Art & Science

As the rest of the editorial staff is putting the final touches on this issue, I’m off on an adventure to Scotland and Ireland for a couple weeks. Before you get too far thinking I’m living life with the jet set, let me say we’ve got a wedding in the family (congrats to my brother-in-law and his new bride), and this is quite an undertaking for the whole family.

As we were making our way through the airport in Philadelphia, I came across the interesting structure you see pictured here. I suppose some would say it’s a work of art, a sculpture, maybe. Others might say it’s a machine, which also describes it. What it is, actually, is a clock.

The “Beer Bottle Clock” was created by Stanley Clockworks, located near Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. The clock is 21 feet long and features 300 recycled beer bottles that function as gear teeth (in case you can’t quite make them out, they’re Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery, also in Pennsylvania). I think that, alone, is enough to catch a surveyor’s eye.

But yes, it’s a functioning clock. Several of the circular segments are the clock’s faces, marking hours, minutes, and seconds, and the indicated time matched that on my watch.

The display board for the clock describes it in terms of entertainment, imagination, and creativity. But it also explains that, “Many months are involved developing and fine-tuning the craftsmanship and engineering to ensure that their clocks are both visually pleasing and precise.” While I watched the movements of the device in action, it occurred to me that this is an exquisite pairing of art and science. And that, of course, led me to back to surveying.

As practitioners of this mysterious profession, we’re often asked what it is we do. If at a loss for words, you can always pull out the old textbook definition we all grew up with: the art and science of locating points on or near the Earth’s surface. This basic definition serves its purpose, I suppose, though it doesn’t really shed much light. We spend years trying to flesh out this definition and understand the profession; I suppose it’s quite unrealistic to expect to explain it to anyone with just a simple sentence.

We surveyors often focus on the science part of the equation, getting wrapped up making measurements with our fancy equipment and crunching numbers with ever-more powerful software. That is a big part of what we do, no doubt. A few years back, though, as I was thinking about boundary surveying and trying to teach the subject to up-and-coming surveyors, it occurred to me that I felt strongly that there is a particular art to doing this work. At first I wondered if I was out in left field with this thinking, but I’ve come to know that I’m not. There is an art to what we do and that—much as with any art, I suspect—which is difficult to teach to others. It’s a skill that comes mostly with time and practice, and strong mentorship.

But it is important that we pass along this art, this craft, this knowledge. Aside from all the outside pressures on the profession, we don’t want boundary surveying to become another “lost art” like many others that have passed with time.

The clock display board quotes Rick Stanley, one of the creators of the clock, as saying, “A clock that can’t keep time has no value.” Care to equate that one to land surveying?

~TJ


About the Author

  • TJ Frazier, LS
    TJ Frazier, LS
    TJ Frazier is the magazine's editor for surveying and has more than 20 years experience in the surveying profession, currently as senior land surveyor for VanMar Associates in Mt. Airy, Md. He also worked in survey equipment sales for Loyola Spatial Systems, now part of Leica Geosystems. He earned a bachelor of sciences degree in business at Mt. St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. He is married and has two daughters. Frazier can be reached at tj@profsurv.com.

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