FIG and Me – A Story of Earl James’s contribution to developing the surveying profession

September 16, 2020

Earl James’ contribution to the surveying profession is immeasurable.  Recently published, ‘FIG and me: My Twenty-Five Years in the International Surveying Arena’ charts Earl’s involvement with the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG). This is a fascinating read focusing on the people, processes and politics involved in being part of this international forum. To date, Earl is Australia’s first and only President of FIG. 

Earl James’ initial introduction to FIG was due to him being in the right place at the right time. In 1972, around the time Earl and his wife Wendy had planned to be in Europe for holidays, the 39th Permanent Committee (PC) meeting was being held in Tel Aviv, Israel. A slight diversion to holiday plans meant that Earl could attend his first PC meeting of FIG.   

The main motivation for Earl attending the PC is not dissimilar to many attending professional development events today. Earl had a desire to learn about changes in technology, exchange information and interact with like-minded people. The aim was to apply lessons learned to his own successful private surveying practice based in the Norther Territory.  

This initial meeting lead to many years of involvement in FIG for Earl. It was at the XVIII FIG Congress in Toronto, Canada that the Australian delegation persuaded the member associations of the Federation that Australia should host the 1994 International Survey Congress in Melbourne. It was Earl’s stirring speech on the day which won the bid. 
In his own words, Earl recounts the essential role Australian surveyors and their partners also played in winning the bid.

First of all, let me emphasise that the success of our bid to host the 1994 FIG Congress was not the result of an individual effort by any one person. That success was due to the combined efforts of a lot of people, both male and female. The Toronto Congress was attended by a record number of Australians and they all did their bit to convince the conference attendees, formally and informally,  that Australians were no longer colonials that relied on the mother country to lend a helping hand. 

Many Australian surveyors had their wives in attendance and these ladies went out of their way to help promote our cause. My task was simply to make the formal oral presentation to the General Assembly of the Federation. I was overwhelmed by the fact that our combined efforts, plus the speech I made, resulted in a massive majority ‘yes’ vote. My first thoughts were those of elation and self-satisfaction and I had great inward pleasure in politely rejecting an offer from the UK delegation to help their colonial brothers. All of which was quickly followed by a realisation, as I say in the book, that I now had to prepare myself for the transition from company director and bush surveyor to that of Vice President of an International Federation. I had two years to do it in. 

The XX International Survey Congress held in Melbourne in 1994 at the time was the largest and most successful International Surveying Conference ever held during the one hundred and sixteen year life of the Federation. The Congress also advanced the world’s perception of the Australian surveying profession. 

Earl shares how the Congress improved the profile of the Australian surveyors. 

Attendance numbers at a congress is one measure of its success.  The attitudes of attendees at the end of the event is another. There can be no doubt that attendance numbers in 1994 were enough to proclaim the FIG Congress a success that year. As far as attitudes are concerned, I must admit that during my world travels in the years following that congress I was overwhelmed by the number of people who congratulated me on the success of the 1994 Congress. And for this we have to thank former surveyor General of Victoria, Ray Holmes who was the Congress Director, and the plethora of Victorian surveyors who created the programs and put them into effect on the day. I think it is possible that to the rest of the world, we had come of age. I am sure that in 1986 in Toronto we were at first thought of as colonial hicks who were a little brash and over-confident in their bid to host the congress in 1994. But we convinced them they were wrong and in 1994 we proved it.

From 1988 Earl served as Vice President (with the Finnish Bureau) and was then FIG President from 1992 until 1995 of the Australian Bureau. Each role in itself had its rewards and challenges. Here Earl shares some of his greatest achievements. 

During my four years as Vice President of FIG (1998-1992) I was Australia’s sole representative on the Administrative Bureau of FIG. At that time the Bureau’s headquarters were in Finland. As far as achievements were concerned, there were many, but few that were accomplished without the help of others. One I can think of is a press release that I circulated in Australia in 1988 calling on the Federal and State Governments to establish a network of super tide gauges around the coast of the country. This, along with actions taken by other parties, eventually resulted in a conference being held in Darwin at which it was resolved to do just that. 

My real claim to fame for that period however, was the fact that I led a small taskforce that produced The Definition of a Surveyor which was adopted by the Federation after twenty or so years of heated controversy within the Federation. The Definition was subsequently adopted by the United Nations, thus giving surveying a separate identity rather than being categorised as a sub-set of cartography as it had been for the past fifty years.

During the four years of my Presidency, 1992-1995, the Australian Bureau recorded a long list of achievements that are all recorded in the book, but not one officer can claim ownership of any one achievement. We created an Education Foundation to raise money to assist young trainee surveyors throughout the world; we convinced the Federation to find a permanent home for the administration and the secretariat; we raised the surveyors’ profile in the United Nations; we succeeded in changing the priorities of the UN Cartographic conference from technicalities to applications; and many more that helped surveyors in developing countries to better understand their role and improve their practice. As with every decision, I cannot take sole credit. They were all made by possible by the hard work and dedication by the five Australian, one English and one Finlander members of the Australian Bureau. 

My one disappointment during my presidency was the loss of the president’s regalia, along with all my luggage. It happened in Holland and was never found. The luggage was, but not the regalia. The thief obviously thought it was valuable, which it was not. However the Australian Bureau made the best of it by having a much more elegant and valuable replacement fabricated in Melbourne – as seen in the photo that accompanies these remarks. 

During my eight years of Bureau service I saw great change in the Federation. Much of it occurred during the years of the Australian Bureau. During the early years of FIG’s life it was more like a ‘gentleman’s club’ than a force for the betterment of the profession and the society that it serves. This attitude has gradually changed but the acceleration of change reached a peak during the Australian term of office.

Earl has been dedicated to the surveying profession for over 60 years. Told in first person narrative, Earl James shares his personal account of his involvement with FIG in the publication - ‘FIG and Me: My Twenty-Five Years in the International Surveying Arena’. The publication is available for download at  

Many thanks to Earl James for his contributions to this news items. An extract from this news items is published in the August/September edition of Position Magazine - OUT NOW! 

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