Video/Production – Ned Brown

Science & Tech

The Invention of GIS

3 min read

Charles Waldheim
Chair, Department of Landscape Architecture
John E. Irving Professor of Landscape Architecture, Graduate School of Design

The intellectual implications of geographic information systems (GIS) are enormous, and their practical applications are now in worldwide use.

Since its origins in the 1960s, GIS has enabled designers, planners, developers, public agencies, and communities to make better decisions about the shape of urbanization and its impact. GIS improves design and planning by using geographically referenced data on subjects ranging from the economy to ecology and beyond.

GIS was an innovation that emerged from the Laboratory for Computer Graphics at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). The “Lab” was founded by Harvard College and GSD graduate Howard Fisher in 1965 with a grant from the Ford Foundation. The grant was intended to explore the role of computer graphics in solving the social, spatial, and urban problems of the American city. A primary goal of this work was to aggregate ecological, sociological, and demographic data and to spatialize that data through computer mapping.

Much of the early intellectual energy of the Lab went into computer mapping and modeling tools such as SYMAP and other applications that aided the development of GIS. In 1968, William Warntz, professor of theoretical geography, became director of the Lab and extended its work into spatial analysis.

Two contributors to the early research and development of GIS played particularly significant roles. Carl Steinitz, professor emeritus of Landscape Architecture, focused on environmental analysis and theoretical frameworks for planning. In 1967, he led a design studio with GSD graduate candidates that used SYMAP to analyze and map urbanization in relation to natural systems in the Delmarva Peninsula. The early work was a major breakthrough in the development of what would become GIS. Over the intervening half century, Steinitz emerged as the most significant voice of his generation on the theory and practice of landscape planning.

Jack Dangermond, M.L.A. ’69, joined the Lab in 1967 and aided in developing SYMAP. At the time, Harvard had one supercomputer, and Dangermond had to assemble unwieldy stacks of punch cards for processing. Finding processing times faster at night, Dangermond succeeded in printing his first computer map after a month of night work. He later founded the prominent company ESRI to make these tools broadly available for public and private clients.

ESRI remains among the most important venues for the development of tools and techniques for the geographic analysis of design and planning decisions.