Australia’s National R502 Map Series : A Tribute to the Forgotten Mappers of the Ghastly Blank


by Paul Wise, originally presented titled ‘Australia’s First 1: 250 000 Scale, Uniform Topographic Map Coverage : The R502 Story’, updated, re-edited and re-titled for the web 2023




The 1: 250 000 scale R502 series of maps was the first uniform medium scale topographic map coverage of Australia. Each standard map sheet covered an area bounded by 1.5 degrees of longitude and 1 degree of latitude (about 150 kilometres from east to west and 110 kilometres from north to south). At 1: 250 000 scale, 1mm on the map represents 250 metres on the ground. The R502 series comprised a total of 540 printed maps (Division of National Mapping 1968). Production of the R502 map series commenced around 1956. All sheet compilations were finalised by 1966 and printing of all the maps of the series was completed by the end of 1968. The Division of National Mapping and Royal Australian Survey Corps each compiled around 40 per cent of the map sheets. State mapping authorities in Western Australia (17%), Queensland, Tasmania, and South Australia compiled the remainder. The Royal Australian Survey Corps and National Mapping were responsible for printing all of the map sheets. Private sector organisations supplied some horizontal control (such as from petroleum exploration surveys) as well as various other services under contract. Thus, completion of the R502 map series involved an outstanding national peace-time co-operative effort. Australia’s mapping infrastructure continued to strengthen after completion of the R502 map series. By 1991, densification of horizontal and vertical control networks was such that the R502 series was replaced by the 1: 250 000 scale National Topographic Map Series (NTMS). The NTMS series was compiled at 1: 100 000 scale and the new 1: 250 000 scale map sheets were derived from the 1: 100 000 scale compilations (O’Donnell 2006).


Figure 1 – (Left) Copy of 1846 map of Australia by John Arrowsmith; (Right) Map showing regions of Australia that were still unmapped circa 1945.


As late as 1963, the still largely unknown and unmapped Australian interior was the ghastly blank (Morehead 1963), as maps of the time were still showing vast regions of inland Australia as empty spaces. Please refer to Figure 1 above. The term had first been used in an editorial in the Melbourne Argus (The Argus 1858) newspaper when promoting the then proposed Burke & Wills Expedition of 1860. In the then intervening 105 years, despite Burke & Wills and other explorers on foot and even Halligan in the 1920s and MacKay in the 1930s, using aircraft, much of the ghastly blank still remained. Even the intense mapping efforts of the Emergency Mapping Scheme of World War Two, when a Japanese invasion was feared, left a significant portion of Australia a ghastly blank.


Before he retired, the longest serving Director of National Mapping, Bruce Philip Lambert (1912-1990), stated in his 1976 paper Topographic mapping in Australia : Development 1945-1975, most of the early topographic mapping in Australia was built up from the reports and surveys of explorers supplemented as time went on by the somewhat meagre data collected in the course of cadastral and engineering surveys. There is no doubt that the early surveyors were aware of the desirability of planning development on the basis of good topographic maps but the exigencies of the situation, the non availability of funds and lack of skilled manpower dictated the course of events and top priority had to be given to land surveys. Lambert, however, was not raising a new issue as history showed that when mapping priorities were being determined mapping the topography always had a low priority. Even at around the time of the first settlement of Australia, Rachel Hewitt in her 2010 book Map of a Nation : A biography of the Ordnance Survey, wrote that in England William Mudge (1762–1820), a commissioner of the Board of Longitude established to assess methods for finding longitude at sea, as well as computing UK triangulation, was arguing for relinquish[ing] the prosecution of the very minute part of the Survey to attend to what is of real use to the Public at large, thus giving higher priority to inclusion of the landscape. The 2021 paper Baselines for Geodetic Triangulation Surveys in Australia, describes some of the earliest surveys for to[ographic mapping in Australia.


The economic enormity of the mapping task for Australia at the time is indicated in Table 1, which shows the area of Australia and its 1954 population compared with those of the United States and Canada. Simplistically, every square kilometre of mapping in Australia was to support just over one person, whereas in Canada, it was nearly two people and in the United States, it was over 16 people.






1954 Population

9 million

15 million

163 million

Area (square kilometres)

7.7 million

9.1 million

9.8 million

People per square kilometre




Table 1 : Comparison of Populations and Areas in Selected Countries.

Note: Data for this table came from various Google searches. The 1954 Australian population figure is the actual census figure. Canada and USA are of comparable areal size to Australia.


With such a low population base and coming just after World War 2, it is perhaps understandable that the R502 mapping program was beset with problems of funding as well as those of bureaucracy and changing of priorities. As Lines (1992) pointed out, in the period just after the war, the lack of trained staff continually impacted progress. Nevertheless, the program was successfully completed in around 12 years.


In tracing the evolution of the R502 series of topographic mapping, this paper outlines the demands for the topographic mapping of Australia. It also outlines the post-Federation Commonwealth government administrative arrangements for topographic mapping that emerged in response. The subsequent establishment of the R502 series topographic map program with decimal scale, the slow start to this program, its component parts and its achievement are then discussed.



The plan emerges

Commonwealth Gazette No. 1, of 1 January 1901 established the Department of Home Affairs to carry out a servicing role. While surveying and mapping functions were seen as appropriate for a servicing department, none were ceded by the States to the Commonwealth at Federation. However, with the passing of the Commonwealth Lands Acquisition Act of 1906, a number of surveying and mapping functions transferred from the States to the Commonwealth. This legislation allowed the Commonwealth’s small, civilian mapping requirement to be met by the Lands and Survey staff of the Department for Home and Territories (Anon 1964).


At this same time surveying professionals were criticising the fact that the colonies had failed to deliver a consistent topographic survey. While the early surveyors were undoubtedly aware of the desirability of planning land development on the basis of good topographic maps, the non-availability of funds and the lack of skilled manpower resulted in cadastral surveys getting higher priority. Henry Edward Coane in a paper for the Victorian Institution of Surveyors in 1901, stated :


In none of the Australian Colonies has any serious attempt been made to conduct a general systematic topographical survey, although the necessity has long been urged by the Technical Associations (Coane 1901).


The genesis of systematic topographic mapping in Australia is considered to be 1907, when the Defence Forces commenced producing strategic maps and plans by adding contours and topographic detail to existing cadastral material (Lambert 1976). This methodology was found to be inefficient, as the cadastral mapping was generally unrelated to a homogeneous base. The Survey Section of the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) was established in 1910, now using the existing State triangulation systems as the control framework for their topographic maps. By 1914 their own geodetic sub-section was formed to perform triangulation ahead of the topographers. These two events saw the topographic mapping of Australia (at 1:63,360 or 1 mile to 1 inch scale also called One inch) deemed worthy of resourcing (Coulthard-Clark 2000). The Survey Section of the RAE became the Australian Survey Corps in 1915 and subsequently the Royal Australian Survey Corps (RA Survey) in 1948. For simplicity, RA Survey is used throughout this paper when referring to the Survey Corps of the Australian Army.


A resolution from the Conference of Surveyors-General in Melbourne during 20-25 May 1912 contained detailed proposals for a National Geodetic Survey of Australia. That conference recognised that such a geodetic survey was absolutely necessary for the production of accurate maps (Conference of Surveyors-General 1912). During World War 1 (1914-1918), Australia focussed nationally on the war effort and many survey and mapping personnel served overseas. On their return from this service, many of these personnel were employed by the States’ survey organisations.


In 1921, topographic mapping became a Commonwealth responsibility within the Lands and Survey Branch of the Department of Home and Territories. Notwithstanding this development and the pockets of RA Survey One inch mapping work, nationally there had been no progress on survey or mapping. The need for a national geodetic and topographic survey of Australia was again highlighted during the first Interstate Conference of the Australian Surveyors’ Institutes, held in Melbourne in November 1927. At that conference, the Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys delivered a paper: The Need for a Geodetic Survey of Australia. In this paper, the Director described a topographic survey with contours (derived from aerial photography) as being vital (Percival 1928). In addition, the President of the Surveyors' Institutes contributed a paper: On the Need for a Topographical Survey of Australia (Montgomery 1928). The Institutes’ President was forthright in observing that Australia had lagged behind other Commonwealth countries in mapping and asked how long was Australia prepared to continue to do so. Apart from the economic benefits, the President stated that every pound spent on good maps was an insurance against loss and disaster in the military field. These were prophetic words indeed in the light of Australia’s mapping situation at the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939.


The lack of adequate topographic map coverage of Australia was further highlighted by the Victorian representative of the Development and Migration Commission. He requested that delegates to the 1927 Conference assist in the preparation of a statement on the need for topographical maps of Australia. Submissions were to be forwarded to the conference President for consolidation and subsequent presentation to government. To follow through on this request, the Australian Survey Committee - ASC (not to be confused with the later Commonwealth Survey Committee) was formed. This committee had representatives from surveyors, engineers, mining and metallurgy, academia and the Victorian Government Astronomer. The Development and Migration Commission provided the secretary. Input was also received, from the Defence department and the Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys (Australian Survey Committee 1929).


In October 1928, the chair of the Development and Migration Commission requested that the chair of the ASC put forward a national scheme of topographical mapping. This scheme was contained in the Report on the Need for a Geodetic and Topographical Survey of Australia (Australian Survey Committee 1929). The ASC concluded that it was essential for a first order geodetic survey to be carried out, so that adequate topographical maps of Australia could be produced and all survey work could be co-ordinated. ASC also proposed the formation of a national committee, not unlike the later National Mapping Council, be formed. This first ASC report was presented to the Commonwealth government on 18 February 1930.


The government claimed stringent financial limitations prevented take up of the report’s recommendations; but left some hope by indicating that the recommendations might be reconsidered at a better time. In 1932, the Department of Interior was created (Commonwealth Gazette No. 33 of 14 April 1932) and the Commonwealth’s surveying, mapping and property functions were transferred to that department. However, there was still no action on the ASC’s recommendations. The ASC met again on 27 September 1933 and considered whether the Commonwealth government should again be approached to start the geodetic and topographical survey of Australia. However, as there had been general economic improvement and additional information collected in the intervening years, ASC decided to submit a second report. This second report also advanced that the scale of 1 mile to 1 inch was the most useful for such topographical mapping. These recommendations supported an agreement reached in November 1929 between the Surveyors-General of the States and a representative of the Defence Department to facilitate future topographical mapping. The ASC’s second report was presented to the Minister for Development, on 23 November 1934 (Australian Survey Committee 1935). Unfortunately, as with the ASC’s first report, this second report received little Commonwealth government support.


With the commencement of a number of major independent survey and mapping activities in early 1935, the chair of the ASC, the Department of Defence and the Institution of Engineers, Australia saw the need for a co-ordinating body and voiced such opinion to the Commonwealth government. The government’s response was to establish the Commonwealth Survey Committee (CSC) in late 1935 with a view to ensuring the future co-ordination of surveys throughout Australia. The CSC was chaired by the Commonwealth Surveyor-General, with representatives of the three Defence services (Navy, Army and Air Force). Co-ordination with the States was achieved through the Commonwealth Surveyor-General. The CSC reported in 1936 but its recommendations were deferred and as World War 2 intervened, they did not meet again until August 1944. In 1937 Frank Debenham the learned Australian geologist and then chair of Geography at Cambridge wrote to the Department of Interior saying that he was :


Dismayed at the paucity of topographic information in Australia and aware of the backwardness of my country in the matter of fundamental surveys … that triangulation should be in the hands of the Federal Government… no topographic map of any real value can be made without such a framework.


During 1930-37, Donald George Mackay led four private aerial survey expeditions to map the largely unknown Australian interior. For the first expedition in 1930, a base camp was established near llbpilla Soak about 350 km north-west of Alice Springs. From there the work extended radially out to a distance of about 250km. This expedition found a very large, dry lake astride the Western Australia /Northern Territory border. This lake is now known as Lake Mackay. A second expedition took place in 1933 and operated from Docker River in the Northern Territory and Roy Hill and Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia. The three base sites formed a triangle with sides about 1 000 kilometres in length (the range of Mackay’s aircraft). From these bases, large areas of the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts were surveyed. Mackay’s 1935 expedition surveyed a strip of country about 1 400 kilometres long and about 500 kilometres wide, immediately to the north of the Transcontinental Railway. It used bases at Cook, Forrest, Laverton, Oodnadatta and Rawlinna. Mackay’s fourth and final expedition in 1937 was based at Tanami (about 470 kilometres due west of Tennant Creek) and Roy Hill again. The 1937 expedition filled in some gaps from previous flights (Canon 1987). Although the final maps could only be regarded as reconnaissance, nonetheless they portrayed significant topographic features. The areas of Mackay’s surveys are shown in Figure 2.


At the outbreak of World War 2, less than 2 per cent of Australia had been mapped at One inch. This coverage comprised some 80 map sheets (approximately 40 000 square miles) in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. This coverage is shown in Figure 3a. A result of RA Survey’s own efforts, this mapping was produced post World War 1 at an average rate of about 4 map sheets per year (Lambert 1969). The Commonwealth Surveyor-General (who later also became the first Director of National Mapping), recalled: ‘the inadequacy of our maps became more fully apparent when the Japanese were on our threshold in 1942. It is probable that they were better informed on the topography of parts of New Guinea then we ourselves were’ (Johnston 1962). This predicament led to the instigation of the Emergency Mapping Scheme in November 1940. The Scheme’s first step was to accelerate the One inch mapping program but it soon became evident that the required emergency timeframe for completion was completely unachievable. While mapping at One inch continued, new series at 1: 506 880 (8 miles to 1 inch) scale and 1: 253 440 (4 miles to 1 inch) scale were commenced. To fulfil the Scheme’s requirements photo-mosaics were also prepared. During World War 2 topographic map coverage advanced significantly. Some 60 map sheets at 1: 506 880 scale, 230 sheets at 1: 253 440 scale, and 342 sheets at 1: 63 360 scale map sheets were produced (172 sheets at the 1: 63 360 scale being Standard Editions). This coverage is shown in Figure 3b. However, owing to the necessarily tight production timeframe, the quality of this mapping varied (Lambert 1969).


Figure 2 – Areas covered by Mackay’s expeditions between 1930 and 1937.


The August 1944 meeting of the Commonwealth Survey Committee (CSC) passed thirteen resolutions. Resolutions 2 and 3 recommended the adoption of the 4 miles and 1 mile to 1 inch map series (as were being produced by RA Survey at that time) as the basic type of map for a national survey. Further, the CSC held the opinion that as a national undertaking, a national survey should be financed by the Commonwealth. CSC’s Resolution 12 recommended that, at their next meeting the State Surveyors-General confer with the Commonwealth Surveyor-General and the Commonwealth Survey Committee. This resolution gave rise to the Commonwealth Survey Committee and State Surveyors-General Conference of 15-19 January 1945 (Commonwealth Survey Committee undated). The recommendations of that conference received Commonwealth government approval on 7 March 1945 and provided for the formation of the National Mapping Council (NMC).


The new National Mapping Council was to be chaired by the Commonwealth Surveyor-General who was also to be the Director of National Mapping. This new Director was responsible for the co-ordination of the activities of Commonwealth and State authorities in planning and carrying out the National Mapping of Australia with full regard to the recommendations of the National Mapping Council.


A map of australia with red squares

Description automatically generated

Figure 3a – Topographic Mapping (One inch scale) coverage in 1939 (Tyson 1965), of the total of 165 maps shown,18 were known to be Manoeuvre maps and 60 Tactical maps.


Figure 3b – Topographic Mapping coverage in 1945 at the conclusion of the Emergency Mapping Scheme (Tyson 1965).


Figure 3c – Topographic Mapping coverage in 1950 (National Mapping Council 1966).


Figure 4 – National Mapping Council diagram of April 1956 showing the imperial map scales recommended for mapping the different regions of Australia (Lambert 1956).


The January 1945 conference also believed 1 mile to 1 inch scale and 4 miles to 1 inch scale topographical maps were required for national mapping (Commonwealth Survey Committee and State Surveyors-General 1945). The 4 miles to 1 inch scale was later ratified by NMC Resolution 57 of 1948. That resolution also provided that outside specific, designated or most densely populated areas of the country 4 miles to 1 inch was considered a suitable scale (Lines 1992).


In the following years the scales at which Australia would be mapped were reviewed by the NMC. If mapping Australia at One inch was too immense a task in war-time, in peace-time it was totally impractical. It was more logical, as had been seen during World War 2, to map specific areas at specific scales. Refer to Figure 4, an NMC diagram showing the imperial map scales recommended for mapping the different regions of Australia (Lambert 1956). The question of map scales was finally resolved in 1959 with the NMC’s adoption of metric scales.


At NMC’s commencement, the Commonwealth Survey Committee was given a seat on the new Council. This seat was usually taken by the Director of Military Survey. However, in 1947, the CSC was re-organised. Its membership was expanded with the Commonwealth Surveyor-General (who was also Director of National Mapping) as chair. The CSC chair would recommend to the Minister for the Interior any actions necessary for the co-ordination of the mapping activities of Commonwealth departments. Soon after the formation of the NMC, its obligations grew to such an extent that its chair shouldered onerous responsibilities. Not only was he responsible as Director of National Mapping and as Commonwealth Surveyor-General but also as the Commonwealth’s Chief Property Officer. In 1947, to help address this situation, a Deputy was appointed to assist with the Director of National Mapping function. The new Deputy headed the National Mapping Section, Property and Survey Branch, Department of Interior. In 1951, the arrangement for the Commonwealth Surveyor-General to also be Director of National Mapping was terminated. The Deputy Director then became the Director of National Mapping and in that capacity chair of the NMC. Under this change, the Commonwealth Surveyor-General relinquished the chair of the NMC but remained a member of that Council. (The new arrangements provided the Commonwealth Surveyor-General some relief from his onerous work-load.)


Also in 1951, the National Mapping Section was renamed the National Mapping Office. This change saw the Office actively commence its part in the Australian geodetic survey (Ford 1979). The National Mapping Office worked co-operatively with RA Survey and State authorities with an initial aim to expand the geodetic network and to strengthen and unify existing survey control.


By 1951, Brown (1951) records that only twelve per cent of Australia was covered by topographic maps (equivalent in area to about the size of South Australia) even though most of these maps lacked height information. Map coverage with heights and contours at 1 mile to 1 inch and larger scales existed for just three per cent the country. Figure 3c, shows the map coverage as reported by the NMC in 1950, and is indicative of the coverage noted by Brown. In 1951, Major-General R. Ll. Brown C.B., O.B.E, F.H.I.C.S., Director-General Ordnance Survey of Great Britain, was invited to Australia to report to the Minister for the Department of the Army on specific terms of reference. These addressed RA Survey’s future work program and interaction with civilian agencies. While his main report of December 1951 deals with those issues, his Appendix G reflected Brown’s own views on key aspects of topographic mapping. Brown’s most relevant points were :


Since the war discussions on standardisation have taken place, and the scales of maps and charts affecting land operations have now been standardised for the armies of the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. The object of this standardisation is to enable the mapping agencies of the three countries to supply the armed forces with the maps essential for military operations and to simplify map usage.


The standard scales agreed are all decimal scales.


The agreement designates these as the scales which shall be used by the three powers, and as the goal toward which they shall urge all other mapping agencies in order to facilitate future military mapping.


The standardisation of military mapping scales by these three North Atlantic powers cannot be without affect upon mapping in other parts of the world, and Australia will naturally wish to take this into account when considering her domestic mapping.


The Four-mile scale is so close to the 1/250 000 scale that for many practical purposes there is no difference. This is true also for many military purposes, but not all.


The territories in which she [Australia] may be interested are thus on the 1/250 000 scale. A change in Australia appears practicable, and if it is to be made, the sooner it is made the better.


These considerations have been put forward, more to prevent them from being overlooked when policy is discussed than to urge the intrinsic value of decimal scales.


This trend [to metric] may in the end prove irresistible, both because of the increasing disadvantage in a modern world of the lack of uniformity in this matter, and because no system other than the metric system has any chance of universal acceptance.


So far as mapping is concerned, Australia has as yet done little (as compared with older countries), that a change to decimal scales, and even the metre, would be a simple matter now compared with what it will be later when Australia is better mapped (Brown 1951).


Based on his own experience with national mapping in Great Britain, Brown noted that Australia needed to have a single mapping authority responsible for its national mapping activities. In 1954 in response to Brown’s report, the Commonwealth government established the Department of Interior as the responsible authority for topographic surveys and mapping in Australia. In addition, a standing Advisory Committee (later to be known as Advisory Committee on Commonwealth Mapping - ACOCM) was formed and the Commonwealth Survey Committee disbanded. The CSC’s former representative on the National Mapping Council, the Director of Military Survey, later became a member of the NMC in their own right.  ACOCM’s members were : the Secretary, Department of Interior; the Secretary, Department of the Army; a nominee from the Institution of Surveyors, Australia. Its Executive Officer was the Director of National Mapping (who also chaired the NMC). ACOCM’s role was ‘the planning and co-ordination of Australia’s future geodetic and topographic surveys and mapping’.


Also in 1954, following establishment of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) Australia was required to comply with that Treaty’s standardisation agreements. RA Survey noted both the need for this compliance (specifically in relation to map scales, units and symbology) and Brown’s comments relating to decimal scale. Accordingly, RA Survey informed ACOCM that they would like Australian mapping to so comply. With ACOCM having the appropriate administrative authority, all the issues relating to a national topographic mapping program for Australia could now be addressed. Consequently, the mid-1955 Recommended Plan of Mapping Operations emerged. This plan included a 1: 250 000 scale national topographic map series that incorporated the standardisation compliance requested by RA Survey. Commonwealth government approval came only months later.



From plan to reality

Two events in 1956 helped lay the foundation for a national, uniform, 1: 250 000 scale series of topographic maps, compiled predominantly from aerial photography. In May, the National Mapping Office in the Department of the Interior became the Division of National Mapping within the Department of National Development. In July, the Division of National Mapping received a budget allocation for mapping, essentially in the form of continuing payments to the States for their topographic mapping work that was suitable for use in the national mapping program.


The above two events started to address the three major problems that had forced peace time topographic map makers to compromise since the late 1940s: Firstly, how to rapidly provide comprehensive horizontal and vertical control for aerial photography that contained the topographic information needed over vast areas of Australia where little or no map control existed? Secondly, how best to extract the required information from controlled aerial photography to make the planimetric maps. Finally, even if the first two problems could be resolved, how was the required volume of printed maps to be produced? These problems were exacerbated, as mentioned in the introduction, by the severe lack of trained personnel after World War 2. The compromise had been the production of semi-controlled photo-mosaics (often referred to as photomaps). Based on aerial photography acquired post-war, approximately positioned but usable topographic information in photomap form had been produced quickly in sufficient quantity to meet demand. However, this outcome was at the cost of greatly reduced production of cartographic (line) maps.


Post-war aerial photography coverage was an on-going requirement that saw camera equipped Royal Australian Air Force aircraft operating in most States. In the period from June 1947 to June 1948, the RAAF was very active photographing over of one tenth of Australia with 40 000 photographs (Manning 1988). In March 1948, the RAAF aerial photography squadron was designated as 87 (Survey) Squadron. In 1953, however, the government directed that contracts should be let to commercial aerial survey companies for any aerial photography required by Commonwealth departments up to a limit of £120 000 per annum. The RAAF’s role in civilian mapping photographic acquisition subsequently ceased. National Mapping’s 1956 budget, mentioned above, included £120 000 for continued aerial photography acquisition. Thus, 1: 50 000 scale aerial photography supplied by the RAAF and civilian contractors was used for most of the R502 series mapping (Hocking 1987).


The establishment of the Division of National Mapping in 1956 allowed that Division to seek the resources necessary for a topographic mapping program. This funding helped to address but initially did not alleviate the previously mentioned topographic mapping problems nevertheless progress had commenced. With budget funding, however, came greater accountability and a realisation that mapping to meet national development priorities did not necessarily coincide with the current Defence or State mapping priorities. For national development needs mapping for matters such as the whereabouts of oil, gas, minerals, and water was required as well as interstate transport infrastructure routings. 


Defence and State mapping priorities in populated coastal areas and in northern Australia generally did not assist with locating such resources. This lack of coincidence in mapping priorities between the various agencies was borne out in a 1958 Commonwealth government directive requiring National Mapping’s program be focussed on the sedimentary basins to assist with the search for hydrocarbons (Lines 1992).


Although the Advisory Committee on Commonwealth Mapping had agreed to adopt 1: 250 000 scale in mid-1955, it was not until 1956 that RA Survey adopted metric scales (Coulthard-Clark 2000). NMC agreement followed in 1959, whereby both Commonwealth and State mapping agencies adopted decimal scales (National Mapping Council 1972). As the Commonwealth had few 4 mile sheets to convert and the scale change was marginal, the conversion effort was minimal as Brown had forecast in 1951.


Along with the change to decimal scale, came the adoption of revised map symbology, a standardised edition numbering system (see Appendix A) and map sheet printing size. NMC agreement to an integrated set of national symbols (in line with SEATO standardisation agreements) came in 1958. Prior to this a British standard of 1906 had been used, and it formed the basis of the NMC Standard Topographic Map Symbols (STMS), first adopted by the NMC in 1948, amended in 1952 and published in February 1953.


The NMC Standard Topographic Map Symbols (STMS) revised to June 1962, recommended map symbols to be used in the production of topographic maps at medium and larger scales (National Mapping Council 1962). The June 1960, Royal Australian Survey Corps Manual of Map Specifications (published 1961 and as revised May 1962) also appears to have been a much used resource for the R502 map series (Royal Australian Survey Corps 1961).


While scale was decimalised, the existing 4 mile sheet lines were retained as was the use of the 10 000 yard grid and, although not critical at the time, foot interval contours. In 1933, RA Survey had adopted a transverse Mercator projection and a corresponding yard grid (Clarke 1858 spheroid) which covered the whole of Australia in 8 zones. Each zone was 5 degrees of longitude wide with a half degree of common overlap. This was a simple projection with no provision for a scale factor and each zone’s true origin at 34 degrees south latitude. This projection was used for the R502 map series until replaced in 1966 when the Australian Map Grid (AMG) was adopted. After adoption of the AMG, almost half the R502 maps were overprinted with the 10 000 metre grid in cyan.


Even though some of the specifications were still evolving, map production was moving ahead. Tennant Creek, the first sheet of National Mapping's COMMONWEALTH TOPOGRAPHIC SERIES 1: 253 440, was published in September 1958 in four colours, and depicted relief by 250 feet contours supplemented by hill-shading and spot heights. This was followed by black and white Provisional Editions, showing relief by spot heights alone. Forty-eight such sheets were published up to July 1961, when the series was superseded.


RA Survey had continued mapping after World War 2 at 4 miles to 1 inch scale (1: 253 440), some of the sheets being reprints of the war-time editions. Between 1948 and 1958 ten contoured, full-colour sheets were produced under the title AUSTRALIA 1: 253 440. Twelve black and white hachured sheets were also published between 1957 and 1961 under the title AUSTRALIA (PLANIMETRIC SERIES) 1: 253 440. Following the 1959 decision to move to decimal scale, National Mapping embarked on a Planimetric Series at 1: 250 000 scale and RA Survey a 1: 250 000 scale Topographic Series (Tyson 1965); both series contributing to the AUSTRALIA 1: 250 000, R502 program. Figure 5 summarises the medium scale topographic mapping scales used during the period 1907 to 1965.


Figure 5 – Australian medium scale topographic mapping scales used during the period 1907 to 1965 (after Tyson 1965).


The compilation methodology for the R502 series is illustrated in the photograph of a display panel of the time; refer Figures 6a & 6b. The four major production steps were: field work, horizontal control intensification, compilation and updating.


Field work: In the field, astronomical observations to determine position (astrofixes) were taken and other identifiable control from reliable sources confirmed and accepted. These control points provided absolute horizontal position. Lines (1992) recorded that some 2 540 astrofixes were used for the R502 mapping program. Figure 7 shows the location of all astrofixes that were observed to 1965. Heights came through use of barometric heighting techniques (Biddle undated), (Division of National Mapping, undated)(Figure 8). Hocking (1985) stated :…it is suggested that it would be desirable at least to obtain an astrofix in the vicinity of each intersection of 4 mile sheets, one in the vicinity of the centre of each 4 mile sheet, and one near each permanent feature such as homesteads, etc. Elsewhere it was recommended that when using the slotted template method for extending the map control, the best position for an astrofix depends on the airphoto coverage being used, with the observation point selected so as to appear on six photos, three in each run and as close as practicable to the centre of the common overlap.


The table at Appendix B shows that, in addition to the survey control established by RA Survey and National Mapping, each of the State mapping agencies of the time contributed as well as the following organisations:


Australian Gulf Oil Company Ltd      

Delhi Australia Petroleum Pty Ltd    

Department of Interior

Hydrographic Office, Royal Australian Navy    

Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Authority      

Country Roads Board, Victoria

Weapons Research Establishment, Department of Supply      

Western Australian Petroleum Pty Ltd (WAPET).


Figure 6a – 1: 250 000 scale map compilation methodology – top section (courtesy O.J. Bobroff).

Figure 6b – 1: 250 000 scale map compilation methodology – bottom section (courtesy O.J. Bobroff)


Figure 7 – Location of all astrofixes to 1965 (National Mapping Council 1966).


Figure 8 – Aircraft type barometer set (courtesy P. Hocking).


Figure 9 – Example of a large template assembly (8 300 templates approximately) covering an area about that of Victoria (courtesy P. Hocking).



Figure 10 – Plotting from aerial photography using a Stereotope (Zeiss) and Radial Line Plotter (Kail) (courtesy D. Young).


Figure 11 - Copy of an August 1962 minute from B.P. Lambert, Director of National Mapping on 1:250,000 Mapping Definition of Editions.


Horizontal control intensification: The slotted template technique was used to extend the field control to each photograph at a nominal scale of 1: 46 500 (Hocking 1985). Hocking (1967) stated : within the Division of National Mapping slotted template assemblies have been completed for over two hundred 1: 250 000 map areas in Australia covering nearly 1.25 million square miles [or nearly half the area of Australia]... where possible, templates have been assembled in large blocks and laid to the next line of control outside the area to be mapped, in order to obtain the best position from the ground control available (Figure 9).


Compilation: After the control supplied by the slotted template process was used to position the aerial photographs in their correct relationship to the ground and to each other, the required detail was compiled using the (stereoscopic) plotting equipment of the time; for example the Stereotope and Radial Line Plotter are shown at Figure 10.


Updating: As production of the R502 series progressed, there was an increasing time lag between acquisition of the aerial photography and its use in map compilation. To help ensure currency of map detail before compilations went to the fair drawing and map printing stages, the compilations were updated using local knowledge and aerial inspections from light aircraft. If changes in detail were significant, photography (using an F24 camera) was acquired to allow the changes to be transferred to the compilations. Thus the detail was as up‑to‑date as possible when maps were printed.


A copy of an August 1962 minute from B.P. Lambert Director of National Mapping on 1:250,000 Mapping Definition of Editions is shown at Figure 11. This minute described how National Mapping characterised editions in the R502 series, namely:


Provisional edition maps were only printed in three colours (black, blue and brown) and carried the warning to users:


This map has not been completely examined on the ground and is issued at

this stage in order to permit early distribution of topographic information.


First edition maps were printed in four colours, namely: black, red, brown and blue. Hill shading (Figure 12) was used to illustrate terrain along with spot heights. The majority of the National Mapping first edition maps also carried the above warning. Appendix B indicates that this warning was generally used on maps over areas with little cultural detail where field checking would not greatly improve content but delay release of the map.


RA Survey printed 124 maps with contours at 250 feet intervals (Figure 13) with the colour green used as part of the layer tints (Figure 14) to indicate height and vegetation cover. These more complex printed maps were only produced where the required information was already available. Figures 17 and 19 show the agencies involved in R502 compilation and the areas of the contoured maps.


Figure 12 – Part of an R502 series map with hill shading and spot heights.


Figure 13 – Part of an R502 series map showing 250ft contours and layer tints.



Figure 14 – Tint layer panel from an R502 series map.


Figure 15 - Showing the progress of the 1: 250 000 scale mapping program at 5 yearly intervals from 1950 to 1965 as it gradually replaced the earlier 4 mile war-time series;

the escalation of progress in the early 1960s is clearly evident (National Mapping Council 1966).


By 1960, RA Survey and National Mapping had advised the Advisory Committee on Commonwealth Mapping (ACOCM) that both organisations intended to generate 30 R502 map sheets per year. With such a rate of production of maps the completion of the R502 series mapping program was estimated to occur in 1969. The planned map volume was to be achieved by both organisations using minimal horizontal control and National Mapping employing contract assistance to meet its annual objective. Figure 15 shows the improved  progress after 1955 and the program escalation of the early 1960s. Interestingly, an 18 year mapping program was also envisaged at that time which would have incorporated new aerial photography and improved control and contours for the R502 map series. That vision was replaced in 1965 when the government agreed to the 1: 100 000 scale NTMS program. From that program up-to-date 1: 250 000 scale material was to be cartographically derived from the six 1: 100 000 scale Map Sheets That Comprised Each 1: 250 000 Scale Map Sheet Area.


The first six sheets of the R502 series were printed and published by RA Survey in 1958; SI5511 Cootamundra, SI5602 Newcastle, SF4912 Ningaloo, SF5005 Onslow, SI5605 Sydney and SF5009 Yanrey. It was to be 1961 before National Mapping published its first R502 map sheets; SD5315 Mount Young, SF5304 Avon Downs, SE5216 Tanami East, SE5309 South Lake Wood and SE5313 Green Swamp Well. There is anecdotal evidence that National Mapping’s sheets were printed by RA Survey as the necessary printing contract had yet to be negotiated. The last R502 map sheets, by both organisations, were published between 1966 and 1968 although some sheets were still be reprinted as late as the early 1980s due to delays In the NTMS program.


Lines (1992) summarised the program as follows:


When published in its entirety, there were 540 sheets in the series. The large majority were planimetric maps, with about 23% being contoured and published with layer tints by the Survey Corps. The layer tint range was 0-250-500-1000 feet and then at continuing 500 feet intervals. The contoured sheets were mostly in New South Wales and Queensland. There was a good deal of information available from larger scale Army and State mapping in New South Wales and in north Queensland, including the Cape York Peninsula, where the Army's earlier priorities included 32 contoured sheets.


Lines went on to say that the 1: 250 000 scale R502 series map sheets were all published to Provisional or First Edition standards except three sheets in the Esperance area of Western Australia. These sheets (Ravensthorpe, Esperance and Mondrian Island) were produced as interim editions with first editions expected within the next twelve months. The 540 maps sheets in the R502 series were published as a joint effort by the two Commonwealth mapping agencies, with RA Survey publishing 300 and National Mapping 240 sheets. As far as can be established from records available, the base compilations and publishing for the 540 sheets were shared as shown in Table 2 below.



Base compilations

Maps Published





















































N.S.W. & A.C.T.



























% of Total







Table 2 : Summary of R502 Series Compilations and Map Publication


Figure 16 – Part of an R502 series map showing revised detail in magenta overprint.


Lines continued that in general the compilation material received from State sources required colour separated fair drawings and typesetting to be prepared by the publishing agency. RA Survey had a self-contained printing capacity more dedicated to map printing than was the Commonwealth Government Printer (that National Mapping used for its maps) and was able to accept a higher work load of the material coming from State sources.


Even as the last of the R502 map sheets was being printed, a program of map revision was being undertaken by National Mapping. Ground inspection by vehicle, augmented with information from local administrative and other sources, provided most of the new information to be included on the revised map sheets. The changes were overprinted in magenta, together with the following marginal note:


Information in magenta is the result of a partial ground examination in 19(68 or 69).

Positions are approximate.


As can be seen in the section of the R502 map sheet shown in Figure 16, the revision was as extensive as the information gathered permitted. Only the early years’ revisions were incorporated this way. Later revision information was used to modify the reproduction material before printing the revised map; this allowed all revised detail to be printed in its correct ‘colours’.


National Mapping’s R502 map revision program lasted until 1975 and resulted in a total of 88 map sheets being updated. Table 3 summarises the revision program (Division of National Mapping 1978). The revision program meant that the R502 map series was kept as up-to-date as possible until the National Topographic Map Series (NTMS) version was introduced in later years.











3 (M-3)








3 (M-3)








23 (M-8)































































Table 3: Summary of National Mapping’s R502 Map Revision Program.

Note: The “(M-3)” and “(M-8)” notations in the table indicate that in these years three sheets and

eight sheets of the revised maps had the updates overprinted in magenta.


A set of R502 series maps was provided to the author by Geoscience Australia to assist in the preparation of this paper. These maps had been scanned and included all but seven of the 540 sheets in the series. Appendix B contains a table of specific details extracted from each of the map sheets provided. The information from the table was used to generate the following graphics which provide an informative visual summary of various aspects of the R502 series; refer to Figures 17 to 22.



Concluding remarks

Finalisation of the 1: 250 000 scale R502 series of topographic maps meant that Australia had for the first time complete uniform map coverage. The series was at a scale that the majority of map users seeking such topographic information found useful. This outcome was a significant achievement for a relatively young nation with a small population and a vast geographic area. Nevertheless, it was a national information infrastructure milestone that appears to have passed with little formal acknowledgement of either the event or of the people who helped to achieve it.


The geodetic survey of Australia which provided substantial horizontal control for the R502 series mapping program was achieved some decades after its need was first mooted. However, this significant achievement received some recognition. It was acknowledged in the April 1974 Information Service Newsletter of the Directorate of Overseas Surveys of Great Britain in an article that stated: the Australian geodetic network, a great part of it completed in ten years, must always be historically one of the survey wonders of the world. Unfortunately, it seems no such accolade was accorded the R502 map series, its progress forgotten with the 1965 government announcement of a new, more precise and complete mapping series to be completed in just 10 years.


It is thus hoped that this paper has helped the reader to understand and appreciate the significance of the R502 map series and to not only belatedly acknowledge the many forgotten survey and mapping personnel who helped to bring it to fruition, but also the many with the foresight and determination to focus the government’s attention again and again to fill the ghastly blank once and for all.



Figure 17 – R502 compilation by Agency.


Figure 18 – R502 publication by Agency.


Figure 19 – R502 published maps with contours.


Figure 20 – R502 maps published carrying “Warning - not field checked”.


Figure 21 – R502 maps overprinted with updates in magenta.


Figure 22 - R502 maps and year of revision.




I would like to acknowledge the late J.D. (Joe) Lines for his book Australia on Paper that provided a reliable time-line for the events described above and the summary referenced. Further, I acknowledge Mr Charlie Watson for the information at Appendix A and Ms Quentin Slade of the Map Section, National Library of Australia, for assisting me to gain access to BT (Trevor) Tyson’s book, The Topographical Map Series of Australia. As well I thank Messrs John Knight, Alan Swift, Graeme Larkin and Colin Kimber who kindly provided historical information from sources in Canberra. In addition I thank the numerous people who generously supplied the photographs and documents used to illustrate aspects of this paper. I also gratefully acknowledge Mr Laurie McLean’s valuable contribution and comments on various draft versions of this paper. Geoscience Australia’s kind permission to reproduce the map sections is appreciated and it is acknowledged that this material is released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia Licence.






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Australian Survey Committee. (1929) Report on the Need for a Geodetic and Topographical Survey of Australia, The Australian Surveyor, 1929, pp. 6-19.


Australian Survey Committee. (1935) Second Report on the need for a Geodetic and Topographical Survey for Australia, The Australian Surveyor, June 1935, pp. 352-361.


Biddle, C.A. (undated) Heights by Aneroid Barometer, A 15 page booklet written while Senior Lecturer in Surveying, University College, London.


Brown, R. Ll. (1951) Report to the Minister for the Department of the Army, Commonwealth of Australia.


Cannon, M. (1987) The Exploration of Australia, Readers Digest Services Pty Ltd, Sydney, NSW, ISBN 0 86438 036 4


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Coulthard-Clark, C. D. (2000) Australia’s Military Map-Makers: The Royal Australian Survey Corps 1915-96, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, ISBN 0 19 551343 6.


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Directorate of Overseas Surveys. (1974) Directorate of Overseas Surveys, Great Britain, Information Service Newsletter, April 1974.


Division of National Mapping. (undated) General Instructions for Barometric Levelling with Aircraft Type Altimeters, 8 page booklet.


Division of National Mapping. (1968) Index Map to R502 Series 1:250,000, MISC/68/251, Sept. 1968.


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Appendix A


Military Series Designation


From 1910 until early post-World War II, standards for Australian topographic mapping had generally followed those of the United Kingdom. But post-war, Australia was drawn into broader strategic collective security alliances and it was Australia’s membership of the 1954 South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) for collective defence that was the immediate driver for standardisation with military allies, in particular the United States and United Kingdom.


To achieve military interoperability with allies it was necessary to have standards and specifications for that point of interface and for exchange of information in a meaningful and reliable way. The 1952 ANZUS Treaty is Australia’s most important defence alliance, but it is the world’s largest collective defence alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which drives western military interoperability standards. Although Australia is not a member of NATO, it was soon drawn into that interoperability arena through its relationships with major allies, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada who are all members of NATO and who had formed the group of America Britain Canada (ABC) Armies in 1947. From 1954 to 1977, Australia, United States and United Kingdom were all members of South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) whose interoperability standards, known as SEASTAG, generally flowed from the NATO standards, known as STANAG. In 1963, the Australian Army became a member of ABC, to form ABCA (America Britain Canada Australia) which since 2006 included New Zealand, using the Five Nations Mapping, Charting and Geodesy Conference, of map production agencies, as its advisory forum on those matters. STANAG are considered by ABCA nations for ratification as standardisation agreements known as QSTAG (Quadripartite). As the United States, United Kingdom and Canada have normally already ratified the STANAG it is generally an easy process for ABCA ratification. QSTAGs were the basis of military standards and specifications adopted by the Survey Corps and it was through the Corps’ membership of the National Mapping Council that content in some QSTAGs was considered for adoption as standards in the national survey and mapping programs.


The Five Nations Mapping, Charting and Geodesy Conference was the key multi-lateral forum for not only military mapping programs and interoperability, but for sharing information and technical developments in all aspects of geodesy, topographic mapping, aeronautic charting and hydrographic charting. Bi-lateral arrangements between members of Five Nations Conference were also of great mutual benefit for exchange of topographic information in Australia’s area of strategic interest and information sharing for survey/mapping/charting system development.


Maps Series identification followed the military convention, probably initiated by the United Kingdom but adopted by the United States, to provide a unique global series identifier for all series topographic mapping. There are four parts to the designation:-


major area covered

the scale range

sub area covered, and

sequence in that scale range.



Major Area covered


Represented by an alphabetic (A-Z) or numeric (1-9) symbol related to the specific country/region. For example, Australia is R, P.N.G. is T, Vietnam is L, Burma/Thailand is U, World is 1 etc.



The Scale range


Represented by a number (0-9) indicating the scale range:      5M and smaller           1

2M to 5M                     2

2M to 510,000              3

510,000 to 255,000         4

255,000 to 150,000         5

150,000 to 70,000         6

70,000 to 35,000          7

                                                                 larger than 35,000 excluding Town Plans         8

                                                                                              Town Plans all scales             9

                                                                                                   Photomaps all scales           0



Sub Area covered


Represented by a number (0-9) indicating the area of coverage within the major area:


No sub area (the series covers the whole major area)     0

WA             1

NT              2

QLD            3

SA               4

VIC/NSW    5

TAS             6



Sequence in that Scale range


Represented by a number (1-9) indicating the numeric sequence in that scale range. For example first coverage would be 1, second coverage 2 etc.



Deciphering the R502 designation:


Using the explanation of the above elements R502 means:


R indicates the Australian area;


5 indicates a scale range between 1:150,000 and 1: 255,000,  


0 indicates that there is no sub area (the series covers the whole major area), and


2 indicates that it is the second series in the 5th scale range.



Other examples:


Some other examples explaining the use of these designations are:


the old 4 mile to the inch series which preceded the 1:250,000, R502 series was R501;


the military Joint Operations Graphic (JOG) series 1501; the 1 indicating a world series;


a Queensland 1:100,000 is R631;


a Queensland 1:50,000 is R733 as the 1:63,360 (inch to a mile) and imperial 1:50,000 preceded this series;


a NSW 1:25,000 is R851 and a 1:25,000 orthophoto map of NSW is R051.




Appendix B


An Analysis of the R502 Series of Topographic Maps


This table provides specific details on each of the map sheets comprising the R502 series and was used to generate the graphics shown in the paper.