The Ordnance Survey goes back a long way

The Ordnance Survey goes back a long way. Its beginnings can be traced back to the 1700s, creating a map of the Scottish Highlands after the 1745 rebellion. Later, when the violence of the French revolution threatened to spill over to our shores, the government’s ministry of defence – known as the Board of Ordnance – ordered a survey of the most vulnerable parts of the South Coast.

The Early Years

The term ‘Ordnance Survey’ appeared on a map for the first time in 1810, on the ‘Ordnance Survey of the Isle of Wight and part of Hampshire’. While the early maps were designed primarily for military use, with shaded hills and emphasis on road systems, they later evolved to appeal to a much wider audience. The first maps went on sale for three guineas, or three pounds and three shillings for a survey map of one county. Map-making had attracted the interest of landowners while they were being made for military purposes, and they would assist with providing landmarks as trig points. However, the order in which maps were made generally depended upon whether there was enough interest from landowners in a particular area to pay for the maps in advance. While the effort to map Britain in its entirety continued during the 19th century, a team was sent over to Ireland to complete a new map, at six inches to one mile, for taxation purposes. Later, similar maps of England and Scotland were developed.

Moving into the 20th century, the Ordnance Survey found themselves mapping overseas for their original purpose, military planning, during the Great War. Their services were called for again for the Second World War, by the end of which over 340 million maps had been made.

Modern Mapping

With the advancement of technology, the Ordnance Survey turned its efforts back to improving the accuracy of its mapping to the scale of 1:1250, documenting the changes in towns and landscapes caused by wartime bombings. With the dawning of the digital age, maps have become much more accessible to all. In 2001, the Ordnance Survey launched a new product called OS MasterMap. This geospatial database contains over 460 million landscape features in Britain, both natural and man-made. It’s also interactive – information from customers can be brought into it and can be linked with other OS products or contained as separate layers. An example of this concept is buying Ordnance maps online, which can be customised with annotations in order to prepare documents for planning applications.

Following a decision by the government in 2009 to make some Ordnance Survey data free for everyone to use, OS OpenData was launched, providing online access to mapping that could either be viewed via the website, downloaded or ordered.

For mobile users, the App OS MapFinder provides a similar service, letting users view online or download OS Landranger and OS Explorer maps.

The Ordnance Survey has come a long way since its 18th-century military days, with their surveyors trekking across the countryside with their lamps and theodolites and mapping Britain. Today’s field surveyors, satellite data and other geographical information tools can provide anything up to 10,000 changes to the OS database in a day, keeping their mapping data current.