From Stars and Steeples to Software and Satellites
William Brydone Jack’s Legacy to Surveying and Mapping
Richard B. Langley

I think it is safe to say that the Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering at UNB owes its existence in no small part to William Brydone Jack.

Before 1994, our department was known as Surveying Engineering and was established in 1960, first as a program in Civil Engineering and then as a fully-fledged department.

UNB’s first teacher of surveying was William Brydone Jack. He came to UNB’s predecessor King’s College in 1840 as the professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, which was the term for science in those days. Brydone Jack was practically minded so the subjects he taught generally included a practical component to them. Consequently, he gave lectures in surveying as part of the mathematics curriculum. He also constructed an observatory not just for general instruction in astronomy but also for surveying measurements. You’ll hear more about the observatory later.

In 1854, the first course in civil engineering was given here, much of which was actually surveying. It was open to the general public as well as King’s College students but non-students had to pay two pounds whereas it only cost the students ten shillings. Students were getting a break even back then. And this may have been our institution’s first extended learning course.

In 1855, Brydone Jack accurately determined the longitude of Fredericton using astronomical observations and the electric telegraph, which had come to Fredericton in 1850.

An accurate determination of a location's longitude requires an accurately synchronized clock. It is essentially a measure of the difference in sidereal time between the location and the Greenwich meridian or some other meridian, whose longitude has been accurately determined.

By timing the transits of stars, Brydone Jack could determine his local sidereal time. And by exchanging telegraph signals with the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts whose longitude was well known, Brydone Jack was able to compare his clock with that in Cambridge and so determine the difference in sidereal time and hence Fredericton's longitude. 

The measurements were actually conducted using the facilities of J.B. Toldervy, a Fredericton physician and amateur astronomer, who had a private observatory at his home near the telegraph office. The results were published by the Astronomer Royal in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Using the telegraph technique, Brydone Jack went on to determine the longitude of other locations in New Brunswick as well as that of Quebec City.

Today, we determine longitude (and latitude) using GPS. Instead of stars, we use satellites, and the software inside a GPS receiver synchronizes the receiver’s clock by comparing it to the atomic clocks in the satellites.

Shortly after Confederation, Brydone Jack established a meteorological observatory at UNB and began recording daily observations of the weather. This is a tradition that is now continued by the Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering. Besides its use for determining position, velocity, and time, GPS can be used to measure the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. One of our continuously operating GPS receivers is dedicated to this job and the data is sent in real time to scientists in the United States who use it for more accurate weather forecasts.

The success of the short course in civil engineering led to the offering in 1859 of a three-term “special undergraduate course in Civil Engineering and Surveying” Students successfully completing this course receive a diploma. The first diploma was awarded in 1862 to a fellow by the wonderful name of Henry George Clopper Ketchum, who was involved in the construction of railways here in the Maritimes and elsewhere.

In 1874, Brydone Jack was appointed to the Board of Examiners to assess candidates for admission to practice as land surveyors in New Brunswick. This is a role that UNB has maintained down to the present time.

It is interesting to look at the minute books of the board to see how surveying in the province evolved and how the board maintained the high standards set by Brydone Jack. The very first person to apply for a surveyor’s commission was actually turned down. It seems that he didn’t know any algebra and didn’t even own any instruments.

Also around 1874, Brydone Jack installed a stone survey pillar on campus. By accurately surveying to the steeples of Fredericton’s churches, he established baseline measurements for testing surveyors’ compasses. The pillar still exists today (it’s near Aitken House), which is testament to the care with which it was installed. 

Three years after Brydone Jack’s death in 1886, the chair of civil engineering and surveying was established. And this was followed in 1901 by the opening of the first engineering building on campus.

In the following years, engineering thrived at UNB. Other departments were established and the Faculty of Engineering gained a worldwide reputation as a leader in engineering education and research.

Which brings us back to the Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering and its founding in 1960. Since then, several other universities in Canada and elsewhere have patterned their geomatics programs on the one pioneered at UNB. Yet, UNB remains a leader–nationally and internationally–in geomatics education and research.

It is not widely known, but department researchers helped to map the moon for NASA’s selection of lunar landing sites in the 1960s and here at home developed the technology that was used to precisely map Canada’s north using satellite technology.

The department’s current research strengths span the whole breadth of geomatics, from making GPS work better to helping develop land reform legislation in Brazil. Department researchers have developed technologies used by Google and have designed systems to ensure safety at open-pit mines in Chile and elsewhere. And the department is helping to map the floor of the Arctic Ocean to bolster Canada’s claim to resources and sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.

Last year, the department celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. One of the key events of the year was the publication of the department’s history. Titled By Any Measure – Fifty Years of Surveying and Geomatics at the University of New Brunswick, the 272-page book features a photograph of a surveyor’s theodolite from the late 1800s on its cover. This theodolite was used at UNB as early as 1892 to measure angles from Brydone Jack’s pillar. Although we use fancy electronic devices today to perform similar tasks, we are simply following in the footsteps of William Brydone Jack.

If I might be permitted a shameless plug: the book is available for purchase at the UNB Bookstore. For those a little hard up, you can look at the Library’s copy.

And, in case you missed it, there is a PowerPoint presentation on Brydone Jack’s legacy to surveying and geomatics running just outside.

Thank you.


Geodesy is the study of the size and shape of the Earth including its gravity field.

Geomatics is the art, science, and technology involved in collecting and managing geographically-referenced information.

Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering web site: