All real estate traces its roots back to land surveying, it’s the very foundation the property industry is built on. Centuries of deal-making form a chain of ownership all the way back to the very first surveys. Technology is changing land surveying, evolving the way we understand land and ownership at the center of every transaction.
The Doomsday Book, or Domesday Book in Middle English, formed the basis of property ownership across England and much of Wales for centuries. It may be the most important historical document you’ve never heard of. After defeating the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 during his invasion of England, Norman king William The Conqueror demanded his new fiefdom be surveyed to determine who still alive owned what land, what type of people they were and what they now owed their new king. After such a monumental upheaval, William needed to reassert his claim to the land granted to him by his new crown. It wasn’t till nearly two decades later that work began under William II. Exact numbers and timeframes are hard to know, but men were sent all over the countryside, holding public inquiries attended by every lord and representative of every township.
The survey went far beyond recording the names of landholders and the size of their holdings. The Doomsday Book created a national valuation list, estimating the value of all landholdings across the country at the time of Edward the Confessor’s death, when the new owners received it, at the time of the survey and its potential value. Four different value assessments for every tract of ownership. The survey, written in Latin unreadable to most native English, was a full account of a kingdom’s financial resources via land holdings, the most important source of national wealth at the time. The total value of the land recorded in the Doomsday Book was roughly £73,000, a King’s ransom considering a wealthy household earned just £10 a year. So thorough was the survey it was as if God himself had surveyed his domain, making lasting, unalterable decisions, like those of Judgement Day, giving the books its name. The Doomsday Book was born, immediately becoming an invaluable resource, stored at the national treasury, referred to simply as ‘the book.’ It would remain that way for centuries until another complete survey of England happened in 1873.
The Doomsday Book was a marvel of recordkeeping but relied on the same basic techniques employed by the Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians. Basic distances and boundaries were measured with rope or string, sometimes a crude compass, to establish boundaries recorded in exacting detail. It wasn’t until the 18th century that mapping became a critical part of surveying, using theodolites, precise instruments using a tripod and compass, to illustrate each plot.
The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s created more demand for land surveying than ever before as cities across the globe experienced explosive growth. Surveying became a profession, hired by cities, transportation departments, railways, and frontier speculators. As the value of national economies and land grew exponentially, so too did the importance of accurate land plot measurement and exact boundary descriptions. Surveyors set out across America to explore possible routes for a transcontinental railroad, using theodolites modified with scopes and tools for triangulation.
Surveying in the 21st century is a technically advanced endeavor. Theodolites have given way to total stations, using electronics and advanced optical instruments, onboard computers to perform triangulation calculations and even robotics to perform basic surveying. Satellite positioning systems measure features and land boundaries with speed, accuracy, and scale only capable from space. Laser scanners using Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) technology trace the shape of land and buildings with near-infrared lasers. LIDAR surveying devices can be attached to planes, helicopters, and cars to survey at speed. Software then collects and analyzes all the surveying data to create rich maps with extreme detail compiled through multiple surveys.
Once limited to the ground except at great cost, surveying has gone aerial with the use of drones, able to conduct photogrammetry, 3D mapping, and land surveying at a fraction of the cost of other forms of aerial surveying. Drones are being used by developers and construction professionals to make crucial site planning decisions, carrying LIDAR surveyors and other advanced optics. Surveying was one of the first commercial applications for drones and has been widely adopted.
When it comes to recordkeeping, everything is now online. Far from relying on one book, land catalogs, surveys and tracts are kept on city, state, and federal databases, accessible to practically anyone with just a few clicks. The blockchain is useful in establishing verifiable title records and transfers as a digital distributed ledger. Land ownership is public knowledge, leading to developers having to rely on crafty techniques like holding companies that obfuscate their deals. In the United States, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and General Land Office (GLO) provide live access to more than five million Federal land title records issued between 1788 and the present.
No matter how advanced the technology or recordkeeping of surveying becomes, they will always be tied to older iterations like the Doomsday Book. Claims established by the original Doomsday Book were invoked in a property dispute as recently as 2019. The BLM bases its online databases on 1,582 original General Land Office tract books. That’s because land surveying, even with the most advanced technology, is an inherently historical endeavor, built on centuries of established titles, boundaries, and transfers. Throughout history, some of the most brutal wars, costly deals, and hottest legal issues have centered around land surveying establishing who has a claim to what. As technology and recordkeeping advance, settling such disputes has gotten easier, easing tensions among neighbors and nations.
Building new surveying and recordkeeping tools must account for the centuries of work done by governments, academics, and surveyors. Real estate’s storied place in the global economy is backed by decades of meticulous recordkeeping, creating rich historical documents that the very foundations of bureaucracy and private property holdings are based on. Just as the Magna Carta established the idea of consultative government that led to liberty and democracy, the Doomsday Book and other historical surveys established the first record of private property ownership that forms the basis of our capitalist economic system.