The History of the Total Station

The total station has been for a while indispensable to surveyors across the world

Surveying went from being a team operation, to a single worker operation with its robotization. Surveying has been around from the first major construction projects and its precision essential to create the foundations for any of them.

In ancient Egypt, it would be done using simple geometry, using a peg and rope system. Different mathematical tools would be used across different cultures, but the trigonometry principles stayed the same (like the astrolabe for the Greeks) and it would remain this way for centuries. In the 18th century, the theodolite first appeared. It is a mathematical tool used to calculate angles on vertical and horizontal plains, basically an optical level.

Image: Ancient Egyptian Surveying Tools

Throughout the 19th and 20th century, improvements were made on the theodolite for surveying, but measuring long distances with precision still remained challenging.  Hence, the tellurometer was invented. A tool which first appeared on the market in the 1950s. The tellurometer uses microwaves to calculate distance. The frequency shift of its reflection on a portable station allowed workers to accurately measure from up to 70m away.


            The mechanic total station first appeared in 1971. It has ever since been the primary tool for surveyors and the marking of concrete foundations on the job site. From the 1990s onwards, these stations have become increasingly robotized, optimizing the efficiency of the worker and decreasing the need for specialized workers.

            Whether it be the robotic or mechanic total station, their functions remain the same. The latest innovation in these tools require only one worker and no need to pre-mark the coordinates on the auto-cad plan before going on the building site. The plans are imported onto the software, which then automatically sets up the points and the worker can begin marking the coordinates. This is said to triple the speed of a mechanical total station and requires two to three times less workers.

            These robotized total stations are some of the most widely used solutions for surveyors on the construction site. But workers have been using total stations for the past fifty years, which begs the question: what is the next step in the evolution of surveying?