Roger Tomlinson was an English geographer commonly referred to as the "father of GIS." He was the one who created the first computerized geographic information system in the 1960s and coined the term geographic information system (GIS). His pioneering work paved the way for the development of further technologies in satellite mapping and global positioning system (GPS). It also set the pace for cartographic innovations like Google Maps. Born in Cambridge, England, to a father who had served as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot in the First World War, he too became a pilot like his father and served in the Royal Air Force for a few years. He travelled widely during his military service with kindled in him a love for geography. Following his discharge he proceeded to study geography at the University of Nottingham and won a scholarship from McGill University to undertake a master’s degree in glacial geomorphology which necessitated his move to Canada. His initial career included a stint as the manager of the computer mapping division at Spartan Air Services in Ottawa following which he started working for the Government of Canada. It was during this time that he conceptualized and directed the development of the Canada Geographic Information System, the first computerized GIS in the world.
Childhood & Early Life
Roger Frank Tomlinson was born in Cambridge, England, on 17 November 1933, to Frank Tomlinson and Lily. His father was a civil engineer who served as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot in the First World War and an air-traffic controller in the Second World War, while his mother was a housewife.
Despite being tall and well-built, Roger was often challenged by older boys. He learned to assert himself without resorting to violence. As a young boy, he loved painting and dreamed of becoming an artist.
After completing his schooling at 18, he signed up for his mandatory three years of National Service. Following in his father’s footsteps, he too became a pilot. Due to his large frame, he was unable to fit into jets fitted with ejection seats and was thus assigned to a ground-based RAF regiment tasked with providing security for airbases and other installations.
Over the course of his military stint he served in Northern Ireland and later Malaysia during the Malayan Emergency where he helped drop supplies from low-flying aircraft for the British soldiers. His extensive flying kindled in him an interest in geography and he decided to study the subject upon his discharge.
Following his discharge, he attended the University of Nottingham for his undergraduate degree in geography. During this time, he led expeditions to the Norwegian ice cap. He also completed another undergraduate degree, this time in geology from the Acadia University.
He was offered a scholarship from McGill University to undertake a master’s degree in glacial geomorphology. He thus moved to Canada where his studies included field trips to Labrador and the Arctic in the late 1950s.
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Upon the completion of his studies, Roger Tomlinson was hired by Ottawa-based Spartan Air Services as the manager of the computer mapping division. In the early 1960s, the company obtained a contract to identify the best location for a tree plantation in Kenya. Tomlinson was asked to develop a methodology for this.
He attempted to use several manual methods for overlaying various environmental, cultural, and economic variables, but was not satisfied with the results. He then turned to computers and successfully worked out a solution which he sold to the Canada Land Inventory that had the responsibility of using data to assist the government in its land use planning activities.
Lee Pratt, the newly appointed head of the Canada Land Inventory, told Tomlinson that the agency had been tasked with developing a one-million-square-mile resource map of Canada’s inhabited and productive land. Tomlinson began working with the federal government’s agency and along with a team of designers and programmers, he coded and scanned the aerial images and created the Canada Geographic Information System, the world’s first computerized geographic information system.
He worked in geographic consulting and research for a variety of private sector, government, and non-profit organizations for the rest of his life. In 1977, he established his company, Tomlinson Associates, Ltd., which has advised clients like the World Bank, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. departments of Commerce and Agriculture, and U.S. Geological Survey, among others.
He was also the Chairman of the International Geographical Union GIS Commission for 12 years and the president of the Canadian Association of Geographers.
Roger Tomlinson was the primary brain behind the development of modern computerized geographic information systems (GIS), which is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of spatial or geographical data. Thus he is acknowledged as the "father of GIS."
Awards & Achievements
In 1995, the Association of American Geographers in the United States awarded him the James R. Anderson Medal of Honor for Applied Geography.
In 1996, he was awarded the GIS World Lifetime Achievement Award for a lifetime of work with GIS.
He became the first recipient of the Robert T. Aangeenbrug Distinguished Career Award in 2005.
In 2010 Tomlinson was honored with the Alexander Graham Bell Medal of the National Geographic Society (together with Jack Dangermond).
Personal Life & Legacy
Roger Tomlinson was twice married. His first marriage to Jocelyn ended in divorce. His second marriage was to Lila Blanchard which lasted 45 years. He had three children and four grandchildren at the time of his death.
He died of a heart attack on 9 February 2014, at the age of 80.