It was a serendipitous meeting on an airplane that launched what is now a global industry valued at over $270 billion dollars annually. Onboard a flight in 1961, geographer Roger Tomlinson met Lee Pratt, the recently named head of the Canada Land Inventory who had been tasked with developing a land map covering one million square miles in order to manage agricultural land, forests, wildlife, and identify land suitable for tourism. Tomlinson proposed a solution using computerized spatial data and thus modern GIS was born.
In the more than fifty years since, GIS has grown into a technology that can be applied in almost all disciplines needing to understand patterns across space and time. Tomlinson went on to coin the term “geographic information systems” and it’s his contributions to geographic information systems (GIS) that earned him the nickname, “Father of GIS”.
Tomlinson founded Tomlinson Associates, a consulting firm specializing in geography. The firm’s client list featured international organizations such as the World Bank, as well as the Forest Services of the United States and Canada.
Tomlinson’s distinguished career
In recognition to the significant contributes he made over the course of his career, Tomlinson receive numerous awards and honorary doctorates. In 1997, Tomlinson received Esri’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. On April 7, 2005, at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Denver, Tomlinson was honored with the inaugural Robert T. Aangeenbrug Distinguished Career Award. Tomlinson was honored with National Geographic’s prestigious Alexander Graham Bell Award in 2010 for his exceptional contributions to geographic research.
Roger Tomlinson died on February 9, 2014, at the age of 80.
Tomlinson’s 1974 doctoral thesis is available online:
Tomlinson, RF; (1974) Geographical Information Systems, Spatial Data Analysis and Decision Making in Government.Doctoral thesis, University of London.
On an agenda for Harvard Computer Graphics Week held back in July of 1981, Tomlinson jotted down his approach to mapmaking, writing, “impossible to map the world–we select and make graphics so that we can understand it.”
Canada’s Globe and Mail profiled Roger Tomlinson and the birth of GIS in Canada. The article quotes Tomlinson, “The early days of GIS were very lonely. No-one knew what it meant. My work has certainly been missionary work of the hardest kind.” The article reviews Tomlinson’s early efforts collaborating with Lee Pratt, head of the Canada Land Inventory, in the early 1960s.
Read More: Putting Canada on the map – Globe and Mail