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Robert Karrow Research Papers

Identifier: Ayer-Modern-MS-Karrow

Scope and Content of the Collection

Included are photocopies of annual reports, correspondence, diaries, contemporary newspaper and periodical accounts of the Wheeler survey, topographical surveys in general, telegraphic longitude, biographical information, photographs, and lists of maps. Also included are published and unpublished secondary literature relating to these topics, manuscript research notes, correspondence, and bibliographical information about primary and secondary sources.

The material was collected by Robert Karrow, the Newberry Library's Curator of Maps, during the course of research for a major article and a planned (but never completed) dissertation in American History. Additional research on telegraphic longitude resulted in a conference paper and a brief published article. Archival research was conducted at several libraries and the National Archives.


  • Creation: 1980-1990



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The Robert Karrow Research Papers are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Robert Karrow Research Papers are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections.

Biography of Robert W. Karrow

Robert William Karrow, Jr. was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 5 August 1945, and educated in the public schools of Hartland, Wisconsin. He received the B.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee in 1968 and the M.S.L.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin--Madison in 1971. Since July 1971, he has been employed at the Newberry Library, first as Map Cataloger, from 1975 as Curator of Maps, and, from 1989, as Curator of Special Collections. He is the author of Mapmakers of the Sixteenth Century and their Maps (1993) and numerous articles and book reviews. He received the Ph.D. in history from Loyola University of Chicago in 1999 with a dissertation on Intellectual Foundations of the Cartographic Revolution.

History of the Wheeler Survey

One of four "Great Surveys" of the American West in the nineteenth century, the "U. S. Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian" were carried out under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Survey grew out of work done by First Lt. George Montague Wheeler (1842-1905) in Nevada in 1869. The following year, Wheeler presented a plan for a uniform topographical survey of that part of the country lying west of the 100th meridian of longitude. The area, some 1,400,000 square miles, would be covered by 95 rectangular sheets each comprising 2° 45' of longitude and 1° 40' of latitude, at a uniform scale of eight miles to one inch (1:506,880). Over the course of eight seasons (1871-1878) the survey managed to map approximately one-quarter of the projected total. Early on it was decided to divide at least some of the sheets into quarters, resulting in maps at a scale of four miles to one inch (1:253,440). In addition, some of the topographic "base maps" were overprinted with colors to show geological formations or land use. With three different series, then, and two different scales, the publication history of Wheeler Survey maps is quite complicated

The Survey relied on annual appropriations from Congress, which began to view with disapproval the fact that four separate federal organizations were involved in western mapping. The others were Ferdinand V. Hayden's "Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories" (under the Interior Department), John Wesley Powell's "Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region" (under the Smithsonian Institution), and Clarence King's "Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel," also under Army auspices. In 1874 the Committee on Public Lands, chaired by Rep. Washington Townsend, held rather contentious hearings on the alleged duplication of effort, and some minor adjustments followed. By 1878, however, the issues came to the fore again and this time Congress invoked the aid of the National Academy of Sciences, who appointed a committee to report on the matter. Following the recommendations of this committee, in the spring of 1879 Congress ended appropriations for the Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler surveys (King had already completed his work the previous year) and established in their place the U. S. Geological Survey. With allocations from the Army, Wheeler devoted another 5 years to publishing maps for which field work had been completed and producing reports, the last of which was published in 1889. Wheeler himself was broken in health and spirit. He resigned his commission in 1889 (he had reached the rank of Major) and went into private practice, dying in New York City in 1905.

Despite its premature demise, the Wheeler Survey could take credit for several important accomplishments. The published maps did provide relatively large-scale and accurate maps for about one-quarter of the target area, with relatively complete coverage for the southwest. The geodetic techniques which the survey had developed by mid-decade were of a high order of accuracy and precision, and they pioneered in the use of the telegraph for longitude determinations. The series of land use maps, though very incomplete, was the first of its kind in this country. Furthermore, the Wheeler Survey employed a number of important topographers and scientists, many of whom went on to distinguished careers; among them James Gardiner, Gilbert Thompson, Louis Nell, G. K. Gilbert, and Timothy O'Sullivan.

History of Telegraphic Longitude

Beginning in 1845, the U. S. Coast Survey experimented with using the electrical telegraph as a way of transmitting time signals for use in determining the longitude of places. Over the next two decades, the Coast Survey perfected its methods, which became known as the "American system" for communicating time signals. The Wheeler Survey adopted telegraphic methods for determining longitude at its inception in 1869, and continued to refine its methods.


2 Linear Feet (5 boxes)


Primarily of photocopies of printed and archival material relating to the U. S. Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian (1869-1884), its director, George M. Wheeler, other staff of the survey, and to the use of the electric telegraph for longitude determination in the 19th century. Also seminar papers and notes, 1986-1988.


Papers are organized in the following series

Series 1: Wheeler Survey Subject Files, 1980-1995
Box 1
Series 2: Wheeler Survey Primary Source Files, 1838-1966
Boxes 2-3
Series 3: Wheeler Survey Secondary Source Files, 1933-1989
Box 3
Series 4: Telegraphic Longitude Subject Files, 1980-1990
Boxes 3-4
Series 5: Telegraphic Longitude Primary Source Files, 1838-1931
Box 4
Series 6: Telegraphic Longitude Secondary Source Files, 1945-1988
Box 4
Series 7: Seminar Papers and Notes, 1986-1988
Box 5


3a 55 3


Gift of Robert Karrow, 2004.

Processed by

Robert W. Karrow, 2004

Inventory of the Robert Karrow Research Papers, 1980-1990
Robert W. Karrow
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States