Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Burt, William Austin

An innovator in every sense of the word, William Burt was fortunate enough to find something he truly loved to do and intelligent enough to create inventions that helped him perfect his craft. William Austin 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 interests, it was only natural that he would have a career in land survey, which was becoming a popular and necessary trade in those early days of the United States. In 1822 he moved to Michigan, and 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 1936. The solar compass became popular because it was a precise instrument that helped to solve many issues that surveyors encountered while using magnetic compasses. The new invention brought to William Burt great respect and national fame as a top surveyor. The solar compass was also used in the Michigan Survey, to resurvey the boundary between Wisconsin and Michigan after a dispute arose regarding their border, and to survey the Upper Peninsula. In 1856 Burt finally made the move from the Michigan countryside to Detroit, where he died the following year.

Burt is also known as the inventor of the typographer, the predecessor to the modern-day typewriter. While the typographer was praised and admired, it was too far ahead of its time and failed to have any commercial success, although its legacy would live on as it laid foundation for the eventual 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.

While William Burt was the creator of many inventions, he will always be remembered as the man who changed land surveying with his invention of the solar compass. His solar compass and its later adaptations became standard instruments for land survey, helping to survey a good portion of the Western United States, and it was widely used up until the creation of the modern day Global Position System.



William Austin Burt Sextant, 1870

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