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Closeup of a geodetic survey marker

The National Geodetic Survey (NGS), formerly the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USCGS), is a United States federal agency that defines and manages a national coordinate system, providing the foundation for transportation and communication; mapping and charting; and a large number of applications of science and engineering. Since 1970, it has been part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Purpose and function

The National Geodetic Survey maintains the National Spatial Reference System (NSRS), "a consistent coordinate system that defines latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, and orientation throughout the United States."[1] NGS is responsible for defining the NSRS and its relationship with the International Terrestrial Reference Frame. NGS is a program office of the National Ocean Service, a line office of NOAA.

Current projects


Earliest years

Logo celebrating the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

The original predecessor agency of the NGS was the United States Coast Survey, created by Congress in 1807 to conduct a "Survey of the Coast".[2] This organization represented the Jefferson administration's interest in science and stimulation of international trade. The Jackson administration expanded and extended the coast surveys scope and organization.[3]:468 Progress was slow and fitful during the first 25 years. Not until August 29, 1811, did F. R. Hassler sail for Europe to purchase the proper instruments. He remained in Europe during the War of 1812, and then he returned to the United States, arriving on August 16, 1815.

Hassler's plan was to employ triangulation to establish his system. Work began in the vicinity of New York City in 1816. The first baseline was measured and verified in 1817. A further Act of Congress in 1818 interfered with Hassler's work. The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy were placed in charge of the survey work. This generated a lull in activity which lasted from 1818 to 1832. The Coast survey existed without a superintendent during the 14 years from 1818 to 1832.

Little work was carried out until another Federal law was enacted on July 10, 1832. It renewed the original law of 1807. Hassler was reappointed as the agency's superintendent, and field work was resumed in April 1833.

Association with United States Navy

The U.S. Department of the Navy was given the control of the coast and geodetic survey from 1834 to 1836, but the U.S. Department of the Treasury resumed the administration of the survey on March 26, 1836.

Sigsbee Sounding Machine - invented by Charles Dwight Sigsbee and modified from Thomson Sounding Machine. Basic design of ocean sounding instruments stayed the same for the next 50 years. Here the sounding machine is used to set a Pillsbury current meter at a known depth. In: The Gulf Stream, by John Elliott Pillsbury, 1891. Note caption on photo: "Sounding Machine And Current Meter In Place, Steamer Blake"

The Navy retained close connection with the hydrographic efforts of Coast Survey under law requiring Survey ships to be commanded and crewed by naval officers and men when the Navy could provide such support.[4] Under this system many of the most famous names in hydrography for both the Survey and Navy of the period are linked. It was while attached to Coast Survey that Lieutenant Commander Charles Dwight Sigsbee, USN, Assistant in the Coast Survey,[Note 1] surveyed, developed his sounding machine and commanded the ship Blake during the first true bathymetric surveys in the Gulf of Mexico. Survey civilians were also assigned to the ships, along with famous scientist of the day, such as Alexander Agassiz, for technical operations.[5] That system remained effective until changed under appropriation law approved June 6, 1900 to the effect that beginning July 1, 1900 "all necessary employees to man and equip the vessels" were funded as opposed to the previous scheme using naval personnel. By prearrangement all naval personnel would remain with the ships until the first call at the home port where the transfer would be made with the Survey reimbursing Navy for pay after July 1 for those personnel.[6]

Growth years

Professor Alexander Dallas Bache became superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey in 1843. Earlier in his life, he had established the first magnetic observatory. During his years as superintendent, he expanded Coast Survey's work southward along the Atlantic coast into the Florida Keys and along the Pacific Coast. He instituted regular and systematic observations of the tides and the Gulf Stream, and investigated magnetic forces and directions.

During the nineteenth century, the remit of the Survey was rather loosely drawn and it had no competitors in federally funded scientific research. Various Superintendents developed its work in fields as diverse as astronomy, cartography, meteorology, geodesy, geology, geophysics, hydrography, navigation, oceanography, exploration, pilotage, tides and topography. The Survey published important articles by Charles Sanders Peirce on the design of experiments and on a criterion for the statistical treatment of outliers.[7] [8] For example, from 1836 until the establishment of the National Bureau of Standards in 1901, the Survey was responsible for weights and measures throughout the United States.

The Coast Pilot[Note 2] had long been lacking in current information. The Coast Survey had recognized that deficit but been hindered by lack of funding and risks associated with mooring vessels in deep waters or along dangerous coasts in order to collect the information. Congress specifically appropriated funding for such work in the 1875-1876 budget under which the 76 foot schooner Drift was constructed and sent out under Acting Master Robert Platt, USN, Assistant Coast Survey, to the Gulf of Maine to anchor in depths of up to 140 fathoms (840 feet/256 meters) to measure currents.[9] The Survey's requirement led to early development of current measurement technology, particularly the Pillsbury current meter invented by John E. Pillsbury, USN while on duty with the survey. It was in connection with intensive studies of the Gulf Stream that the ship George S. Blake became such a pioneer in oceanography that she is one of only two U.S. ships with her name inscribed in the façade of the Oceanographic Museum (Musée Océanographique), Monaco due to its being "the most innovative oceanographic vessel of the Nineteenth Century" with development of deep ocean exploration through introduction of steel cable for sounding, dredging and deep anchoring and data collection for the "first truly modern bathymetric map of a deep sea area."[10]

Civil War

Survey of the Mississippi River below Forts Jackson and St. Philip to prepare for the bombardment of the forts by Porters mortar fleet. Plan done by the U.S. Coast Survey.[11]

The outbreak of the American Civil War caused a dramatic shift in direction for the Coast Survey. Since most men of the survey had Union sympathies, their work shifted emphasis to support of the United States Navy. One of the individuals who excelled at this work was Joseph Smith Harris, who supported Admiral David G. Farragut and his Western Gulf Blockading Squadron in the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. This survey work was particularly valuable to Commander David Dixon Porter and his mortar bombardment fleet.

As the American continent was progressively explored, inhabited, and enclosed, the bureau took responsibility for survey of the interior. By 1871, Congress expanded its responsibilities to include geodetic surveys in the interior of the country and the name of the U.S. Coast Survey was changed in 1878 to the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS).[2]

ESSA / NOAA years

From 1965 to 1970, the C&GS was transferred to the control of the Environmental Science Services Administration.[2] In 1970, ESSA expanded and was reorganized into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), of which the NGS is a constituent unit today.[2]

Frank Manly Thorn served as 6th Superintendent of the USC&GS.

Rear Admiral Henry Arnold Karo served as the 4th head of USC&GS.

The USC&GS oceanographic research ship Pathfinder was re-commissioned as a US Navy vessel during World War II.


Superintendents (1816–1919)

  1. Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, (1816–1818 and 1832–1843)
  2. Alexander Dallas Bache, (1843–1865)
  3. Benjamin Peirce, (1867–1874)
  4. Carlile Pollock Patterson, (1874–1881)
  5. Julius Erasmus Hilgard, (1881–1885)
  6. Frank Manly Thorn, was the first non-scientist to head USC&GS (1885–1889)
  7. Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, (1889–1894)
  8. William Ward Duffield, (1894–1897)
  9. Henry Smith Pritchett, (1897–1900)
  10. Otto Hilgard Tittmann, (1900–1915)
  11. Ernest Lester Jones, (1915–1919)

Directors (1919–1968)

  1. Ernest Lester Jones, (1919–1929)
  2. Raymond Stanton Patton, (1929–1937)
  3. Robert Francis Anthony Studds, (1938–1955)
  4. Henry Arnold Karo, (1955–1965)
  5. James C. Tison, Jr., (1965–1968)

Superintendents of Weights and Measures


A partial list of the Survey's ships:

The USC&GS ship Explorer in the Aleutian Islands in 1944.


The United States Coast and Geodetic Survey flag, in use from 1899 to 1970

The Coast and Geodetic Survey was authorized its own flag on January 16, 1899. The flag, which remained in use until the Survey became a part of NOAA in 1970, was blue, with a central white circle and a red triangle centered within the circle. It was intended to symbolize the triangulation method used in surveying. The flag was flown by ships in commission with the Coast and Geodetic Survey at the highest point on the forwardmost mast, and served as a distinguishing mark of the Survey as a separate seagoing service from the Navy, with which the Survey shared a common ensign.

The NOAA service flag, in use today, was adapted from the Coast and Geodetic Survey flag by adding the NOAA emblem—a circle divided into two parts by the white silhouette of a flying seabird, with the roughly triangular portion above the bird being dark blue and the portion below it a lighter blue—to the center of the old Survey flag. The NOAA symbol lies entirely within the red triangle.[12]

See also


  1. The formal title given these officers in reports is for example: "Lieut. Commander John A. Howell, U.S.N., Assistant in the Coast Survey" with "Assistant" being a title for both high office and topographic survey management positions and ship's commanding officers.
  2. The U.S. Coast Survey published its earliest version of the Coast Pilot as an appendix in the 1858 Coast Survey Report. Later, after the copyright to a private edition was sold to the United States in 1867 the Survey assumed the responsibility for regular publication.


  1. "National Geodetic Survey - What We Do". National Geodetic Survey Website. Retrieved 27 May 2013. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 NOAA, Coast and Geodetic Survey Heritage
  3. Howe, Daniel W. (2007). What hath God Wrought, The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. Oxford University Press, Inc.. ISBN 978-0-19-507894-7. 
  4. U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (1877). Report Of The Superintendent of the Coast And Geodetic Survey Showing The Progress Of The Survey During The Year 1874. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 3. 
  5. Alexander Agassiz (1888). "Three Cruises of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey Steamer "Blake": In the Gulf of Mexico, in the Caribbean Sea, and Along the Atlantic Coast of the United States, from 1877 to 1880". Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston & New York. Retrieved 2 March 2012. 
  6. U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (1901). Report Of The Superintendent of the Coast And Geodetic Survey Showing The Progress Of Work From July 1, 1900 To June 30, 1901. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. pp. 15, 17, 109. 
  7. Peirce, Charles Sanders (1870 [published 1873]). "Appendix No. 21. On the Theory of Errors of Observation". pp. 200–224. . NOAA PDF Eprint (goes to Report p. 200, PDF's p. 215). U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Annual Reports links for years 1837–1965. Reprinted in Writings of Charles S. Peirce, v. 3, pp. 140–160.
  8. Peirce, C. S. (1876 [published 1879]), "Appendix No. 14. Note on the Theory of the Economy of Research" in Report of the Superintendent of the United States Coast Survey Showing the Progress of the Survey for Fiscal Year Ending with June 1876, pp. 197–201, NOAA PDF Eprint, goes to p. 197, PDF's page 222. Reprinted in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, v. 7, paragraphs 139–157 and in Operations Research v. 15, n. 4, July–August 1967, pp. 643–648, abstract at JSTOR Peirce, C. S. (1967). "Note on the Theory of the Economy of Research". pp. 643. Digital object identifier:10.1287/opre.15.4.643. 
  9. U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (1877). Report Of The Superintendent of the Coast And Geodetic Survey Showing The Progress Of The Work for the Fiscal Year Ending With June, 1877. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 9. 
  10. "George S. Blake". NOAA History: Coast and Geodetic Survey Ships. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library. 2006. Retrieved 9 February 2012. 
  11. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Volume 18, p.362.
  12. Sea Flags: National Oceanic and Atmoshperic Administration at verizon

External links

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