What Was the Most Important Year in the History of the Geospatial Industry?

By Carl Reed III

Was the year that PC-based GIS products were introduced, the most important year in the history of our industry (about 1986)? How about the year the first commercial Web mapping applications, such as MapQuest.com, were introduced (1996)? Or how about last year (2005), with the introduction of those really cool virtual mapping and visualization applications for consumers?

Well, I don’t think it was any of those years! If we consider the history of the broader information technology field in concert with the history of the geospatial industry, a really interesting and provocative year emerges as the most critical and influential in terms of shaping our industry today and into the future. The year is 1969. Consider some of the events that occurred in 1969 which are still driving the evolution and strength of our industry today.

The Birth of the Internet – (information from the Internet Society’s A Brief History of the Internet)
In August 1968, after the overall structure and specifications for the ARPANET were defined, DARPA released a request for qualifications (RFQ) for the development of one of the key components of the Internet: the packet switches, called Interface Message Processors (IMPs). The RFQ was awarded in December 1968 to Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN).

Due to Leonard Kleinrock's early development of packet switching theory and his focus on analysis, design and measurement, his Network Measurement Center at UCLA was selected to be the first node on the ARPANET. All this early work came together in September 1969 when BBN installed the first IMP at UCLA and the first host computer was connected. In the same time period, Doug Engelbart's project on "Augmenting Human Intellect" (which included NLS, an early hypertext system) at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) provided a second node. One month later, when SRI was connected to the ARPANET, the first host-to-host message was sent from Kleinrock's laboratory to SRI.

From Prof. Kleinrock’s personal archives,
". . . the first message ever sent over the ARPANET took place at 22:30 hours on October 29, 1969. I was supervising the student/programmer Charley Kline (CSK) and we set up a message transmission to go from the UCLA SDS Sigma 7 Host computer to the SRI SDS 940 Host computer. The transmission itself was simply to "login" to SRI from UCLA. We succeeded in transmitting the "l" and the "o" and then the system crashed! Hence, the first message on the Internet was "lo"! We were able to do the full login about an hour later."
Two more nodes were added at UC Santa Barbara and University of Utah. By the end of 1969, four host computers were connected together into the initial ARPANET. The budding Internet was off the ground.

The Birth of UNIX
Throughout 1969, a group of individuals (Joseph F. Ossanna, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie) at the AT&T Bell Laboratory began trying to find an alternative to the Multics operating system (developed by AT&T, GE and MIT and used on GE computers). By April 1969, AT&T made a decision to withdraw Multics and go with GECOS. When Multics was withdrawn, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie needed to rewrite an operating system in order to play space travel on another smaller machine (a DEC PDP-7 - with 4K of memory for user programs). The result was a system that a colleague "punned" was the UNICS (UNiplexed Information and Computing Service). For obvious reasons, this early version of UNIX was written in Assembler. An anecdotal event related to UNIX also occurred in 1969 - Linus Torvalds, the "father" of LINUX, was born.

ESRI was founded
The Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) was founded in 1969 by Jack and Laura Dangermond as a privately held consulting firm that specialized in land use analysis projects. The business began with $1,100 from their personal savings and operated out of an historic home located in Redlands, California. When I asked Jack why he started ESRI, he responded, "By the time we (Laura and Jack) got to Harvard, we were very excited about the idea that we could use computer technology and formal methods to both understand geography as well as support environment planning. Two professors that impressed us at the time were John Galbraith (recently deceased) and Howard Fisher (creator of the Harvard lab for computer graphics and spatial analysis). They both encouraged us to apply the early "computer mapping" work to environmental issues. Our vision for [forming] ESRI was to create an organization that was focused on quantitative and rational methods for environmental planning. That has fundamentally been our mission ever since. Our vision was that we could use GIS software to incorporate a kind of geographic approach to problem solving."

Intergraph was founded
Founded in 1969 as M&S Computing, Inc., Intergraph set out to help solve some of the most difficult problems of the time, such as using digital techniques in support of the moon missions. From a 1999 GeoWorld interview with Jim Meadlock: "In 1969, at IBM Corp.'s Federal Systems Division, I was responsible for integrating the computer operations for the Saturn Launch Vehicle - the rocket used to launch the Apollo spacecraft. After the successful moon launch, five of us in the division formed M&S Computing, Inc. as a private business. We believed government agencies would turn away from analog guidance computers to digital computers for real-time missile guidance."

Intergraph then forged ahead, assisting NASA and the US Army in developing systems that would apply digital computing to real-time missile guidance. From this initial work, Intergraph pioneered the development of computer graphics systems, which allowed engineers to display and interact with drawings and associated alphanumeric information. From there, the logical step was into mapping. Their first map digitizing and database contract was with the City of Nashville.

I generated my first computer map!
In 1969, I was a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont and had just declared geography as my major. Professor Vince Malmstrom showed me a tutorial book he was developing for teaching geographic principals. The catch was that I had to use a computer account and run the tutorials on-line and interactively. Yes, on-line, interactive tutorials in 1969! Middlebury was very fortunate to have several terminal links to the time-share system at Dartmouth College.

That was lucky, because in 1964 Dartmouth deployed one of the first time-share systems in the world (using a GE 225 mainframe computer) and also deployed the first operational wide area network. Further, in 1964 Professors John George Kemeny and Eugene Kurtz developed BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). BASIC was a language developed for students at Dartmouth College who needed better access to computers and a simple, effective language to write computer programs.

I was intrigued by the whole computer interaction and how the tutorial worked. So Malmstrom got me an actual account so I could learn BASIC. Programming in BASIC really got me hooked on computers. I also quickly discovered that Dartmouth maintained (at the time) very large databases of climate and weather data for New England. For some reason, I thought that it would be really neat to be able to create a computer map showing the locations of the weather stations and also be able to plot weather data. So, I "digitized" the Vermont state boundary (using graph paper!) and encoded the boundary information into a BASIC Block Data statement. Once I did this and figured out how to do overstrikes on the Teletype 33 DTSS terminal, I began generating computer maps of weather data. At 300 baud, these maps could take some time to print out!

And what other IT and GIS events happened in 1969 that still impact our industry today?

Laser-Scan was formed in the United Kingdom.
Laser-Scan provides technologies, solutions and services to cleanse and quantify fitness for purpose and merge geospatial data held in relational databases. It has been a technology leader in applications and tools that deal with map topology.

Ian McHarg's influential book Design With Nature was first published. This book brought the concept of map overlay techniques to a broad audience.

The First Supercomputer was installed.
A group at Control Data Corporation, led by Seymour Cray, released the CDC 7600, considered by most to be the first supercomputer.

The first Internet RFC was published.
Short for Request For Comments, RFCs are notes which were first created on April 7, 1969. The first RFC (RFC 1) was published by UCLA. RFC notes contain information about computer communication, network protocols, procedures, programs, etc. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is now the standards forum working revisions to existing RFCs and developing new RFCs.

The laser printer was born.
Gary Starkweather, while working with Xerox, invented the laser printer.

One of Intels’ main competitors started business. Founded May 1, 1969 by Jerry Sanders, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) has since become a large competitor in the Pentium-compatible chip market with their own line of Intel-compatible processors.

Evans and Sutherland released their first graphics rendering and visualization product. And, by the way, David Evans and Ivan Sutherland’s lab at the University of Utah received the third IMP and their lab became the third node on the very fledgling Internet.

GAO statement on computer mapping published.
In 1969, GAO recommended that mapping by state and local agencies under federal programs should be accomplished, where appropriate, in a manner enabling such work to contribute to the national mapping program.

Surface Display package SYMVU was first distributed.

One well-established problem for cartographers is how to depict a topographic surface. Surfaces were a central concern for the Harvard Computer Graphics Laboratory, and as technology developed, the Lab’s experiments became more serious. The Lab’s best-known surface display package was SYMVU, a plotter-oriented package first distributed in 1969.

Harvey’s book, Explanation in Geography, was published. Required reading for all geography graduate students in the 1970’s, the premise of this book encapsulated the forces of what was known as the quantitative revolution in geography. David Harvey described (in great detail) the relationship of empirical and analytical science to geographic explanation. Fundamentally, Harvey defined geography as a science and aligned the discipline with physics and chemistry in terms of logic and scientific rigor.

And 1969 was a key year in other ways.

1969 was not just a year for technology that influenced and continues to shape our industry today. In many ways, events in 1969 shaped the philosophy and social consciousness of the GIS baby-boomers. Here are a few examples.

Landing on the moon. On July 20, 1969, after a four-day trip, the Apollo astronauts arrived at the moon. At 1:47 pm EDT, July 20, the Lunar Module "Eagle" carrying Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, separated from the Command Module "Columbia".

The Vietnam Peace Marches (Moratorium). From BBC News: "Americans have taken part in peace initiatives across the United States to protest against the continuing war in Vietnam. The Peace Moratorium is believed to have been the largest demonstration in US history with an estimated two million people involved."

Woodstock happened. And the Allman Brothers; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Santana, Led Zeppelin, Three Dog Night and Yes all released their debut albums. The Beatles released "Abbey Road" and The Who released "Tommy." Kids today still listen to music by many of the ‘60s artists!

A look forward
Yes, events that happened in 1969 are still shaping our industry and cultural consciousness today. The Internet continues to shape and define how we deliver geospatial content and services. The IETF is working on a suite of Internet RFCs (standards) that will enable the integration of location as a foundation information component of the Internet infrastructure. These new standards will have a major impact on the emerging "GeoWeb" as more and more location payloads (tags) are available for spatial context searching and for use by a range of applications, such as emergency and location services.

I will now leave with a question: After the year 1969, what is the next most important year in the history and evolution of our industry? Hint: Think "the Web" and think standards.

Published Friday, August 25th, 2006

Written by Carl Reed III

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