Fifty Years of Commercial GIS – Part 1: 1969-1994

December 31, 2018

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Author’s Note: During the past 50 years, there have been many contributions to commercial GIS. This article, which offers my perspective only, will hopefully provide some understanding of how GIS developed during its first 25 years and, perhaps, provoke some thoughtful reflections by those who began their careers during this time as well.

As we turn the page on our calendars to 2019, it marks 50 years of commercial GIS. GIS indeed reaches a milestone that recognizes a mature, yet still growing, technology that is finding new applications in business intelligence, advertising technology, smart cities and many emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles, Big Data, machine learning and blockchain. During the '70s and '80s, GIS was still an immature, not-very-user-friendly technology, and few people knew how to use it. This article hopes to chronicle some of the companies that led to its commercial success.

In 1969, two companies opened their doors and began their journey toward developing some of the most impactful technologies used today. Intergraph, now Hexagon (but began operations as M&S Computing), and Environmental Systems Research Institute, now Esri, were launched in that year. Jim Meadlock, an ex-NASA engineer from the Apollo program founded Intergraph; Jack Dangermond, a Harvard-trained landscape architect and his wife, Laura, founded Esri. Shortly thereafter, these companies were joined by a few others in fostering the applications and innovations associated with the technology, such as Trimble, Autodesk, Bentley Systems, Comarc Design Systems, Synercom and others. I worked for Intergraph in the '90s and found Meadlock to be a frank and honest chief executive, and when I worked in publishing, Esri was my client and I always appreciated the time Dangermond took with me for interviews and to explain his corporate direction.

One person, however, is considered the “father of GIS.” Roger Tomlinson, a Canadian geographer, is credited with the development of the first computer-aided mapping system in the early 1960s. Tomlinson was a true gentle giant of a man, standing 6 feet 5 inches or better, with a deliberate, academic cadence to his spoken word and a distinct British accent. He worked in many capacities in both government and academia and ran his own consulting practice for many years until his death in 2014. I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Tomlinson speak at many Esri user conferences.

During the decade following 1969, a singular development catapulted computer mapping: the launch of Landsat by NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior in July 1972. Landsat 1, a multispectral imaging platform in a sun-synchronous orbit, captured digital images of the Earth’s surface, and returned to the same geographic location to re-image that area every 18 days. Data were beamed to ground receiving stations around the world and then archived at the Earth Resource Observation and Science (EROS) Center, a U.S. Geological Survey facility in Sioux Falls, S.D. During the next 40 years, follow-on Landsat missions with both better spatial and spectral resolution provided the longest, temporal coverage of the Earth’s surface. As a graduate student at Dartmouth in the late '70s, I was processing Landsat imagery using a classification algorithm developed at the college and a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP 11 minicomputer. I later worked at EROS and had the distinct honor of working side by side with some true innovators of remote sensing science.

Early Beginnings of GIS Software

Mapping software in the '70s allowed for the digitization of vector data with the ability to reference points, lines and polygons to a geographic coordinate system. Very little analysis was built into these early mapping software programs. However, raster data image processing and visualization on mainframe and minicomputers to support Landsat data scientists was taking off.

The GE Image 100 workstation and the Interactive Digital Image Manipulation System (IDIMS) by ESL, running on DEC VAX computers, were the mainstay software solutions in the late '70s and early '80s. Each were capable of performing advanced image integration and computational modeling. Classified Landsat imagery was sometimes printed using a large line printer that used alphanumeric characters and a large black ribbon. The objective was to fill a wall with printouts to see detail of large areas. To get a color composite image, the ink cartridge was changed four times (red, green, blue and black inks) and the same paper was rethreaded each time.

During this same time, IBM’s Geo-Facilities Information System (GFIS) ran on mainframes and leveraged the power of an object-oriented approach to store graphical data. Smallworld, also an object-oriented software solution, had its first release in 1989 and was focused primarily on serving the utility market (Smallworld was acquired by GE in 2000). (See more about these solutions from Peter Batty, one of the true GIS thought leaders, who worked at both companies).

Some early desktop computers, running Z80 processors with eight-inch floppy drives, were developed for image visualization and prototyped at EROS. The Earth Resources Data Analysis System Company(ERDAS), cofounded by Lawrie Jordan in 1979, commercially developed image processing that utilized Z80s and PDP 11s as well. Other early GIS systems were hybrid marriages of AutoCAD and dBase. ArcInfo by Esri and the Modular GIS Environment by Intergraph were minicomputer-based GIS software systems. Atlas Graphics (later Atlas GIS) by Strategic Mapping, Inc. and MapInfo by MapInfo Corporation were released in the mid-'80s on DOS-based Intel 386 desktop computers. Both Atlas Graphics and MapInfo offered GIS at a much lower cost, thus bringing more users into GIS. Bentley Systems’ MicroStation was one of the first PC-based CAD systems, used extensively in mapping, and later became the underpinnings of Intergraph’s MGE.

However, geospatial data manipulation and visualization were hampered so much by slow microprocessor clock speed and limited random-access memory on PCs that some software had to run on minicomputers like DEC VAX, Data General and Prime. It was a constant battle to balance the need for developing complex thematic maps with visualizing the results, which often required PC users to purchase upgrades to their graphics cards. Screen redraw times were at times glacial. Users were building their own PCs to upgrade motherboards, CPUs and RAM. When Intel released their 486 chip, we all felt as though we jumped into a new era of speed. Such was the time when we leaned on Moore’s Law.

Data…The Rocket Fuel of GIS

Geographic Data Technology, founded by Don Cooke, opened for business in 1980 in Lebanon, N.H., one of the first street centerline data companies. GDT had a contract from the U.S. Census Bureau to leverage TIGER, the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing System, one of the first complete digital maps of the U.S. In 1983, ETAK, a Menlo Park, Calif. company, founded by Nolan Bushnell, that utilized the newly published TIGER digital street files, began to manufacture one of the first in-vehicle navigation systems. However, due to the constraints of technology at the time, it took multiple CDs to hold digital street files of each city that ETAK chose to sell, along with the hardware that included CD players and a small green screen display that sat near the passenger-side well of the car. I remember interviewing for a job at ETAK and seeing a very crude navigation system, but at the time, it was revolutionary.

Nielsen, Claritas, National Planning Data Corporation, CACI, Donnelley Marketing Information Services , Business Location Research and MapInfo were demographic and points of interest data product suppliers in the '80s and early '90s. These companies provided the data in formats that certainly fueled early business applications of GIS. Wessex, a small Winnekta, IL based data company founded by Scott Elliott, commercialized TIGER by delivering the data for only $995, far below the price of competing data packages. Elliott later started Directions Magazine.

The coalescing of GIS software and data companies caught the attention of Fortune Magazine and Business Week in 1989, both of which ran articles on GIS. Forbes Magazine published an extensive article in January 1992 on how Arby’s, the fast-food restaurant chain, was using GIS to locate stores and refine their target marketing. Hal Reid, the VP for Innovation for Arby’s at the time, was profiled in that article and later brought his unique understanding of the potential of GIS to both Intergraph and Dunkin’ Donuts. And, in the world of high-stakes competitiveness for the best fast-food restaurant locations, McDonald’s Corporation went so far as to build their own GIS called Quintillion. In 1994, the rights to Quintillion were acquired by Dakota Marketing.

GUI & Usability

During the early 1990s, Microsoft Windows provided a more intuitive graphical user interface that software developers leveraged to broaden the user base of GIS. More desktop GIS companies began to sprout: TYDAC published the Spatial Analysis System and Scan/US Inc. published software under the same name; both utilized a quadtree data structure for thematic mapping. TYDAC and MapInfo recognized the early potential of targeting business users for GIS. MapInfo chose to port its software from DOS to Windows. TYDAC chose to port its software to IBM’s OS2…not the best business decision. MapInfo also won a contract to provide software plus geographic and demographic data to Microsoft that allowed users to create thematic maps using Excel.

A large drawback to GIS was the lack of industry-specific software applications. In an effort to bridge the gap between the required location analytical technology and an application that spoke the language of the user, a consortium of organizations built the Geographic Underwriting System for the property and casualty sector of the insurance industry. Electronic Data Systems, the Insurance Services Office, Inc. and DataMap Inc. test marketed GUS in Florida in 1991 with the intent of going nationwide shortly thereafter.

Publishers and Academics Support Early GIS Development

While there were many books that supported the commercial development of GIS and remote sensing, there were a few noteworthy contributions. Dana Tomlin significantly contributed to geospatial data science in his book “Geographic Information Systems and Cartographic Modeling,” published in 1990. Here he explained the principals of map algebra that he had first introduced in the early '80s. Early GIS software such as SPANS could implement Tomlin’s work. In the world of business GIS, three books, I believe, offered authoritative insights: “Location Strategies for Retail and Service Firms” by Ghosh and McLafferty (1987); “Site Selection” by Bob Buckner (1982); and in 1993, Gil Castle edited a compendium of business application use cases entitled, “Profiting from a Geographic Information System” that brought to light applications in retail, banking and insurance that offered true competitive advantages to those the invested in the technology. However, the “father of retail site selection” was Dr. David Huff of The University of Texas, who had introduced his spatial interaction models, known as the Huff Model, in 1962 but later helped Esri develop software that allowed retailers to implement his models as well as the laws of retail gravitation, such as those proposed by William Reilly in 1931.

In the early 1990s, the first GIS-specific magazines began publishing, offering an opportunity to advertise and promote the technology by software providers. GIS World was a monthly periodical, which quickly branched into region-specific magazines, GIS Europe and GIS Asia Pacific, followed by conferences and later a magazine specifically for the business applications of GIS entitled Business Geographics. However, I first saw ads for both TYDAC and MapInfo in American Demographics in the late '80s that forever changed my career from that of a geologist to GIS software marketing; so much so that I penned my first article on GIS for the Dallas Business Journal in 1989, and in 1991, I began writing the first column dedicated to GIS in Business” for GIS World. Later, I served as the editor of Business Geographics in the late '90s and Directions Magazine, the first Internet-based publication, from 2001-2014.

These early companies and thought leaders pioneered GIS and set the stage before the Internet became an essential tool in GIS and before the advent of spatially-enabled databases, Microsoft MapPoint and Google Earth. More to come in Part 2.


“Profiting from a Geographic Information System,” Gil Castle, GIS World, 1993

 Thanks to Gil Castle, Hal Reid, Adena Schutzberg and Clarence Hempfield for reviewing this article and checking my memory.


Fifty Years of Commercial GIS – Part 2: 1994-2019


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