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George Washington’s Compass

In his teenage years, George Washington extensively studied geometry and had a brief career as a surveyor. Surveying is a branch of mathematics concerned with measuring the dimensions and area of a portion of land and then accurately portraying that on a piece of paper.[1] In simpler terms, it’s a highly accurate mathematical process for map-making. Although Washington had briefly flirted with the idea of joining the Royal British Navy. His older brother Lawrence convinced him that surveying was a better career path with just as much prestige. [2] As archived in Washington’s schoolbooks in the Library of Congress, the 16-year-old began to extensively study geometry in order to prepare for a job as a surveyor.[3] One of the earliest maps made by Washington is a survey of his older brother Lawrence’s turnip garden in 1747.[4] It’s nice to know that the same brother that talked him into becoming a surveyor allowed him to practice Washington’s surveying skills in his turnip garden. Early in 1748, Washington got his big break into the field of professional surveying when he was invited on a month-long trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains to survey land for Thomas Fairfax, the 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron.[5]

This compass from the Mercury Collection is the actual compass George Washington used as a surveyor. Commonly known as a compass, this tool is more formally known as dividers calipers or just dividers. Dividers are used by surveyors to make very precise measurements. Compasses, unlike dividers, have a point on one leg and a writing implement on the other leg. This pair of dividers has points on both ends allowing for the user to measure distances on a map without leaving marks on the paper. These dividers would have been used extensively by Washington, since measuring and marking off distances occurs during almost every step of the surveying process.[6]

Featured below is a picture of  George Washington’s Compass.

 

George Washington's Compass.

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Works Cited:

[1] “Surveying.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/surveying.

[2] Redmon, Edward. “Washington as Public Land Surveyor”. George Washington Papers. Library of Congress. 2018. https://www.loc.gov/collections/george-washington-papers/articles-and-essays/george-washington-survey-and-mapmaker/washington-as-public-land-surveyor/.

[3] George Washington Papers, Series 1, Exercise Books, Diaries, and Surveys 1745-99, Subseries 1A, Exercise Books 1745-1747: School Copy Book, Volume 1, 1745. Library of Congress. p. 2-28.

[4] George Washington Papers, Series 1, Exercise Books, Diaries, and Surveys 1745-99, Subseries 1A, Exercise Books 1745-1747: School Copy Book, Volume 2, 1745. p. 64.

[5] Redmon, Edward. “Washington as Public Land Surveyor”. George Washington Papers. Library of Congress. 2018. https://www.loc.gov/collections/george-washington-papers/articles-and-essays/george-washington-survey-and-mapmaker/washington-as-public-land-surveyor/.

[6] “Divider”. Encyclopedia Britannica. February 13, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/technology/divider-measurement-instrument.

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