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Survey Company Land & Building Surveyors Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney.

A building or land Surveyor occupies a special position in the world of surveying and mapping. They are the end product of a unique historical development and the experience, knowledge, training and education programmes that have resulted from that development.

From the early days of settlement in Australia, surveyors were confronted with a harsh environment and a unique set of problems for exploration, mapping, land administration and development. Those conditions generated original solutions which have shaped the development of surveying and mapping in Australia.

Over the past 200 years, that continuous development has found its way into the education and training of Australian surveyors to focus on land and buildings.

The advent of modern technology presented solutions which are particularly applicable to surveying and mapping problems in Australia. Today, the Australian surveying in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney is practiced among the most technologically advanced in the world.

How Surveyors started out.

European settlement in Australia came around the beginning of the 19th Century. It was isolated in a few pockets around the coast. Some were penal colonies, some were free settlements. In either case, the requirements for survival and self sufficiency required the finding of new land suitable for farming.

This work was done by the early explorers. Some had surveying and mapping experience while others did not. Mitchell and Oxley, for example, drew on their military experience to explore and map vast areas of the eastern part of Australia. Both became Surveyor General of New South Wales.

On the other hand, many others acquired the surveying and mapping expertise on the job. Cunningham, for example, a botanist, explored large areas of Queensland. Some of his surveying and mapping records can still be followed today and have remarkable accuracy and detail.

The tyranny of distance ruled the lives of those early explorers and surveyors and continues to have an effect on the activity of surveyors and mappers today. Isolation meant that solutions had to be found on the spot. That resourcefulness has become an essential element in the make-up of the Australian surveyor.

Early Settlement Building Surveyors in Sydney NSW.

At the time New South Wales first became a settlement, the “state-of-the-art” in surveys was not particularly advanced or extensive, even in Europe. The early administrators had no experience of national surveys and maps as a precedent on which to base a plan for a land record. Nevertheless, the orderly recording of ownership of land soon became a priority.

Development of land and survey record systems took place primarily in the areas that were free settlements. Of particular note was the work of Septimus Roe, the first Surveyor General of Western Australia who surveyed large areas between Fremantle and the Upper Swan. He kept meticulous records of land title and survey – a priority requirement when all the settlers went there for the express purpose of buying land and setting up their own properties.

The most important step in improving the system of land records came in South Australia in 1857 when Robert Torrens introduced legislation to enable all interests in land to be recorded in a public register. His system relies on a new title being delineated by survey and then recorded in a register book. The Torrens System needs a reliable method of describing parcels. The system of cadastral surveys in Australia has developed from that requirement.

The Torrens System spread throughout the Australian colonies very quickly. It has also been adopted by other countries. Today, the Australian cadastral system forms the basis of technology transfer for land management and recording and Land Information Systems in many countries, particularly in Asia.

Geodetic Surveys

As Australia changed from a predominantly rural society to include emphasis on mining and industrial development and increased urbanisation, the need for a property integrated geodetic control framework was identified.

Early attempts at trigonometrical surveys were made in most states. Of note was the work commenced in Tasmania by Surveyor General George Frankland who had been a Trigonometrical Surveyor on the Survey of India. This work proceeded steadily for about fourteen years. The intention was to bring consistency to the agglomeration of title surveys through the natural extension of alienation and boundary surveys.

Various attempts at triangulation surveys were made in other states but the vast distances to be covered were beyond the resource of any administration. Much of this work was therefore left to the Australian Survey Corps which was formed in 1915.

The urgent need to complete the geodetic survey and mapping of Australia was revealed by the experience of two world wars. However, it was not until Keith Waller measured the first tellurometer line in Australia in the early 1950’s that the era of using technology to bridge the endless distances allowed geodetic surveys to proceed. Australian surveyors have since then embraced technology as an essential component of surveying operations.


Early mapping in Australia was related to exploration and the representation of cadastral boundaries. Mitchell’s map of the nineteen counties of New South Wales was a significant achievement with rudimentary surveying and cartographic equipment. Most states continued the compilation of cadastral maps as land parcels were surveyed.

Before World War II the only topographical maps were those produced by the Survey Corps, at first produced by plane table methods and later by the use of aerial photographs. The extent of these maps was limited to small pockets of the country.

After the war, urgent mapping programmes were instituted by Federal and State governments using the expertise of surveyors and mappers throughout the country. Literally hundreds of surveyors were involved in a 3rd order levelling programme across Australia to provide a national datum. Others were involved with a national adjustment, completed in 1960, based on old and new geodetic survey.

In this period also, photogrammetry continued to develop as a mapping tool. Although projection-type plotters had been in use by the Survey Corps during the war and since, the first modern stereoplotting equipment was installed by the Corps in 1961. Private mapping agencies also introduced the new technologies and have continued to do so. Today, agencies across the country use the latest computer based methods of data acquisition, storage and presentation.

Engineering Surveys

The type of engineering surveys required at the beginning of settlement in Australia was not technically demanding. Initially, many roads and tracks were located by settlers following routes suited to the means of transport at the time. In more difficult terrain, the expertise of surveyors and engineers would have been required. One of the outstanding feats of road location and survey was the work done by Len Beadell in the construction of the Gunbarrel Highway in remote parts of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

The development of the automobile and the consequent need for higher standards for road location and bridges demanded increased sophistication in engineering surveys and new techniques were developed and perfected. The advent of aerial photography and, more recently, GPS have played a major role in the development of this specialist field of surveying.

Railways came to Australia in the 1850’s. The technical demands of railway location and design were more stringent than for early roads. Some of the earlier locations in mountainous country displayed a high degree of skill on the part of those early surveyors who worked without the modern aids available today.

With the growth of the larger cities and the need for the essential services of water, sewerage, electricity and gas, a considerable amount of engineering survey activity was generated by local authorities and utility organisations. Surveyors had again to develop specialist techniques to handle this work over significant areas and difficult terrain.

Perhaps the watershed in the development of engineering surveying in Australia was the work carried out during the Snowy Mountains Hfsydroelectric Scheme. This project to divert the Tumut River through a number of tunnels for electricity generation attracted a great number of surveyors from Australia and overseas to tackle the unique problems that the project presented. The lessons learned on this project, together with the computerised and electronic technology of today, have continued to influence engineering surveying.

Training of Surveyors

For many years, and as late as the 1950’s, Australian surveyors were trained on the job by a master surveyor. Aspiring surveyors were indentured as articled pupils and were required to pass practical examination set by the Surveyors Board of the relevant State. This system worked well and it meant that the experience of a long line of surveyors could be passed on to the new generation.

As surveying work became more complex and broadened in scope, formal courses were seen to be necessary to provide initial education in the techniques and fundamentals of surveying and mapping.

The first Survey Degree Course was established at the University of Queensland in 1937. Other universities followed and surveying education at a variety of levels is now available in all States.

Today, the academic institutions offering surveying training are at the forefront of technological innovation and are involved in research programmes. Australian Surveying Degree programmes have been accepted by many other countries, particularly those in the Asia Pacific region. However, the important requirement for surveyors to pass on their experiences and practical knowledge has not been forgotten.

The Survey Practice Course at the Queensland University of Technology is staffed entirely by practitioners in the surveying, mapping and business administration disciplines. Thus the link with the experiences of the early surveyors in maintained.

Adoption of Technology

Surveying activity in Australia has always had to deal with isolation, vast distances, poor communications, large areas and small resources. Australian surveyors have identified the modern technologies available today as offering solutions to these problems.

Australian surveyors were among the first to adopt the tellurometer and long and medium range laser measuring equipment. Today, the use of electronic distance measuring equipment, total stations and , more recently, global positioning systems, is amongst the highest in the world. Australian surveyors have devised techniques for using this technology in conditions ranging from tropical jungles. through deserts and mountainous regions to Arctic wastelands.

The new technologies have not all been imported to Australia. Using their well developed talent for innovation, Australian surveyors and mappers have developed processes and hardware and software solutions for survey data capture and manipulation, photogrammetry, land information systems, land title management, and many other aspects of surveying and mapping. The skills and products from this research and development are now exported to many countries around the world.

The Business of Surveying

Surveying practitioners have recognised that surveying is not only a technical and professional activity but also a business activity. Through their premier business association, Consulting Surveyors Australia, and its participating organisations, Australian surveyors have collectively addressed Quality Assurance, Professional Indemnity Insurance and Australia-wide co-ordination of business activities.

Individually, many firms have restructured to meet the commercial requirements of modern surveying practice. Networking amongst members, joint ventures with government agencies and related professionals and co-operative agreements for the provision of services are all a part of everyday surveying practice.

Working Overseas

Australian Surveyors have a long history of involvement with surveying and mapping activity in many parts of the world. Australian surveyors have held, and still hold, many senior positions, including that of Surveyor General, in countries throughout Asia and the Pacific region. In more recent times, surveying practitioners have been involved in multi-million dollar projects in China, the Phillipines and Thailand with many smaller projects throughout the region.

In addition, Australian surveying degree programmes have been at the forefront of surveyor education for many countries in the region. The transfer of technology, processes and expertise in the surveying and mapping field has, for many years, been an important part of Australia’s relationship with its neighbours in the Asia Pacific region.

In Summary

Surveying and mapping in Australia has a short history –only 200 years and yet the profession is now foremost in the adoption of technological and business-practice.

Two hundred years ago, land title management, surveying, mapping and related activities could not be imported from Europe — the techniques were not appropriate to Australian conditions. New and innovative solutions had to be found — and were found — for problems not experienced in the then developed world.

This need has produced a tradition of inventiveness, technical excellence and meticulousness among Australian surveyors. As the world shrinks in the communication and information age, Australian surveyors and their counterparts in other countries will build on this foundation to mutual benefit and the benefit of the users of surveying and mapping services.