As location intelligence professionals in the modern world who are surrounded by lots of technology to help us do our jobs, it’s very easy to overlook the pioneering scientific work that was undertaken centuries ago and that underpins our modern GIS knowledge.
My name is Simon Hill and I’m the Business Development Manager for Defence at Esri Australia. On a recent trip through South America, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see for myself where some of this foundational work was done.
As a teenager, I lived in the tiny Andean nation of Ecuador as an AFS exchange student for a year. A couple of weeks ago, I returned with my own teenage son to visit my old host family and friends from all those years ago.
As its name in Spanish implies, Ecuador straddles the Equator. Just north of the capital, Quito, lies the actual equatorial line and a monument known as the ‘Mitad del Mundo’ or ‘Half of the World’. At this point, you can stand with one foot in each hemisphere, which of course I did, at over 2,400 metres above sea level.
But there’s more to this place than meets the eye.
Even though I’d been here before as a student, it wasn’t until I got involved in the world of GIS that I truly understood the importance of this monument. ‘Mitad del Mundo’ actually celebrates the French geodesic expedition of the 18th century and the contribution its work made to our knowledge of the world.
Headed by Charles Marie De La Condamine and Luis Godin, the expedition set out in 1736 to measure an arc of meridian at the equator, to verify Newton’s belief that the Earth was flatter at the poles. It took the expedition eight years to complete its work in mountainous, inhospitable terrain. They finished some 200 miles to the south of Quito in Cuenca. Even today it’s a long journey – driving on the Pan-American Highway with all its twists and turns, the trip still took me two days to finish.
Of course the expedition did in fact prove that the Earth bulges at the Equator, leading to a curious but not very well known fact: the most distant point on land from the centre of the Earth is not the summit of Mt Everest, but the top of the Chimborazo Volcano in Ecuador at 6,267 metres above sea level.