The Remarkable History of GIS

History of GIS

Last Updated: Jan 26, 2017

Where did GIS begin?

Mapping has revolutionized how we think about location. Maps are important decision making tools. They help us get to places. And they are becoming more immersed in our everyday lives.

But where did it all begin?

Advancements in GIS was the result of several technologies. Databases, computer mapping, remote sensing, programming, geography, mathematics, computer aided design, and computer science all played a key role in the development of GIS.

Today, we’ll uncover some of the key moments in the history of GIS that has shaped it what it has become today:

Paper Mapping Analysis with Cholera Clusters

John SnowDr. John Snow used mapping to illustrate how cases of cholera were centered around a water pump. Many people thought the disease was propagating through the air. However, this map helped show that cholera was being spread through the water.

The history of GIS all started in 1854. Cholera hit the city of London, England. British physician John Snow began mapping outbreak locations, roads, property boundaries and water lines.

When he added these features to a map, something interesting happened:

He saw that Cholera cases were commonly found along the water line.

John Snow’s Cholera map was a major event connecting geography and public health safety. Not only was this the beginning of spatial analysis, it also marked the start of a whole field of study: Epidemiology – the study of the spread of disease.

To this date, John Snow is known as the father of epidemiology. The work of John Snow demonstrated that GIS is a problem-solving tool. He put geographic layers on a paper map and made a life-saving discovery.

Stages of GIS Development

The history of GIS can be grouped in several stages of development.

If John Snow would have been alive today, those layers would have been stored in a database. He could’ve turned them on and off to visualize possible contamination causes. He could have even used spatial statistics to solve London’s problem.

Cholera Map
Cholera Map

In the history of GIS:

We go from static paper maps to dynamic digital maps.




We go from basic analysis to more complex problem solving.

When you compare John Snow in the past, to the present technology-savvy John Snow, you have to ask yourself one question:

How has GIS developed into its current state?

The history of GIS is remarkable. It has gone through stages of development. It’s been influenced from key people and technology development.

We outline each stage in the history of GIS below:

Before 1960 – The GIS Dark Ages

Dark Ages GISComputer mapping was in the dark. It was not developed. All mapping was done on paper or sieve mapping. The technology wasn’t here for GIS to come to light.

In the 1950s, maps were simple. They had their place in vehicle routing, new development planning and locating points of interest. But none of this was done on computers.

Imagine a world without computer mapping.

One option was sieve mapping. Sieve mapping used transparent layers on light tables to identify areas of overlap. But this came with challenges: calculating areas was next to impossible, data was coarse and often inaccurate and measuring distances was cumbersome.

With all the issues that came with paper maps, it was no surprise that cartographers and spatial users wanted to explore computing options for handling geographic data.

In the history of GIS, this was the main incentive to shift from paper to computer mapping.

1960 to 75 – GIS Pioneering




The early 1960 to 1980s was really the time period of GIS pioneering.

The pieces were coming together with advancements in technology:

  • Map graphics as outputs using line printers.
  • Advances in data storage with mainframe computers.
  • Recording coordinates as data input.

These initial developments in the world of computing is what propelled GIS its next step forward. But what GIS really needed was a brilliant mind to put the puzzle pieces together.

Enter Roger Tomlinson – the father of GIS.

It was during Roger Tomlinson’s tenure with the Canadian government in the 1960s when he initiated, planned and directed the development of the Canadian Geographic System (CGIS). This was a key time in the history of GIS because many consider CGIS as the roots of Geographic Information Systems. CGIS was unique because it adopted a layer approach system to map handling.

Roger TomlinsonGreat discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds. I may be given credit for having blaze the trail of GIS. But when I look at the subsequent development, I feel the credit is due to others rather than just myself.
-Roger Tomlinson

Because of the vast amount of territory Canada occupies, the idea for a Canadian Land Inventory was developed in 1964. But it wasn’t until 1971 that it became fully operational.

The Canadian Land Inventory used soil, drainage and climate characteristics to determine land capability for crop types and forested areas. It quickly recognized that accurate and relevant data was vital to land planning and decision making. Over the years CGIS had been modified and improved to keep pace with technology.

The CGIS wasn’t the only group adopting GIS:

The US Census Bureau were early adopters of some of the core principles of GIS. It was the pioneering work by the US Census Bureau that led to the digital input of the 1970 Census using the data format GBF-DIME (Geographic Base File – Dual Independent Map Encoding).

GBF-DIME became a file format that supported digital data input, error fixing and even choropleth mapping. Using this format, the US Census Bureau began to digitize Census boundaries, roads and urban areas. This was a huge step forward in the history of GIS.

The Ordnance Survey in the UK also started their routine topographic map development. To this very date, the Ordnance Survey is still producing many different GIS data products including every house, every fence, and every stream in every single part of Great Britain.

At this point in the history of GIS, it was in its pioneering stage. It was still on its training-wheels beginning to be fostered by only a select few national agencies around the world.

1975 to 90 – GIS Software Commercialization

GIS Software

As governments realized the advantages of digital mapping, this influenced the work of the Harvard Laboratory Computer Graphics. In the mid-1970s, Harvard Laboratory Computer Graphics developed the first vector GIS called ODYSSEY GIS. Esri’s ARC/INFO used the technical framework from ODYSSEY GIS and this work led to the next stage of development in GIS – software commercialization.

In the late 1970s, memory size and graphics capabilities were improving. New computer cartography products included GIMMS (Geographic Information Making and Management Systems), MAPICS, SURFACE, GRID, IMGRID, GEOMAP and MAP. In the late 1980s, this segment of GIS history was marked with an increasing range of GIS software vendors.

One of these GIS software vendors was Esri – which is now the largest GIS software company in the world. In 1982, ARC/INFO for minicomputers was launched and in 1986, PC ARC/INFO was launched with the production of the Intel microcomputer. Esri is now the world’s leading experts in GIS software development and it has played a key role in the history of GIS.

At this point in the history of GIS, it also gained steam with some of the first conferences and published work. The first GIS meeting in the UK was in 1975. It included a small crowd of academics. The first Esri conference was in 1981 and attracted a crowd of 18 participants. GIS consultancies started sprouting. Roger Tomlinson first used the term “Geographic Information System” in his publication in 1968 “A Geographic Information System for Regional Planning”. That was a real lonely time for GIS.

But all of us users have made GIS what it is today. Especially for the next time period:

READ MORE: Commercial GIS Software: List of Commercial Mapping Software

1990 to 2010 – User Proliferation

Map CollaborationUsers are starting to adopt GIS technology in different ways. Classrooms, businesses, governments around the world are starting to harness digital mapping and analysis.

All the ingredients were ready for the infiltration of GIS to the people:

  • Cheaper, faster and more powerful computers
  • Multiple software options and data availability
  • The launch of new satellites and integration of remote sensing technology

1990 to 2010 was the period in the history of GIS when it really took off.

But advancements in the technology have surpassed the average user. GIS users didn’t know how to take full advantage of GIS technology. Companies were hesitant to adopt GIS software. Countries didn’t have access to topographical data.

But over time, these issues were laid to rest.

Gradually, the importance of spatial analysis for decision-making was becoming recognized. Slowly, GIS was being introduced to classrooms and companies. Software was able to handle both vector and raster data. With more satellites being launched into orbit, this data collected from space could be consumed in a GIS.

This in unison with the availability of global position systems gave users more tools than they’ve ever had before. Like the flick of a switch, GPS selective availability was turned off. Suddenly, accuracy has changed from the size of an airport to the size of a small shed. GPS has led the way to great innovative products like car navigation systems and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The floodgates for GIS and GPS developments began opening. This brings us to our next stage of development in the history of GIS: the open source explosion.

2010 to Onward – The Open Source Explosion

Open MappingWith users getting accustomed to GIS software, this has sparked a new revelation in GIS – an open source explosion. Amazing projects like QGIS are providing any user with a computer with GIS software.

Processors are now in gigahertz. Graphics cards are crisper than they’ve ever been before. We now think of GIS data storage in terabytes. It’s no longer megabytes.

GIS data has become more ubiquitous. TIGER data, Landsat satellite imagery and even LiDAR data is accessible to download for free. Online repositories like ArcGIS Online store massive amounts of spatial data. It’s a matter of quality control and fitting it for your needs.

The range of commercial GIS software products out there seem endless.

But what stands out is the big shift of GIS users building their own GIS software in an open, collaborative way. This software is made available to the public and is called open source. The big plus is: they are for public use at no cost.

Open source is becoming mainstream today. We are gradually entering an era of open source GIS software. More light is shining on QGIS than ever before. Even though, there will always be a place for commercial GIS software. Software companies like Esri provide solutions to practically any spatial problem that exists today.

READ MORE: 13 Free GIS Software Options: Map the World in Open Source

GIS Past, Present and Future

The history of GIS is comprised of 3 historic stages:

  1. Pioneering and development
  2. GIS software commercialization
  3. User adoption

As time went on, GIS became a computer-based tool for storing and manipulating map-based land data. It’s now a multi-billion dollar industry responsible for some of the most important decisions our Earth is facing.

What does the future holds for GIS? Real-time GIS? Virtual reality?

Everyday, we are carrying the torch from the pioneers of GIS. We stand on the shoulders of giants. We are shaping the future of GIS. Companies, organizations and government adopt GIS because it’s a tool to help make knowledgeable decisions.

Today, we barely scratched the surface on the history of GIS. Read more on its remarkable history.

Further Reading on the History of GIS

  • The application of electronic computing methods and techniques to the storage, compilation, and assessment of mapped data. Roger Tomlinson (1974)
  • The Invention of GIS. Harvard University Gazette (2011)

4 Comments

  1. I’m also in academia. I am trying to cite this article, but really do need an author, editors, something. Please.

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