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Burt & Bailey Solar Compass         Gurley Chain          Lewis Michael 18th Century Vernier Surveying Compass
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Larry and Carole Meeker

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Antique / Vintage & Collectible
Surveying Instruments

A Brief Introduction / History


Surveyors and the instruments they used played an important part in the development and history of America.  Dividing up the land and determining passages and routes acrossc.1836 Robert Shaw Surveying Compass the land were an important factor related to the growth and development of this country.  From the earliest Colonial times right up to today surveying the land and determining what is where and how to get from point A to point B and beyond, and who owned what, was and is, of vital concern. 

The earliest instruments used for surveying prior to the development of compasses included devices such as circumferentors, quadrants and sextants whose origins and use are most commonly associated with maritime navigation.  The  need for more precision as well as portability led to design changes and improvements in the known designs for instruments used on land.  What generally became known as survey compasses, an example of which is pictured just above, became the standard for day to day use by surveyors here in America. 

The earliest American examples were made of either brass or primitive wooden bodied surveying compasses. Surveying Compasses developed and evolved over time.  18th century instruments dating from the colonial era occasionally turn up but are very rare.  Different forms or designations of surveying compasses include Plain and Vernier compasses, Railroad compasses, Mining compasses, and Solar compasses.  Each of these different styles of compasses had features allowing them to better perform a specific task or function, and were used in different circumstances or to accomplish different tasks as their name implies. 

More complex and job specific compasses such as mining compasses and transits came with provisions for Heller & Brightly Mining Transit w/ Auxiliary Scope & Tripod auxiliary \ scopes to allow for shooting over the plate and for determining angles in field use.  (See example to right) Solar Instruments were developed in order to allow the operator or surveyor to better determine his location by using the sun and horizon as reference points.  These were especially useful in areas where the magnetic deviation affected the needle compass bearing.  Different variations on these themes were developed and offered by different makers as these designs evolved and each company or maker offered their own unique version.  

These later job specific Surveying instruments were offered by manufactures like William Young, Gurley, and Keuffel & Esser, Buff, Berger, Warren & Knight, Lietz, Dietzgen, Sala, as well as many others.  These well known names represent the larger makers but many examples by smaller and not as well known makers who had ideas and products to offer the marketplace are known as well.

To see various Vintage surveying instruments by well known makers such as Gurley, Thaxter, Queen, Lietz, Dietzgen, Keuffel & Esser, Buff, Berger, Heller & Brightly and a host of others that I have sold in the recent past, here is a link to the Surveying Instrument Past Sales Archive Page picturing and describing many of those antique surveying instruments.  This link will take you to our informational sister site www.AntiqBuyer.com.

Surveying Compasses

The first instruments used to explore, survey and divide up America came with the early settlers and explorers from Thaxter CompassEngland and the original homelands of these early explorers and adventurers.  During the earliest colonial times most of the available instruments in America were manufactured in England and were distributed  in America from the largest cities such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia which were located along the Eastern seaboard or had access to large bodies of water or seaways.  It was not long before the demand for surveying and related instruments outstripped the limited supply of imported instruments and a new industry began to develop here in America.  These same areas also became the centers of manufacturing activity in early America and expectedly the locations or home base of the earliest American surveying instrument makers. 

These earliest 18th century instrument makers included Anthony Lamb and Thomas Briggs of New York, and Aaron Breed of Boston. Lewis Michael 18th Century Vernier Surveying Compass  

Early makers of surveying and other mathematical instruments from the Philadelphia area included Benjamin Condy and James Ham, as well as the more recognizable names, David Rittenhouse and his brother Benjamin Rittenhouse who have been said to have made George Washington's surveying instruments and compasses for him when he was a surveyor prior to the American Revolution. The Rittenhouse brothers also interacted with other prominent American figures such a Franklin and Adams.  On the right is a Lewis Michael Compass.  Note the engraving.  It is like art.  Lewis apprenticed to Benjamin Rittenhouse, and his instruments are even more difficult to find than either of the Rittenhouse brothers compasses. 

Early Wooden Surveying Compasses by colonial era makers are becoming ever more difficult to obtain. 18th Century CompassWood was utilized for several reasons, availability and ease of construction being the main ones.  The earliest makers and pioneers in the development of surveying instruments were "Yankee's in the truest sense of the word.  They made do with the materials at hand.  Even though brass is relatively easy to work, non magnetic, and adaptable to the form needed, wood was an even easier material to work with and in ready and plentiful supply.  The vast majority of these early compass makers, that utilized wood as the basic material for the bodies of their instruments, originated from the New England area.   Many of these first American made examples are seemingly crude and rudimentary, but have a and presence or sense and persona that once appreciated and understood  make them very appealing. 

These earliest American examples had paper labels under the glass known as the compass card.  The compass bearings and added graphics were engraved on a plate, used to make the paper cards  It has even been purported that Paul Revere provided one Boston Maker with an engraving plate that he purportedly used to make his compass cards with.  Some of these were works of art depicting scenes with animals or landscapes or even people at work.  Compasses from areas like New York and Philadelphia were typically made of brass and their compass faces can be highly decorated or engraved with intricate and beautiful geometric designs like the example to the right by Lewis Michael.  Most later examples became much simpler with just a Fleur De Lis at the north point and the other points called off with simple arrows leading to them engraved on the face.  

The list of individual makers of all forms of surveying instruments continued to grow along with America throughout the 19th century.  The major makers continued to be concentrated in or near the major cities and hubs of activity, but the list of instrument makers from other areas began to grow with people setting up shops in places like Western PA, different parts of Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and elsewhere.  Saint Louis also became a center of activity with its strategic local and jumping off point on the Mississippi River for the trek west.  The first and best known California makers of surveying instruments were Schmolz of San Francisco, followed by John Roach who moved there from New York after a partnership with Warner in the mid 1800's and finally Joseph Sala who took over the Roach business after his death. 

The list and examples known number in the many hundreds and there is a comprehensive although not complete list of known makers and examples of their instruments documented and pictured at the Virtual Museum of Surveying compass makers directory which can be found here.   https://www.surveyhistory.org/compass maker directory.htm

Surveying Transits and Theodolites

The next major step in the evolution of surveying instruments made in America is attributed to William Young CompassYoung of Philadelphia who is credited by some with designing and manufacturing the first American transit in approximately 1831.  He began working in Philadelphia in the 1820's and is also credited with having made the first dividing engines in America which were touted to be second to none and the largest in the known world. This firm continued in business until 1918 when they finally sold out to the well known maker Keuffel & Esser or K & E of Newark NJ.  The basic design he used for his transits continued for nearly 100 years and an example is shown to the left.  There is another one of his early instruments pictured at the Smithsonian site dealing with surveying instruments at that site.

Transits and Theodolites are basically a further improvement over the surveyors compass which was also offered with a scope as an accessory.  The major difference being that the scope was fixed over the compass and it was offered as a single unit.  The earliest transits did not have the ability for the scope to be revolved on its axis ---- to shoot behind it as well without turning the whole instrument 180 degrees, or removing and re-seating the scope 180 degress.  This was due partly to the quality of the optics available necessitating longer scopes, and partly to the basic idea simply was not thought of or employed in the initial design.  Over the years, these attributes were incorporated into the transits design without fanfare.  Originally instruments that were not able to revolve on their axis were designated as theodolites, but over time the use of this word was changed or expanded to include more precise instruments that not only had this ability but were so intricate and precise that small magnifiers were needed to insure proper recording of what the scales indicated. 

As with compasses, transit were offered in different designations according to size or function.  Some transits were offered without compasses under the scope at all. Builders transits were used for simple layouts or laying of straight lines.  Expedition size transits are unusually small w/ scopes approx. 6" long.  Light mountain size transits had 8 - 9" scopes.  Surveyors transits were 10 ' 12" long and usually had a compass and vernier circle of some sort.  Architects transits are similar size usually with out a vertical vernier. The vertical vernier found on some transits was offered in different sizes and configurations for different applications and many transits did not utilize them at all.  Transits could be ordered in many sizes and different configurations leading to a myriad of small differences that can be encountered even in models carrying the same model number from makers like K & E or Gurley. Gurley Solar Compass

Our interests in buying and selling of antique surveying instruments is focused on more complex  instruments that include surveying transits of all sizes and forms.   Each company or maker designated different models in their own way, but in general are commonly referred to by their size or application with names such as Expedition transit, Explorer, Light Mountain, Engineer's transit, Architects transit, Railroad transit, Solar transit, Mining Transit and more.  I have detailed and discussed just some of the aspects concerning specific details related to these different surveying instruments to clarify what we typically sell and are seeking to buy but there is much involved that has not been touched on.

During this period during the mid to late 19th century many different surveying instrument makers came onto the scene and entered the marketplace.  Partnerships were formed and dissolved, and individuals moved from town to town or left the scene altogether for one reason or another.   For example, W. L. & E Gurley the surveying instrument maker who became the dominate force in the field evolved from members first apprenticing to, or from their associations with, the earlier individual makers in upstate NY area like Menelly and Hanks. Gurley then moved on to form the small partnership of Phelps and Gurley and then on to the partnership finally formed amongst the father, sons, and family members of the core Gurley family that became known as the W. L. & E Gurley Co. of Troy New York.

Antique & Vintage
Surveying Instruments

Antique surveying instruments, including transits, theodolites, compasses, solar instruments and other forms of vintage surveying instruments hold a Warren Knight Sterling Solar Transit w/ Saegmuller Solar Attachmentspecial interest for us.  Our focus both in buying and selling these interesting scientific artifacts is primarily focused on antique surveying instruments of American origin. We are especially looking for earlier 18th & 19th century instruments and more unusual forms of early surveying instruments such as solar or mining transits and compasses.  

We are always interested in buying or helping you sell similar instruments if you have something of interest.  You can look at some of the past sales results of instruments we have sold in the past at our sister site www.AntiqBuyer.com  on the Surveying Instrument Past Sales Archive Page 

Vintage & Antique
Transits / Theodolites / Solar Transits / Mining Transits & More

* * * Click Heading to see Items * * *  

  • Buff & Buff Mfg. Co. Solar Transit w/ Smith Patent Solar Attachment / Box & Tripod
  • Buff & Buff Mfg. Co. Solar Transit w/ Saegmuller Solar Attachment  Fredrick Yeiser Patent Altitude Instrument
  • W. & L. E. Gurley Mining Transit w/ Box
  • c. 1919 Gurley Engineers Transit
  • Pre 1908 Gurley #28 Light Mountain Transit w/ Box
  • Gurley #28 Light Mountain Transit w/ Tripod w/ Patented 1878 Quick Leveling Head
  • Gurley Explorer Size Level
  • Dietzgen Light Mountain Solar / Mining Transit
  • Keuffel & Esser / K & E #5076 Twisted Frame Solar Transit w/ #5090 Saegmuller Attachment
  • K & E / Keuffel & Esser c. 1919 # 5074 Engineers Mountain & Mining Transit
  • Buff & Berger's Pearson Patent Solar Attachment
  • Keuffel & Esser Saegmuller Type Solar Attachment
  • Frederick Yeiser 1859 Patent Altitude / Meridian Instrument
  • K & E / Keuffel & Esser # 5081 1/2 Engineers Mining Transit w/ Aux Scope / Tripod & Attachments in Original Box

Antique & Vintage
Compasses / Telescopes / Levels / Alidades & More

* * * Click Heading to see Items * * * Lewis Michael 18th Century Vernier Surveying Compass

  • D. W. Brunton Pocket Transit / Compass by Ainsworth
  • K & E / Keuffel & Esser #5368-1 "After" Brunton Pocket Transit / Compass
  • Burt & Bailey Detroit MI c. 1855 Solar Compass
  • Benjamin Chandlee & Robert Holloway / Baltimore Surveying Compass
  • Baldwin & Storrs 18th Century Brass Surveying Compass
  • James Green Baltimore Maryland Black Face Survey Compass w/ Tripod
  • William Stieren Vernier Surveyor's Compass w/ Original Purchase Receipt

 

Surveying & Drafting Related Tools 
Tripods / Plane Tables/ Plumb Bobs / Chains / Rules & More

* * *  Click Heading to see Items * * * Surveying Tripods / Plane Tables

  • GEODEASIA or the Art of Surveying & Measuring Land Made Easy - Published 1793
  • Selection of Fixed & Collapsible Leg Tripods
  • Lietz Wooden Jacob Staff
  • Selection of Brass and Iron Plumb Bobs
  • Small Ebony Parallel Ruler
  • Ivory Sector for Navigation
  • K & E Pantograph in Original Box 

Surveying Instrument Catalogs & Related Books

  • 1912 Gurley Manual / Catalog      $55.00
  • 1908 Gurley Manual / Catalog      $75.00
  • 1907 Gurley Manual / Catalog      $75.00
  • 1906 Gurley Manual / Catalog      $75.00
  • 1904 Gurley Manual / Catalog      $75.00
  • 1901 Gurley Manual / Catalog      $95.00
  • 1900 Gurley Gurley American Engineer's and Surveyors Instruments Manual / Catalog      $125.00
  • 1895 Gurley Gurley American Engineer's and Surveyors Instruments  Manual / Catalog      $125.00 W. L. & E Gurley Surveying Catalog
  • 1891 Gurley American Engineer's and Surveyors Instruments     $150.00
  • 1883 Gurley American Engineer's and Surveyors Instruments     $225.00
  • 1909 K & E / Keuffel & Esser Catalog    $150.00
  • 1913 K & E / Keuffel & Esser Catalog    $125.00
  • 1916 K & E / Keuffel & Esser Catalog    $95.00
  • 1940 Berger Catalog      $45.00
  • 1910 Dietzgen Catalog      $95.00
  • A. Lietz 1893 Catalog      $450.00

Here is a link to a website that can help you date your surveying instrument if you are looking for that info.

https://www.surveyhistory.org/how_old_is_my_instrument.htm


MORE INFO ABOUT
Antique & Vintage Surveying Instruments

To see various Vintage surveying instruments by well known makers such as Gurley, Thaxter, Queen, Lietz, Dietzgen, Keuffel & Esser, Buff, Berger, Heller & Brightly and others that I have sold in the past, here is a link to the Surveying Instrument Past Sales Archive Page at our sister website www.AntiqBuyer.com picturing and describing many of the antique surveying instruments I have previously sold.

* * * * We Sell Antiques! * * * *

We want to Help you Sell Your quality Surveying Related Antiques

If you have a single antique, or a collection of antiques to sell please contact us at LCM@patented-antiques.com giving us your PHONE NUMBER  and other contact info and we will get back to you ASAP. 

To view examples of the types of antiques and collectibles we have previously sold and are always interested in helping you sell please visit our Past Sales Archive Pages at our sister website www.AntiqBuyer.com.

Please see our FAQ page, the Appraisal / Selling Page and the Selling Your Collection Pages for further info.

Thanks!!

Larry & Carole



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Larry & Carole Meeker