Who Coined the Term ‘Remote Sensing’?

Caitlin Dempsey


Remote sensing involves the use of extracting information about a geographic area through the use of aerial or satellite imagery.  Remote sensing is the act of observing geographic features or phenomenon from a distance.

What is Remote Sensing?

Brown University Professor Laurence Smith defines remote sensing in this excerpt.

“Remote-sensing technologies come in two flavors:

Passive remote sensing relies on naturally reflected or emitted energy of the imaged surface (think of taking a photograph with a camera under sunlit conditions). Most remote sensing instruments fall into this category, obtaining pictures of visible, near-infrared and thermal infrared energy.

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Active remote sensing means that the sensor provides its own illumination and measures what comes back (think of a camera with a flash). Remote sensing technologies that use active remote sensing include lidar (laser) and radar.”

Data can be remotely sensed using satellites and airplanes.  Image: NASA, public domain
Data can be remotely sensed using satellites and airplanes. Image: NASA, public domain

How the Term Remote Sensing Was Coined

While the origins of remote sensing can be traced to World War II’s use of radar, sonar, and thermal detection technologies [1], the use of the term ‘remote sensing’ wasn’t coined until the late 1950s.  

Evelyn Pruitt, a geographer with the U.S. Office of Naval Research, was the first to coin the term ‘remote sensing’.  It was a need to define the emerging imaging capabilities of multispectral cameras, infrared films, and nonphotographic scanners that prompted Puritt to come up with a name for this new field of study.  

The term was promoted in an early 1960s white paper prepared by the staff of the Geography branch at the Office of Naval Research. [2]

Evelyn Lord Pruitt, 1918–2000
Evelyn Lord Pruitt, 1918–2000


[1] Moore, G. K. (1979). What is a picture worth? A history of remote sensing/Quelle est la valeur d’une image? Un tour d’horizon de télédétection. Hydrological Sciences Bulletin, 24(4), 477-485.

[2] Fussell, J., Rundquist, D., & Harrington, J. A. (1986). On defining remote sensing. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing, 52(9), 1507-1511.


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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.