A Brief History of GIS

Caitlin Dempsey


From the early days in Canada to the high tech world of internet mapping, the field of GIS is older than you may think.

History of GIS

A GIS (geographic or geospatial information system) is a modern extension of traditional cartography with one fundamental similarity and two essential differences. 

The similarity lies in the fact that both a cartographic document and a GIS contain examples of a base map to which additional data can be added. 

The differences are that there is no limit to the amount of additional data that can be added to a GIS map and secondly the GIS uses analysis and statistics to present data in support of particular arguments which a cartographic map cannot do.  Cartographic maps are often extremely simplified as there are limits to the amount of data that can be physically and meaningfully stored on a small map.

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Four distinct phases in the development of GIS

There have been four distinct phases in the development of Geographic Information Systems between the 1960s and the early 2000s. 

Phase one, between the early 1960s and the mid 1970s saw a new discipline being dominated by a few key individuals who were to shape the direction of future research and development. 

The second phase, from the mod 1970s to early 1980s saw the adoption of technologies by national agencies that led to a focus on the development of best practice.

Phase three, between 1982 until the late 1980s saw the development and exploitation of the commercial market place surrounding GIS whilst the final phase since the late 1980s has seen a focus on ways of improving the usability of technology by making facilities more user centric.

Phase four, starting in the 1990s, saw the rapid adoption of GIS by government agencies and maintstream media. The debut of online mapping like Google Maps helped to bring awareness of the role easily accessible maps played in every day life.

Beginnings of Spatial Analysis

The first documented application of what could be classed as a precursor to GIS was in France in 1832. 

French Geographer, Charles Picquet created a map based representation of cholera epidemiology in Paris by representing the 48 districts of Paris with different halftone colour gradients, an early version of a heat map.  

The map, published in the report,  Rapport sur la marche et les effets du choléra-morbus dans Parisis likely the first use of spatial analysis in epidemiology.

1832 shaded map showing cholera deaths per thousand inhabitants for each of the 48 districts in Paris by Charles Picquet.
1832 shaded map showing cholera deaths per thousand inhabitants for each of the 48 districts in Paris by Charles Picquet.

A similar situation led to John Snow depicting cholera deaths in London using points on a map in 1854.  The Snow map was important because it was not just a presentation of data. 

An attempt was made to present an argument developed from a spatial analysis of data displayed on the map and it is oft cited as one of the earliest examining of geographic inquiry in epidemiology.

John Snow's 1854 Cholera Map.
John Snow’s 1854 Cholera Map.

The next significant step in the predevelopment of modern geographic information systems was in the early 20th century.   A printing technique known as photzincography was used to separate out layers from a map. 

Vegetation, Water and developed land could all be printed as separate themes.  Whilst giving the appearance of being a GIS this does not represent a full GIS as there is no opportunity to provide an analysis of the mapped data.

First GIS

By the 1960s the first computer-based GIS had been launched in Ottawa, Canada. Dr. Roger Tomlinson, a Canadian geographer, developed the first version of a computerized GIS called the Canada Geographic Information System (CGIS).

This early iteration of GIS was developed to store, collate, and analyse data about land usage in Canada.  The system was enhanced throughout the seventies and eighties until the mid-nineties by which time it was driven by mainframe hardware and contained data sets from the entire Canadian land mass.


Desktop GIS Debuts

During the seventies and eighties developments in spatial awareness and how to handle spatial data were being made in key academic centers such as Harvard and Esri. 

GIS in the 1980s

ARC/INFO released

In 1981, Esri released the first commercial GIS software package, called ARC/INFO. Arc/INFO combined geographic data with attribute data, enabling users to perform complex spatial analysis and produce detailed maps.

GRASS GIS starts development

In 1983, The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) began development on GRASS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System).

The GRASS GIS logo with blades of grass in green inside a diamond shape with a thin black border, black blocky shading underneath and the words GRASS GIS in all caps.
The current GRASS GIS logo.

GRASS went on to become the most widely used software ever developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The Open GRASS Consortium (later renamed Open Geospatial Consortium or OGC) took over development of GRASS GIS as an open source project in the late 1990s.

GIS in the 1990s

In the 1990s, advancements in computer technology led to the creation of more advanced GIS software and geospatial data.

In the 1990s, Esri, one of the largest GIS software companies, released ArcView which was a desktop solution for producing mapping systems via a Windows-based interface.  

ArcView was initialized designed to be an easier way for users to perform basic mapping and viewing of GIS data, hence the “View” part of the name.

The ArcView standard was soon adopted by many government, business, defense, and non-governmental organizations due to its GUI interface and ease of use.

(USCB Logo for the United States Census Bureau's TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) map data format
Logo for the United States Census Bureau’s TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) map data format

One of the most notable developments was the introduction of the first vector-based GIS, called the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER), by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Created for the 1990 U.S. census, TIGER allowed for the representation of spatial data as points, lines, and polygons, which provided greater flexibility and precision in handling geographic data.

Widespread Adoption of GIS in the 1990s

Starting in the 1990s, the adoption of GIS technologies spread to lower and lower levels of municipality as costs tumbled and the technology came into reach of local authorities. 

The 1990s also saw the widespread adoption of the internet, which significantly impacted the GIS landscape. With the advent of the World Wide Web, it became possible to share geographic data and maps online.

In 1993, Xerox PARC introduced the first web-based mapping service called the Xerox PARC Map Viewer.

GIS in the 2000s

In 2002, Gary Sherman debuted Quantum GIS, an open source GIS software program. Quantum QGIS was eventually shortened to QGIS and has since become a highly used open source alternative to commercial and property GIS software programs.

Related: GIS 2000: A Brief Look Backwards and GIS Developments in India – Year 2000 Analysis.

Visit the GIS Timeline for more detail about significant GIS events.

This article was originally published on May 14, 2012 and has since been updated.


GRASS GIS turns 30 – ERDC’s CERL was there at the start. (2013, September 6). Engineer Research and Development Center. 

History of GIS. (2021, September 2). GIS Mapping Software, Location Intelligence & Spatial Analytics | Esri.

Hugentobler, M. (2008). Quantum GIS. In: Shekhar, S., Xiong, H. (eds) Encyclopedia of GIS. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-35973-1_1064

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.