Smithsonian - National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Physical Sciences Collection

Surveying and Geodesy

Surveyor and chainman
Tintype of a surveyor and chainman with a vernier compass made by Levi Colton, taken around 1870. Catalog #1985.0181.01.


The surveying and geodetic instruments in the National Museum of American History reflect the importance of these activities in America since the first European colonists settled here some 400 years ago and turned the American landscape into property. With these instruments, and others of their ilk, Americans determined the limits of private and public lands, the paths of transport, and the boundaries of colonies, states, and nation.

This site currently features a selection of over 300 museum objects relating to surveying and geodesy. You may access the collection in the following ways:

Browse by Maker to view objects grouped by maker and to see selected biographies.

Browse by Instrument to view objects grouped by type and to read generic descriptions.

Or, view a complete index of the objects on the site.

For more information about this site, please write to