Geography History of GIS
Nicholas R. Chrisman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0143


The term “Geographic Information System” (GIS) emerged in the 1960s and quickly became a rallying emblem in a complex terrain of interdisciplinary developments. In the early period, the focus was on technological developments and proof of concept. History was in the making, not a primary focus of scholarship. GIS and its related technologies created disruptions in the routine procedures of collecting and disseminating geographic information. Some material has been lost in the chaos of technical change, but significant archives exist for the earliest periods. The history of these transformations has been treated in a number of ways by a growing number of authors with more or less training in historical method. Much of the history has been recorded by persons with a first-hand stake in the particular institution or project. There has been less emphasis (as yet) on the broad view of interactions between groups. There is a risk in first-person accounts due to conscious or unconscious bias. The disruptions continue as computing moved from expensive (but quite limited) mainframes and professional workstations to consumer products and massive storage. Ironically, there may be less historical material from the early-21st-century era (post-paper). Histories of GIS range from first-hand accounts (written often long after the fact) with little theoretical engagement to critical analysis closely tied to recent debates on critical theory.

General Overviews

There are few comprehensive sources that cover the full range of GIS (thematically, spatially, and temporally). This section includes a selection covering some parts of the puzzle. Coppock and Rhind 1991 provides a standard narrative, crediting a few early groups involved in GIS. Foresman 1998 collected “pioneers” to provide first-person recollections. Brunn, et al. 2004 tried to collect opinions about the future directions of technology in geography in a more general way. The other contributions provide a view of a part of the field, useful in building a more balanced view. Most of these works treat history as a matter of origins (as in Wellar 2012), rather than establishing a continuous record of the technology and its applications. Some of these are quite dated reviews (such as Blakemore and Harley 1980, Rhind 1977, and Monmonier 1985) that serve to establish the state of the art at a particular time, though not written as history. Eventually, the treatment of history can progress to subsequent periods (see Web Mapping and the Consumer Turn). As the use of spatial data has expanded so dramatically, it will be harder to cover that expansion quite as completely.

  • Blakemore, Michael J., and J. Brian Harley. “Concepts in the History of Cartography: A Review and Perspective.” Cartographica 17.4 (1980).

    Covers the methodology of the history of cartography from a much more analytical standpoint than prior antiquarian viewpoints. Makes a small foray into the more recent GIS field, but mostly for the views on maps as artefacts.

  • Brunn, Stanley, Susan Cutter, and J. W. Harrington Jr., eds. Geography and Technology. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2004.

    Edited volume collects twenty-five chapters written by geographers and GIScientists. About half deal with GIS and related technologies. While the intent was to look forward, most deal with development of the later 20th to early 21st centuries. Mixed, not very coherent.

  • Coppock, J. Terry, and David W. Rhind. “The History of GIS.” In Applications. Vol. 2 of Geographical Information Systems: Principles and Applications. Edited by David J. Maguire, Michael F. Goodchild, and David W. Rhind, 21–43. Harlow, UK: Longmans, 1991.

    A truly general overview, from perspective of 1990s. Deals with paucity of source material in regular peer-reviewed outlets and reticence of actors in government and industry. Covers the main centers of activity: Harvard, CGIS (Canada GIS), Esri, and Experimental Cartography Unit (United Kingdom). Good detail, somewhat focused on explaining delay in United Kingdom.

  • Foresman, Timothy, ed. History of Geographic Information Systems: Perspectives from the Pioneers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

    This edited volume collects nineteen chapters, largely with a focus on United States and Canada. Some chapters fall into the category of First-Person Accounts, reporting on specific projects and agencies. The authors that are included many consider “pioneers” (Roger Tomlinson, Ian McHarg, Donald Cooke, and David Rhind). Dated, but useful.

  • Monmonier, Mark. Technological Transition in Cartography. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

    Book written in the future tense (describing the electronic future) at a point when the transition to digital forms was still incomplete. Deals primarily with maps, but covers some of the road to GIS.

  • Monmonier, Mark, ed. History of Cartography. Vol. 6, Cartography of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    This “volume” spreads over two volumes and 1960 pages. Written in the form of five hundred encyclopedia entries, it covers some topics of interest to the history of GIS. The urge to be comprehensive may have outweighed the level of scholarship in prior volumes (earlier centuries, edited by Woodward and Harley).

  • Rhind, David W. “Computer-Aided Cartography.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 2.1 (1977): 71–97.

    DOI: 10.2307/622194

    Detailed consideration of the benefits and drawbacks of automation efforts in all forms of cartography and GIS. Indicative of the era when input devices were scarce and output devices had rather low resolution. Period piece, covers North America and United Kingdom of the period.

  • Wellar, Barry, ed. Foundations of Urban and Regional Information Systems and Geographic Information Systems and Science. Washington, DC: Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, 2012.

    Anthology (over three hundred pages) of the early days of Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) to 2012. Includes first-person accounts and summaries of fifty years of professional development. The history of this organization parallels many themes in the development of GIS technology and applications.

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