of the

Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys,

the Surveyor-General and the Government Astronmer of New Zealand, and the Surveyors-General of the States of the Commonwealth of Australia


Melbourne, 20-25 May, 1912



In the same year as Federation H.E. Coane from a family of surveyors, criticised the lack of systematic topographic mapping in Australia. His paper “Modern Topography”, published in The Surveyor, the Journal of the Institution of Surveyors, New South Wales, goes on to look at methodologies and costs of mapping. However, it was a few more years before any systematic topographic mapping program was commenced.


From a national perspective the Commonwealth’s first involvement with surveying and mapping came with having to manage its own “territory/land”. The Commonwealth wanted to ensure that its own and the States’ surveys and plans, relating to Commonwealth “lands” were legally consistent. To this end the Commonwealth requested the above conference.


The first and major resolution, from the conference, contained detailed proposals for a National Geodetic Survey of Australia as the members recognised that such a geodetic survey was “absolutely necessary for the production of accurate maps”. In terms of the Commonweath’s requirements for consistency, the members were also cognisent of the fact that a coherent network was the basis for fixing standardised boundaries.


One hundred years on from this first national recognition of the need for a Commonwealth approach to mapping Australia, significant extracts of the proceedings are here.


World War 1 took any focus off mapping Australia so it was not until 1927 that the first Interstate Conference of the Australian Surveyors’ Institutes, held in Melbourne, again addressed the matter in two papers. Arthur Percival, the then Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys, in The Need for a Geodetic Survey of Australia, and the then President of the Surveyors' Institutes, Robert Barr Montgomery On the Need for a Topographical Survey of Australia.


The lack of adequate topographic map coverage of Australia was further highlighted by the Victorian representative of the Development and Migration Commission. He requested that delegates to the 1927 Conference assist in the preparation of a statement on the need for topographical maps of Australia. To fulfil this request, the Australian Survey Committee - ASC (not to be confused with the later Commonwealth Survey Committee) was formed. This committee had representatives from surveyors, engineers, mining and metallurgy, academia and the Victorian Government Astronomer. The Development and Migration Commission provided the secretary. Input was also received, from the Defence department and the Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys.


It was the chair of the Development and Migration Commission who saw the value of mapping such that in October 1928, he requested that the chair of the ASC put forward a national scheme of topographical mapping. This scheme was contained in the Report on the Need for a Geodetic and Topographical Survey of Australia presented to the Commonwealth government in February 1930.


The government claimed stringent financial limitations prevented take up of the report’s recommendations; but left some hope by indicating that the recommendations might be reconsidered at a better time. In 1932, the Department of Interior was created and the Commonwealth’s surveying, mapping and property functions were transferred to that department. However, there was still no action on the ASC’s recommendations. The ASC met again in September 1933 and considered whether the Commonwealth government should again be approached to start the geodetic and topographical survey of Australia. The ASC’s second report was presented to the Minister for Development in November 1934, but as with the first report, this second report received little Commonwealth government support.


The outbreak of World War Two and the threat of invasion to Australia suddenly saw the need for maps and mapping become a high priority. Embarrasingly, less than 2 per cent of Australia had been mapped at a suitable scale. The Commonwealth Surveyor-General, Frederick M. Johnston (who later also became the first Director of National Mapping), stated: "the inadequacy of our maps became more fully apparent when the Japanese were on our threshold in 1942. It is probable that they were better informed on the topography of parts of New Guinea then we ourselves were". The Emergency Mapping Scheme was introduced in November 1940, and immediately Australia had a co-ordinated, national mapping program. While the quality of these maps varied, the Scheme would ensure that we would have some idea of what was on the ground for 80% of the country!


In the war-time and Emergency Mapping Scheme environment, the August 1944 meeting of the Commonwealth Survey Committee (CSC) passed thirteen resolutions; again the need for a national survey was high on that list of resolutions. However, the co-ordinated, national mapping program of the Emergency Mapping Scheme was a war-time response and peace-time, when it came, would be a whole new world. With foresight the CSC recommended that, at their next meeting the State Surveyors-General confer with the Commonwealth Surveyor-General and the CSC. This resolution gave rise to the conference on National Survey and Mapping of Australia , involving the Commonwealth Survey Committee and State Surveyors-General, of 15-19 January 1945. The recommendations of that conference received Commonwealth government approval on 7 March 1945 and provided for the formation of the National Mapping Council (NMC).


The new National Mapping Council was to be chaired by the Commonwealth Surveyor-General who was also to be the Director of National Mapping. This was the genesis of National Mapping as a Commonwealth, civilian, mapping entity; from an Office to a Section and finally a Division. What had started back in 1912 and had been a constant theme of the many committees and reports, had come to fruition; a National Mapping agency for Australia. The report of this landmark, national 1945 conference and is available through the above link.


It is a long document but is hyper-linked to make access to major items easier.


Other items within the report which maybe of interest are :




My thanks to John Knight et al for obtaing a better copy of the report, as my old original had unreadable sections, and the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism for permission to publish under a 'Creative Commons Licence'.