The Beginning of GIS: The History of Geographic Information Systems

MGISS | 28 February 2022

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) comprise a major part of our everyday lives. Whether it’s a telecommunications company trying to determine where they should expand their service or an Uber driver using Google Maps to pick up their next passenger, people utilise GIS as an integral part of their lives.

Mathematics, cartography, remote sensing, computer-aided design, computer science, topographical mapping, and programming have all played a massive role in the history of GIS development. Still, its beginning was much simpler. 

The Origin of GIS

The origin of GIS takes us back to Soho, London, in 1854, during the cholera outbreak. People believed that the disease was spread through the air. However, Dr. Jon Snow thought otherwise. So he started to map out the locations of the cholera outbreaks, roads, property boundaries, and water pumps. He was shocked at what he found.

He noticed a pattern formed that proved that the disease was not airborne, but it was transmitted in fact through the water, specifically by one infected water pump. Dr. Snow’s work was the beginning of spatial analysis and the start of a new field of study, epidemiology (the study of the spread of disease). In addition, his work showed that GIS was a problem-solving tool that had the potential to save many lives.

By the 1950s, people used maps in routing vehicles, locating points of interest, and planning development.

The 1960’s to the Early 1970s

There were three significant advancements in technology that led to the beginning of modern GIS. These advancements were:

  • Using line printers to output map graphics
  • Data storage with mainframe computers
  • Recording coordinates as data and performing calculations on those coordinates

These advancements propelled GIS forward, but it needed someone to fit the pieces together. That’s where Roger Tomlinson, the father of GIS, comes in. In the 1060s, Tomlinson was with the Canadian Government and created the Canadian Geographic Information System (CGIS), which implemented a layering approach to map handling.

During this time, a couple of different major government agencies started adopting GIS principles. The US Census Bureau began to digitise Census boundaries, urban areas, and roads, and the Ordnance Survey in the UK started their topographic map development.

The Late 1970’s

During this period in GIS history, GIS software was developed. Jack Dangermond, who co-founded Esri Inc worked in the Laboratory for Computer Graphics at Harvard and developed the first vector GIS, ODYSSEY GIS.

Progress in computer memory improved in the late 1970s, and improvements in computer graphic capabilities led to commercial GIS software. Esri Inc is the largest GIS software company globally and has played a vital role in GIS history. 

From 1990 to 2010

GIS hit the mainstream during this period. With computers becoming more affordable, more powerful, and faster, the number of GIS software options grew. In addition, digitised mapping data became more readily available.

Coupled with the launch of new satellites and the integration of remote sensing technology with GIS, more and more applications were developed. As a result, GIS ended up in businesses, governments, and classrooms worldwide.

GIS Beyond 2010

Over the past two decades, GIS has been adopted more and more, leading to open source GIS. Open source GIS is software made available for public use at no cost, so if someone is tracking an order they placed or looking for directions somewhere, they are unknowingly using GIS.

Other uses of GIS include:

  • Choosing potential store locations based on customer locations, spending, and competitor locations.
  • Predicting crime analysis to reduce break-ins.
  • Tracking fleets in real-time to reduce delivery costs.
  • Creating better environmental and health policies leading to better air quality.

GIS dives deeper into data and allows users to make smarter decisions based on data such as relationships, situations, and patterns.

Turn to MGISS For All of Your GIS Needs

From a map to track down the source of disease, all the way to a computer-based tool that stores and manipulates map-based land data, the story of GIS continues to grow. The GIS market is expected to reach US$9 billion by 2024 as organisations, companies, and governments begin to use this technology in their decision making.

When you choose to partner with MGISS, you are choosing to empower every member of your team, from the operative in the field to senior leaders in the boardroom. We provide solutions that will help streamline field operations and drive smarter, more profitable decision making while reducing the risk of regulatory fines, customer complaints, and reputational damage.

If you have any questions on how your organisation could benefit from partnering with MGISS, please contact us today.


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