Instruments With A Unique History:

If you have an instrument with a unique past please send us pictures along with its documented history and we will put it on the website.  

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The First U.S. Made Aluminum Surveying Instruments

Aluminum metal was first prepared in 1827 but it was not for another 50 years until the metal was available in quantity at a reasonable price that anyone considered using it for surveying instruments. There are three known surveying instruments made in the U.S. before 1880.  These two transits and one solar compass made by Young & Sons (Not Shown).

W. & L. E. Gurley's First Aluminum Instrument

Sometime between 1875 and 1876 Gurley purchased 63 ounces of aluminum from  Pope & Freres of Paris, for the sum of $81.90 to be used in building a single transit to be shown at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia.  The Centennial International Exhibition was the first World's Fair in the United States and held in Philadelphia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration Of Independence.  

This transit was to be an experiment in the use of aluminum because of its light weight characteristics and non-magnetic features.  According to the Gurley archives they wanted to build a lightweight transit to be used in rugged terrain.  This transit was slightly smaller than the Engineers' transit that it is based but weighs 50% less.  However, due to the cost of aluminum at the time the cost of this instrument was also 40% higher than a brass model.

Edward Wright Arms, Gurley's chief engineer was in charge of building this transit for the exhibition.    He built the instrument in record time considering it was the first aluminum instrument that Gurley had manufactured.  Arms like a proud father also attended the Exhibition in 1876 to show off the new Aluminum Transit along with the new Light Mountain Transit.  During the exhibition Arms noted that he made the acquaintance of a young Alexander Graham Bell then in his twenties who was displaying his new invention the telephone.  Bell occupied the booth across the aisle from Gurley at the Exhibition. 

It is not known exactly when the instrument was sold or for how much but it is believed to have been sold shortly after the Exhibition in 1876 and then used in the field until 1929 when it was sent in by Walter Washabaugh for repairs.  Knowing the importance of this piece Gurley promptly offered him a trade-in on one of their newer light weight models and had this cataloged at the cost of $300.00. 

The two images of this instrument show it with and without a vertical arc.  The arc that is on the instrument is a newer style arc with the rounded spokes.  This would not have been on the instrument originally so this may have been the repair that was needed.  

Unfortunately this instrument did not stand a chance to hit the market due to its high costs and the introduction of Gurley's smaller Light Mountain Transit that same year.  

This instrument is currently in the Charles E. Smart survey instrument collection at the New York State Museum.

Special thanks to Bill Skerritt for supplying the Gurley Photos, putting up with my many questions and his knowledge of W. & L. E. Gurley.

Reference: William Skerritt,  "Catalog of the Charles E. Smart Collection"

                                                                                                Few Other Interesting Photos From the Centennial Exhibition

                                                                                       Keuffel & Esser Booth     James Prentice Booth        You Might Know This One

Margaret MacLeod Story


Young & Sons First Aluminum Instrument

This instrument was brought to my attention by an article I read written by Margaret A. MacLeod.  I was so intrigued by this story I thought I would do a little searching to see if I could find this instrument and after only a few days of digging I was able to locate the instrument.  With the help of a few employees at Rio Tinto Alcan, Quebec, Canada I was able to get photographs of this great piece of history.

In the story written by MacLeod she recounts events from Dr. J. B. Tyrrell a noted geologist, explorer, mining engineer and scholar.  As a young man Dr. Tyrrell recounts stories he had heard from his cousin G. Brockitt Abrey an Ontario Land Surveyor.  In 1873 or 1874 Abrey read in a scientific journal about a new metal called Aluminum and knowing how heavy his old brass transit was to carry around the forests on Manitoulin Island north of lake Huron he thought how great it would be to have an instrument made of this new material. 

He promptly wrote to Young & Sons of Philadelphia and asked if they could make him a transit out of this new material called Aluminum.  Much to his disappointment he received a reply from Young & Sons stating that there was not enough Aluminum in the world to build a transit so Abrey continued to use his old heavy brass instrument.

About a year had gone by and Abrey received a second letter from Young stating that they could now get enough Aluminum to make the transit he had inquired about but the cost would be about $1,200.00(Canadian) which was extremely high considering the cost of instruments of the time.  Abrey instructed Young to go ahead and build the instrument and according to the story Abrey received the new Aluminum transit in 1875. 

After using the transit in the field Abrey came to the conclusion that the aluminum compound the instrument was made out of was not very satisfactory as it was very susceptible to expansion and contraction therefore was put on the shelf and not used very often as displayed by the great condition of this instrument.

The instrument is inscribed with George Abrey's name and is serial number 5050.  Something very impressive about this instrument are all the upgrades that it has over just your standard model transit.

Upgrades on this instrument:
  • Full Vertical Circle
  • Inverting Telescope
  • Gradiometer
  • Magnifiers For The Horizontal Circle
  • Variation Plate On The Compass
  • Reversing Telescope (Axels Are Set In Wyes)
  • Reference Level For The Vertical Circle

For the complete Margaret MacLeod story please read the PDF file on the left.

Reference: Margaret MacLeod, "Abrey's Aluminum Transit"

Special thanks to Rio Tinto Alcan for sharing this instrument with us and taking some great photographs.

Note: Even though in this article Dr. Tyrrell recalls the Young transit as the first aluminum article made on the continent the Young records tell us this instrument was probably made closer to 1877 than 1875 which would make the Gurley Instrument older. 

We are not debating who had the first aluminum instrument but trying to supply accurate data.



The End Of An Era.


These three instruments are the last instruments made by Teledyne Gurley formerly W. & L. E. Gurley.  These three instruments were the last survey instruments off the assembly line of each type of instruments that were manufactured by Gurley in December 1980. 

This would mark the end of an era that spanned over 150 years of survey instrument manufacturing by W. & L. E. Gurley.  These instruments are currently in the Charles Smart Survey Instrument collection at the NY State Museum.

The first instrument is a model #372 Dumpy Level and is engraved Teledyne Gurley Troy, NY with serial number NY2006. 

The second instrument is a model #582 Standard Alidade and is engraved Teledyne Gurley Troy, NY serial number NY2226.  

The third instrument is a Hell Gate Precise Transit with Optical Plummet and is engraved Teledyne Gurley Troy, NY serial number NY2555.

The Last Gurley Dumpy Level        The Last Gurley Alidade           The Last Gurley Transit


A US Patent Model Of A Surveying Instrument


From the founding of the US Patent office in 1794 until 1880, in addition to a drawing and written description, an applicant for a US patent was required to submit a working model of the invention, which would fit into a space no larger than 12 inches on a side. These models were then placed on display in the Patent Office.

On Dec 15, 1836 the building containing the Patent office burned and every model stored there was lost. Pictured is the patent model submitted with US Patent number 991.  This patent entitled “Compass, Quadrant and Protractor” was granted to Francis Whiteley of Standardsville, Virginia on Dec 6, 1836.  Somehow the model escaped the fire and as such is one of the oldest surviving patent models.  

Francis Whiteley (1776 – 1850+) was a physician residing in or around Standardsville, Virginia from about 1830 through 1850. There is no evidence that he ever worked as a mathematical instrument maker.  It is believed that the model and all subsequent instruments based on this patent were made by Jacob Danner (1765-1850) of  Middletown, Va.

 On Dec 12, 1842   Benjamin Hyde Benton of Middleburg, Virginia was granted U. S. Patent #2,880 “Improvement in Surveying-Instruments” (see below)  This is basically a trigonometer incorporated into Whiteley’s instrument. Most Whiteley instruments encountered today are of this form.

In the early 1840’s George H. Whitescarver (1806 -   ) acquired the rights to Whiteley’s and Benton’s patents and was actively trying to market these rights. There is a Whiteley instrument with Benton trigonometer marked Whitescarver’s Patents.  Whitescarver was issued two patents (numbers 119 & 120) from the Confederate Patent Office for a protractor and survey instrument respectively.  However these records were destroyed when the Confederate Patent Office was burned down during the evacuation of the Confederate troops on April 3, 1865.  From 1861 through 1864 the Confederate Patent Office only issued 266 patents. 

1 Note this is not the 99th US patent. Some 10,000 patents were issued prior to July 1836 and destroyed in the fire. These patents were listed only by name of the inventor and date of issue, no number was assigned.  US patent number 1 was issued on July 13 1836 and all subsequent patents were given consecutive numbers

        See The Patents Here

Whiteley Patent    Benton Patent

A Liberated Level


This is a Carl Zeiss-Jena NI C tilting level captured by the US Armed forces late in WW II.   Lt Col William B Gara commander of the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion acquired this instrument and as noted on the certificate shipped it back to the USA some time after Aug 1944.  

The 1st Engineer Combat Battalion was attached to the 1st Infantry Division, which participated in the Normandy invasion, fought through France, Belgian, Germany and was in Czechoslovakia when the war ended.

At this time there is no evidence to suggest where in this long trek the instrument was acquired

                                                                                                                                   Lt. Col. William B. Gara

A Bookend!


In the early part of the century the B. K Elliott Company had made surveying instruments.   This part of the operation was discontinued in the 1930’s, and while all of the tooling required to make instruments including the Heyde dividing engine was retained, only the repair portion of the instrument business continued.


In the 1970’s the B. K. Elliott shop was located in McKees Rocks a small town located about four miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh.   A prominent feature of the shop was a cabinet off to the left of the entrance in view of the customers and on top of the cabinet were several books situated between an English pattern theodolite (Seen At The Left) and a Paul Weiss Denver transit. 

The theodolite has no makers name or other markings and the Weiss transit had a broken axel and used Porro prisms for the erector in the telescope rather than lenses.   As noted by C. E. Smart, Weiss also made binoculars which might account for the choice of erectors in the transit.  Presumably these two instruments were taken in on trade


In 1980 the shop was closed, and everything including the bookends was sold.



This is a Graphometer marked with the name of the French Panama Canal Company. The Graphometer was the favorite instrument of French surveyors until the early part of the twentieth century.   Such instruments were probably used in low order surveys on the Isthmus prior to, and during the construction of the of the Panama Canal.

After the French companies failed and the Americans took over the project they were replaced by transits made by US companies.   Buff & Berger, Buff & Buff, C. L. Berger, and Stackpole were just a few that could be traced on this project according to Ira Bennett author of "History Of The Panama Canal Its Construction & Builders"

More Interesting Stories Coming Soon!