Roger Tomlinson Geography

Acclaimed as the "Father of GIS," Tomlinson invented Geographic Information Systems as a way to analyze geographic data.

"Geography really matters in human decision making. Geography is a set of fundamental skills we must embed in our young people."

The Story

Roger Tomlinson, visionary, inventor of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), principal of Tomlinson Associates Ltd. Consulting Geographers, doesn’t advertise his services — except on his license plate, a gift that says “GIS ONE.” His company’s phone number isn’t even listed. “If somebody wants advice on GIS, they’ll find us through previous clients,” he says. GIS's have made the biggest advance in geography since the Egyptians used a dot grid to map the Nile River 4000 years ago, and are much in demand.

Tomlinson coined the name GIS for the blend of mapping and computer databases that he pioneered for the Canada Land Inventory, an ambitious Canada-wide inventory of arable and other land, in the early 1960s. One important benefit of a GIS is its ability to overlay maps containing different types of information. However, a GIS is much more than a way to superimpose maps. It is a computer database that stores geographic data and provides tools for searching, analyzing, and displaying the data in ways that yield new information and new insights. People use GIS’s to solve spatial problems in crime prevention, transportation, forestry and other resource industries, city planning, and many other disciplines. Tomlinson has used GIS’s largely for environmental protection, parks planning, and resource management.

When Tomlinson goes to GIS conferences and sees what the many GIS providers are doing with GIS technology nowadays, he is thrilled at how far his invention has come. Still, he says, “we knew right from the beginning that what we were developing was fundamentally important” — important because a GIS enables people to solve spatial problems that would take impossibly long to solve any other way.



The Person

November 17, 1933
Cambridge, England
Date of Death
February 9, 2014
Ottawa, Ontario
Family Members
  • First wife: Jocelyn
  • Second wife: Lila
  • Children: Ward, Frances, Christopher
Warm, generous, practical.
Other Interests
Volunteers his expertise on a project to protect Mexico's Rio Laja Watershed, which is threatened by erosion.
Tomlinson Associates Ltd. Consulting Geographers
  • BSc.(Hons. Geog.), Nottingham, England, 1957
  • BSc. (Geology), Acadia, Canada, 1960
  • MSc. (Geography), McGill, Canada, 1961
  • PhD., University College, England, 1974
  • Robert T. Aangeenbrug Distinguished Career Award, Association of American Geographers, 2005
  • Gold Medal, Royal Canadian Geographic Society, 2003.
  • Order of Canada, Member, 2001
  • ESRI Lifetime Achievement Award, 1997
  • GIS World Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996
  • Assocations of American Geographers James R. Anderson Medal of Honor, 1995
  • Canadian Association of Geographers Award,1991
  • Murchison Award, Royal Geographic Society, 1988
Leonard Hassall, geography teacher at Newmarket Grammar School, Suffolk, England, who took his classes into the English countryside and explained how hills and valleys came to be. Hassall sparked Tomlinson's interest in geography. Professor Peter Wood, Tomlinson's Ph.D. supervisor at University College, London. Wood taught Tomlinson how to write, encouraging him to write one paragraph per day to beat writer's block.
Last Updated
May 23, 2020

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