Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Burt, William Austin

William Austin Burt changed land surveying with his invention of the solar compass. As a surveyor, he is credited with discovering iron ore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Burt was born in Massachusetts on June 13, 1792. From an early age he had an interest in mathematics, navigation, astronomy, and natural philosophy, and he quickly developed mechanical skills. At the age of 18 he purchased a broken surveying compass that he then repaired and used to survey the area surrounding his parents’ home.

Because of his early interests, Burt entered a career in land survey. However, after moving to Michigan in 1822, where he purchased land in what is today Macomb County, he also built mills. At the age of 41 he became United States Deputy Surveyor. Shortly thereafter, Burt created his solar compass and it made its surveying debut in 1836.

The solar compass became popular because it was a precise instrument that helped solve many issues that surveyors encountered while using magnetic compasses. The new invention earned Burt respect and national fame as a top surveyor. The compass was used in the Michigan Survey, to resurvey the boundary between Wisconsin and Michigan after a dispute arose regarding the border, and to survey the Upper Peninsula. 

Burt is also known as the inventor of the typographer, one of the predecessors to the modern-day typewriter. While the typographer was praised and admired, it used a dial to select letters, not keys, and was said to be slower than writing by hand. Still, it helped pave the way for the development of the typewriter. Additionally, he created the Equatorial Sextant, which was used to get an accurate bearing and position of a ship at sea.

Burt’s solar compass and its later adaptations became standard instruments for land survey, helping to survey a good portion of the Western United States, and was widely used up until the creation of the modern-day Global Position System.

In 1857 Burt moved from the Michigan countryside to Detroit, where he died on August 18, 1858. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Burt Lake and Burt Township, in Cheboygan County, are named for him.



William Austin Burt Sextant, 1870

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