The Art of Colonial Surveying Instruments

When I first laid my eyes on the Lewis Michael compass, words could not describe the emotions I felt. I was looking at one of the most beautifully engraved examples of the 18th century Colonial instrument maker’s art. I have been collecting Colonial antiques for decades and had never seen an example of craftsmanship that touched me on a personal level as did this instrument. Little did I know that I was embarking on an incredible journey that would include volumes of historical information and admiration of extraordinary craftsmanship that is seldom enjoyed by students of 18th century Colonial Americana.

Those of us that savor the beauty and historical significance of Colonial antiques find endearing qualities displayed in the craftsmanship. It is easy to find information on various disciplines such as clockmakers, silversmiths, and cabinetmakers. One area that is very seldom pursued, because examples are quite rare, is that of the Colonial instrument maker. When I speak of “instrument maker,” I am talking primarily of the maker of surveying instruments, instruments that were necessary to record the vast amounts of seemingly limitless tracts of land that made up the early colonies. This newly discovered continent was covered by forests that had to be divided and prepared for sale to the newly arriving colonists. The surveyors would measure and mark boundary lines for farms, villages, towns, and roads. To those unfamiliar with this particular occupation, it sounds like a purely mathematical and historical discussion. But there is an astonishing beauty in the instruments of surveying, especially when we are looking at those of the 18th century.

Instruments for this purpose were initially imported from England and a lesser amount from the European continent. It took several decades before instruments were being constructed in the colonies for use by the local surveyors. In the first quarter of the 18th century, instrument makers in the colonies began to produce surveying instruments. By the mid 18th century more instrument makers became proficient and produced instruments for the ever increasing demand. For these early instrument makers, the style of engraving the brass surface with the decorative points of the compass was heavily influenced by the instruments brought over from England. This influence was not dogmatic, it was merely inspirational. The Colonial instrument makers had a desire to produce their own unique style that was not a direct copy of English instruments. The styles of numbering, engraving, and the decoration became quite particular to a given maker and, as a group, individualistic to the colonies.

As a general rule, English instruments were produced by professional instrument makers who had incorporated a superior level of engraving, as well as very accurate methods of dividing the needle ring. Pictured is an example of a late 17th century instrument constructed around 1665 by an English maker for one of the original proprietors of the Carolinas, Sir John Colleton. This instrument is a large theodolite, extremely well made, and in remarkable original condition. The extraordinary circumstance regarding this instrument is that it still retains the original octagonal, walnut case that was built specifically for this theodolite. Very few instruments brought into the colonies at such an early date still remain and this may be one of the only instruments that can be directly associated with a first generation proprietor from the 17th century.

However, early brass Colonial instruments are quite rare prior to 1750. As the Colonial makers began making instruments for local surveyors, the majority of them were made out of wood indigenous to New England. Despite the added cost, brass quickly became the material of choice due to its ability to hold up to the rigors of the surveying environment. Wood, while plentiful, was much more easily damaged; the sight vanes, for example, could be broken or the wood of the compass body could warp and crack.

Brass in the colonies was a controlled commodity and many of the makers advertised for used brass to melt down, such as kettles and flatware, providing the raw materials for production of their instruments. Therefore sockets, sight vanes, and similar items were made on quite a small scale which was sufficiently strong to produce the desired rigidity but were not as massive as the English instruments from the same period where brass was much more available.

The Colonial instruments constructed during the 18th century were fabricated and engraved by the instrument maker. It is very easy to distinguish instruments by the same maker who exhibits a consistent, individualistic engraving style that was common to the instruments fabricated during that maker’s entire career. Maturation of the engraving style becomes evident when studying the examples of a particular maker as the number of mistakes made in the engraving lessens and the instrument maker becomes more proficient in his craft.

Upon studying these instruments, the common, endearing characteristic from these makers was their naive engraving designs and the conservative manner in which brass was used. Many of these makers were obviously not professional engravers and literally taught themselves to engrave; their early works exhibited mistakes that were made in the early stages of one learning to engrave brass. Brass as a material is more difficult to engrave than copper, which was more commonly used in book printing and map plates. Copper is a softer material that lends itself more readily to engraving with a burin; brass is a somewhat harder material and the casting processes in those early days did not necessarily produce a brass of uniform hardness.

One finds that when you are learning to engrave it is very easy to draw out a design, but is more difficult when attempting to engrave that same design in brass. But it is this naiveté in engraving style that makes these Colonial instruments from the 18th century such valuable historical pieces. It shows a provinciality that one finds in the English countryside instruments, which would seldom, if ever, be found in the compasses made in cosmopolitan areas such as London. Brass instruments, however, by makers such as Greenough and Dupee of Boston, show a level of engraving sophistication that is less exact but more captivating because of its inexactitude. It is the endearing qualities of these instruments that provide the focal point for the study of these makers and their early attempts at producing instruments that the Colonial surveyors were interested in purchasing. Once the machine age took over in the 1830s, the instrument engraving quality was reduced to merely a token decorative aspect that suffered greatly in comparison to the early instruments where the engraving was considered to be an integral part of the design of the instrument. The craftsman of this early period found it necessary to express himself in an artistic manner. The majority of the professionally made instruments in the colonies exhibited a high level of engraving incorporating the signature, as well as occasionally the date and location of the instrument maker.

Typical training for surveyors in the 18th century was by attending classes in trigonometry, geometry, and navigation as can be seen in their notebooks which show a high level of artistic ability. This artistic ability also manifested itself in manuscript survey maps done in the field.