Earth Imaging Journal: Remote Sensing, Satellite Images, Satellite Imagery
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April 9, 2014
Reflecting on Dr. Roger Tomlinson’s Contributions to GIS

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”

—Plato, The Republic

On Feb. 9, 2014, Dr. Roger Tomlinson passed away at the age of 80. Anyone who has spent much time around a geographic information system (GIS) likely is familiar with Tomlinson’s anecdotal standing as the “Father of GIS.”

Born in Cambridge, England, on Nov. 17, 1933, Tomlinson flew planes in the Royal Air Force during the 1950s and twice led expeditions to the Norwegian Ice Cap in 1956 and 1957. His academic credentials included bachelors’ degrees from Nottingham University, Nottingham, England, and Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada; a master’s degree from McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Ph.D. from University College, London.

Tomlinson adopted Canada as his home in 1957 and established Tomlinson Associates Ltd. in Ottawa in 1977. Over the years, his firm advised an impressive list of clients, including the United Nations, World Bank, U.S. departments of Commerce and Agriculture, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of the Census, the Canadian Forest Service … and the list goes on.

“Necessity Was the Mother of Invention”

That’s how Tomlinson described his foray into GIS—a term he coined—when I interviewed him in 1996. He had been honored as the recipient of the second annual GIS WORLD Lifetime Achievement Award a month earlier.

“I was a young geographer in an aerial survey company in the private sector in Ottawa in 1959,” he recalled. “It was a high-tech company. But I found that manual map analysis was too expensive for our clients. I thought computers could carry out geographical analysis; it seemed to be the way out—and it was.”

Overcoming Early Challenges

Tomlinson’s early hurdles in creating a workable GIS included a host of computer limitations. But he persevered and innovated until he achieved the desired results. He talked about how the lack of computer size and speed had to be overcome. But the biggest challenge he faced was doing the public relations work on behalf of GIS.

“In those early days was the need for missionary work to make a case that geography through GIS had a vital contribution to make,” he said. “That certainly wasn’t the view in most traditional mapping agencies. And it took an awful lot of missionary work—visiting, talking, lecturing, persuading, demonstrating and showing. That occupied me for about the next 15 years. It was an uphill challenge. Not only was the technology in its infancy, but the recognition that it had a real role to play also was in its infancy.”

Retired University of Ottawa Professor Dr. Barry Wellar, who worked with Tomlinson during the 1960s, told the Ottawa Citizen that Tomlinson wasn’t alone in inventing GIS, but he had the ambition and confidence to push a reluctant federal government into accepting it. GIS brought together surveyors, remote sensing experts and mathematicians, and Wellar likened Tomlinson to the conductor of an orchestra.

“I don’t think he liked to take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Wellar. “And that’s what you have to do with the federal government. He got stuff done. He knew in his mind how he saw the pieces coming together and who the players would be … he had an end game, and he was bound and determined to get there.”

Many of the basic mapping functions we take for granted today, such as navigating with our smartphones, ultimately can be traced back to Tomlinson’s early efforts. His book, Thinking About GIS: Geographic Information System Planning for Managers, now is in its fifth edition through Esri Press. Tomlinson’s numerous recognitions and awards include the National Geographic Society’s prestigious Alexander Graham Bell Medal, awarded for extraordinary achievement in geographic research. Tomlinson, along with his friend and colleague Jack Dangermond of Esri, jointly received the award in 2010.

— By Jeff Specht, publisher, Earth Imaging Journal

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