The Compleat Surveyor, by William Leybourn, and The Practical Surveyor, by Samuel Wyld

Several years ago I made a survey of a long-abandoned farm in one of the rural parts of Connecticut. The legal description for the land had bearings and distances and calls for some boundary markers. The description originated in the mid-1700s. When later analyzing the fieldwork, it was discovered that the description was pretty good, given the standard of care at that time, except for a line that ran through a small swamp. Finding substandard measurements on "swampy" legs of 18th-century boundary lines is common; so common, in fact, that some of us who had worked in the hills had a theory that surveyors of that distant time were accustomed to making educated guesses on the length and direction of lines through swamps rather than spending the effort to measure them directly. I later discovered that no matter how much clients may value our years of experience, they are understandably nervous about the use of inference in boundary determination. After all, they pay us for facts and figures.


Old Text Provides Answers
You can imagine how pleased I was when I later found an old survey text that actually instructed young surveyors to place all potential mathematical errors in lines that ran through rough or swampy terrain. Even though one may be completely confident in a survey, there are still moments when one has to convince a client. The book was great help in convincing clients.

Since that time I have been a collector and reader of old survey texts. I continue to learn from them. Unfortunately they are hard to find and expensive when located. An early edition of Leybourn's The Compleat Surveyor might cost as much as $750.00, if it can be found. This makes the modern reprints appealing; they have all of the utility and edification of the originals, but are available and relatively inexpensive.

It is interesting to compare Leybourn's The Compleat Surveyor and Wyld's The Practical Surveyor. Even though they are considered "classics" on land surveying, they are surprising opposites.

The republication of The Practical Surveyor was the project of its editor, David Manthey, who trained as a mechanical engineer but is not a surveyor. Manthey has a strong interest in surveyor's historical methods and equipment. Indeed, as a future project, he plans to manufacture exact copies of 18th-century drafting equipment. His book is not so much a re-printing as it is a reconstruction of the original. He examined copies of the book found in a private collection and in various libraries, and used different portions of them to assemble his book. After consulting a typographer, he had the text reset. He then scanned the original charts and graphs and cleaned them up. The result is a book that is as clean and bright as a new penny. To the book he appended notes and a glossary, sections that are uncommon in reprints, yet in light of their usefulness, one wonders why more publishers do not do the same. Manthey's mathematical analysis of Wyld's survey computations is excellent. His explanation of Wyld's terminology is also very good. Readers unfamiliar with terms such as Nonus's Invention, terrier, and sector will love the notes. Mr. Manthey even translates the Latin expressions that Wyld included. No biographical information on the author is included because little is known about him.

First to Use Logarithms and Trig
The Compleat Surveyor is another reprint in a series being published by well-known surveyor, teacher, and writer, Walt Robillard. Profits from the sale of this book, like his edition of Geodaesia, will go to FIG scholarship and history programs. This reprint of The Compleat Surveyor is a faithful reproduction of the original in almost every way. It has the look and feel of the original, even reproducing the marks of ink bleeding through to the next page. The hardback cover is the color of the original calfskin. The second edition of the book was chosen for republication because it was a substantial improvement over the first. There are no modern notes or editorial comments in the book; it is an unadorned, copy of the original, owned by Jan de Graeve of Brussels, Belgium.

The Compleat Surveyor is generally considered to be the most influential English surveying text published, after Love's Geodaesia. It was practical and well-written and contained the advice of a working surveyor. Leybourn was a highly regarded 17th-century mathematical practitioner in London. He was a life-long surveyor who loved teaching and writing. He also produced books on astronomy and mathematics. He taught students in his house and allowed them live with him while they were receiving instruction. It was the first book to make extensive use of logarithms and trigonometry to determine areas. Leybourn wrote it during a time when surveyors were developing a new business product, the map. It describes the operation and application of a surprisingly large group of instruments. While many books of this period are limited to the discussion of compass and chain, Leybourn's book describes alidades, circumferentors, and theodolites, and advises which instrument is best-suited to a particular task.

Both books were written during a time when estate surveys were a significant part of a surveyor's business. Originally, surveyors wrote reports that described a property and its boundaries. Private property maps were a new idea in the 1600s. Both books instruct a surveyor how to make a map, as well as how to make the paint or ink required to color the parchment manuscript after a map is drafted on the skin. Some clients were so pleased with their colored maps that they hung them in their houses for all to view. Both books critique angle measuring instruments and advise surveyors how to get best results with the available equipment. Leybourn points out that a surveyor could get better angles by using his measured distances and computations than from observing them directly. This says much about the poor quality of instruments that were available, and also of their relatively sophisticated ability to analyze survey measurements. There is not much theory or analyzing, however, in the books. These were practical manuals that described how to get the work done.

The procedures described in these books form the foundation of our profession. Whether you work in the East or in the Public Land Survey System there is much to be learned from old books such as these. You never know when a time may come that you need the assistance of one of our surveying forefathers.


Patrick Toscano is the City Surveyor for New Britain, Connecticut, and the Book Reviewer for the magazine.

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