Using Bodies for Contouring

From the comfort of a desk, a curious vertical system of contouring was described by a number of military men in the 1800’s. Their suggested method was to draw contours using the average height of a male body  – mounted or otherwise – as a unit of measure. The verb ‘contouring’ implies movement around a hill; the Ordnance Survey would most often contour by walking ‘a line’ at one altitude whilst imagining (interpolating) lines above and below them. Traditionally the military had used the body as an instrument to measure distance, printed tables gave the ‘average pace’, of both person and horse, and were used with the aid of a timepiece. The use of walking, running – or cantering – seems reasonable to gauge distance in a hurry, or in ‘proximity’ of the enemy, but I find it hard to imagine body height being the handiest rule for gauging altitude whilst ascending a hill. In the field it would entail a halting, walk or ride, and the placing of ‘twigs’, ‘stones’ or ‘pieces of paper’ “at each point from which to measure the next to mark [where] the contours would be put.”[1] And although Captain James said it was ‘comparatively easy’:

Contours at vertical intervals equal to the distance from the foot to the eye of the sketcher are put in with comparative ease, and a plan contoured with such short intervals is preferable to a sketch with hachures.[2]

James was contradicted by others; the hypothetical ‘5 feet tall’ used for the sketcher, “did not bear sufficient relation to [individual] … height of eye”.[3] A speedy reconnoitre might require travelling alone and with little equipment, but this suggested method of using the body as instrument of contouring would have entailed travelling quite slowly – and visibly – up a hill, a highly risky endeavour in proximity of the enemy. I am most curious as to whether this was simply a fanciful notion dreamed up in the comfort of an armchair, or if it was ever actually ever used in ‘the field’.

This post stems from a talk I will be giving at the British Library as part of “Lines on a Map” 13-14 Dec 2019, it’s free to attend, please come! Register here:


  1. F. J. Hutchison and H. G. MacGregor, Military Sketching and Reconnaissance (1878), plate X (cropped). Image use with thanks to the Wohl Library of the Institute of Historical Research
  2. Captain H. D. Hutchinson, Military Sketching made Easy, 1886 (1915, 7th Ed), plate V.
  3. W. H. Richards, Military Surveying and Field Sketching (1873), 90.

[1] W. H. Richards, Military Surveying and Field Sketching, the various methods of contouring, levelling, sketching without instruments, scale of shade, examples in military drawing etc. etc. etc., (London: Wm. H. Allen and Co., 1873), 91.

[2] James, Capt., [in] “III Military Sketching,” Papers on subjects (1866), 52.

[3] Webber, R. E., “On the Representation of Ground, especially in Military Reconnoissance,” Papers on subjects (1865), 139.


About karenrann

Karen is a visual artist drawn to working from a sense of place
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