By Larry Stipek
ecotech network
The Early Days of GIS at Harvard Remembered
 Very few of the conference attendees last August had probably even heard of Symap.  Most of the people that I talked to had recently graduated and were new to the field and/or were starting new systems.  On the other hand. I had first hand experience with Symap in graduate school, probably in 1975 or ‘76.  According to the Niemann’s, by the late ‘70s when I was using Symap, it had been revised over 20 times and was installed on over 300 computers worldwide.
 Plotters were not generally available in those days, in other words, the machines that print the large maps we are accustomed to now.  Symap was designed to output to a line printer.  It was basically an electric typewriter type of device that was commonly available in computer labs.  It produced patterns of light and dark areas by overprinting characters.  The more characters that were over struck, the darker the pattern.  Despite the relatively crude output, Symap pioneered many of the concepts common to GIS today.
 There were no digitizers (data input devices) in those days either, and you could not go to the Internet to get your data.  The data were punched on cards that were read by a card reader (and often destroyed by one).  At my university, the jobs were submitted at night because the institution didn’t have the computing power to run Symap and payroll at the same time.  You would submit three or four versions of the same job hoping that one of them would execute properly in the early morning hours.
 Howard Fisher’s work caught the attention of the Ford Foundation that awarded the Harvard Graduate School of Design a grant of $294,000
At a conference last August, a pamphlet was distributed that chronicled the early days of geographic information systems (GIS) at Harvard University.  The San Diego conference was an opportunity for some of the founders of the GIS industry to reunite and reflect.  It’s amazing how quickly GIS has grown.  The consultants who hosted the conference released version 1.0 of ArcInfo, their flagship GIS software, in 1982.  In 1984, Global Positioning System (GPS), the satellite navigation system that is now used to help you navigate your car, became operational.  The first users’ group of this technology was probably held in a garage.  The last conference was attended by a conference estimated 13,500 people from 135 countries.  This one software vendor alone has over 120,000 user organizations worldwide with 1,000,000 + users.  Things have changed and in very little time.
 The pamphlet is a condensed version of a book by Nick Chrisman due out in 2005.  Nick started his graduate work at the Harvard School for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis in 1972.  There he worked for and with some of the people who created and advanced the technology and science of GIS.  He recalled, “There are many stories about the origins of geographic information systems technology.  A few of them are true.”
 There were a small number of institutions working on computerized mapping in the 1950s and ‘60s.  The revolution was made possible by improvements in computer technology and the development of theories of spatial processes.  It was fueled by a need for better information for planning and an increased awareness of environmental problems.
 All the stories lead in one way or another, said Nick Chrisman, to the Harvard School for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis beginning in 1965 and ending with its dissolution in 1991.   The story is about technology and people with a Virginia connection.
 Howard Fisher founded the Harvard Lab in 1965.  Fisher had studied architecture at Harvard, and was a practicing architect in Chicago.  He was teaching planning at Northwestern University when he attended a workshop on computer mapping in 1963 organized by Edgar Horwood of the University of Washington.  According to Ben and Sue Niemann in their article, Allan H. Schmidt: GIS Journeyman, a GIS Innovator manuscript, Howard Fisher began to think about how he could use computerized mapping to analyze planning related data.  He worked with Betty Benson at Northwestern to program the first version of Symap, the first widely distributed package for handling geographic data.
Stipek.jpg

The author is the Loudoun County GIS Coordinator and a statewide authority and speaker on the subject of geographic information systems and their applications.