too close to the action and the time, and we often do not learn much about the broader ideas and beliefs that moved the industry.In this book, there's a great deal of who did what and when, but not a lot about the influence and evolution of ideas and context of the times.The existence of the battle between the raster and vector camps of GIS is mentioned, but there's too little about why people believed which way was best.Social issues about who should own government spatial data are not even touched.Seems to me that there is a significant connection between free government spatial data and the relative dominance that US companies now have in the industry.Another influence given too little attention is the rapid growth in the commercial "business mapping" sector of GIS shortly after the appearance of the PC.

The book is loaded with facts and literature references, and the personal perspective makes reading history interesting.It is the first book to focus fully on the history of GIS, and as such will certainly be an important source of information for anyone who is a serious student of geographical information science.

Published Friday, October 1st, 1999

Written by Bill Thoen

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