September 30, 2021

A Brief History of Global Mapper – Part I

Written by: David McKittrick

 

In the beginning…

As a Global Mapper user, have you ever contemplated the important role that the release of Windows 95 had in the early development of your favorite GIS application? I thought not! There’s a strong possibility that many of you readers were but a twinkle in your parents’ eyes when Bill Gates and his cohorts borrowed a classic Rolling Stones number and awkwardly frolicked around the stage while our Windows 95 computers beseeched us to “Start Me Up”. 

It seems that the folks at the USGS were looking past the ungainly dancing and paying close attention to this personal computing innovation. The newly revamped, graphics-friendly computers now sitting on everyone’s desks were the inspiration that the agency needed to embark on a project to develop a freeware application for viewing their burgeoning collection of data. The lead developer on this project, which would culminate in a product entitled dlgv32, was a certain Mike Childs, whose name would become synonymous with Global Mapper over the subsequent two decades.

If the truth be told, dlgv32 is not a name that smoothly rolls off the tongue, but there is a certain 1990s logic to the moniker.

  • DLG – Digital Line Graph was the name given to the USGS vector data files
  • V – Viewer
  • 32 – 32-bit operating system which the application supported
DLGV32 developed for and used by the USGS to view data.

Compared to today’s Global Mapper, dlgv32, which was released in June of 1997, was bare-bones, to say the least. Supporting just one file format and with no analysis, editing, or even exporting capability, it really lived up to the “V” in its name. It was a viewer. That’s all. Nonetheless, dlgv32 was a resounding success. According to USGS statistics, the application was downloaded on average 100 times each day with a total of 60,000 copies in circulation after the first two years.

Just a month after version 1.0 was released, version 1.5 was completed boasting support for the USGS DRG data, the agency’s raster topographic maps. This rapid functional upgrade was the first example of what would later become one of the defining characteristics of Global Mapper: its continual state of development.

Dlgv32 Evolves into Global Mapper

Subsequent releases of dlgv32 added support for newly available USGS terrain datasets, including the option to apply a shader to represent variations in elevation. They also introduced an innovative and, at the time, unique reprojection function that applied the active projection parameters to all data layers as they are loaded — a function that users of the current release of Global Mapper still appreciate.

With this enhanced functionality and expanding format support, it became clear to the folks at the USGS that dlgv32 was developing beyond the agency’s original directive, so they made the decision to release the source code for commercial development. Who better to take up the mantle than Mike Childs?

Spurred on by the fact that tens of thousands of satisfied downloaders were already using dlgv32, Mike recognized the potential market for an advanced version of the software and so began the real story of Global Mapper.

It is worth recalling the nature of the GIS industry at the time. As a technical discipline, GIS very much belonged in the hands of a relatively small group of highly skilled and trained people. Applications such as Global Mapper, into which dlgv32 would soon evolve, succeeded in opening the field of spatial technology to an increasingly wider audience.

September 2001 saw the release of dlgv32 Pro for the modest price of $79. More significantly, it opened the door for Mike to independently address the needs and requirements of the growing user community and to create software in direct reaction to customer input, with no bureaucratic overseers. Technically this first commercial release was version 4.0, a numeric naming sequence that continues to this day.

Early Highlights of Global Mapper

Over subsequent releases, many of the capabilities that were seen in today’s Global Mapper were sequentially introduced:

2001

  • Version 4.27 – The workspace file for saving the display of loaded layers
  • Version 4.28 – Scripting as an alternative means of processing data

2002

  • Version 4.33 – The Path Profile tool for viewing a cross-section of the terrain
  • Version 4.47 – Custom contour generation from a DEM
  • Version 4.61 – View Shed analysis for transmission applications

2003

  • Version 5.0 – The Digitizer for drawing or editing vector objects. Also the Image rectification tool for geographically registering raster layers.

2004

  • Version 5.08 – Gridding for creating a raster surface model or DEM from 3D vector data
  • Version 5.09 – GPS tracking using a connected GPS receiver. This development followed just a few years after the removal of Selective Availability by the U.S. Government, which significantly improved the accuracy of GPS positioning and resulted in a rapid upsurge in the commercial use of GPS technology.

After just three years of focused development, Global Mapper had already begun to gain considerable attention in the GIS community, not only within the U.S. but throughout the world. This occurred in spite of the fact that there was no formal marketing or proactive business development effort. Most early users cited word-of-mouth recommendations from colleagues or clients as the primary reason that they initially found out about the software.

These early users were also instrumental in steering the continued evolution of Global Mapper. Reacting to requests from individuals, Mike would often create an update to the software and deliver a unique build to the requester, often within a few hours of the initial contact. This was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Mike was able to develop functionality that specifically targeted the needs and requirements of a particular industry, and was able to lean on the requester to test the new functionality before it was incorporated into the general release version. The requester benefited from the fact that they received a version of Global Mapper that was customized to meet their needs. While Global Mapper has matured considerably since these early years and now follows a more formal development process, this underlying reactionary development philosophy is still prevalent today.

In part two of this Brief History of Global Mapper, we highlight the milestones from 2005 to the present, including the acquisition of Global Mapper by Blue Marble Geographics.

Companies using Blue Marble’s geospatial technology