Keith Waller (1922-2014)

The Pioneer of Electronic Distance Measuring in Australia

The iconic photo of Keith operating the Nat Map NASM-1 Geodimeter


Charles Keith Waller was born in Brisbane on 13 January 1922.  He was the son of Sydney Waller and his wife.  Keith grew up during the economic depression of the late 1920s and 1930s in the Brisbane suburbs of Nundah and Toowong.  His early employment included a period as a butcher’s boy making deliveries from his father’s butcher shop by bicycle and later a motor bike.


World War II Service

During World War II, Keith served with the Royal Australian Air Force.  He enlisted at the Brisbane suburb of Toowong on 30 January 1942, shortly after his twentieth birthday.  His known postings included a period at the Coomalie airstrip south of Darwin.  Keith was discharged from the RAAF on 20 March 1946.  At the time of his discharge Keith held the rank of Leading Aircraftman and was stationed at the RAAF’s No 5 Operational Training Unit that was then based at RAAF Station Williamtown, New South Wales.  Other notable staff at 5OTU during the mid-1940s included Flight Lieutenant Charles Bud Tingwell and Leading Aircraftman Jack Brabham.


Surveying Studies and Training

His RAAF service gave Keith the impetus to further his education under the repatriation scheme that was available for ex-servicemen after the war.  Initially he studied for his matriculation and later undertook a course at the University of Queensland (1948-1951) where he was awarded a Bachelor of Surveying degree.  Keith later became an authorised surveyor after serving articles under BF Brennan and AH Spowers.


Nat Map 1953-1959

On 21 August 1953, Keith was appointed as a Surveyor Grade 1 in the Melbourne-based Photogrammetric Survey Section of the then National Mapping Section within the Department of the Interior. The Section was then located at the All Saints Anglican Church Hall (Gregory Hall) in Chapel Street St Kilda East. Here Keith worked under Chief Topographic Surveyor GRL Rimington and later under Senior Surveyor HA Bill Johnson. (Lindsay Rimington had served in the then Australian Survey Corps prior to and later, on recall, during World War II. Bill Johnson joined National Mapping in February 1954 to lead its geodetic survey activities after a distinguished career with the Royal Australian Survey Corps.) From circa 1953, the National Mapping Section was sometimes referred to as the National Mapping Office. However, in terms of formal public service establishment, the National Mapping Section seems to have remained until 1956.


Introduction of the Geodimeter

In August 1954, Keith initiated the operational survey use of electronic distance measuring equipment in Australia when he used a Geodimeter Type NASM-1 to remeasure the Carrieton Base in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia; this was one of several geodetic base lines initially measured by the then Australian Survey Corps just before the start of World War II. During the 1954 Geodimeter field work Keith was assisted by surveyor Trevor Maxwell Austin (Nat Map 1954-1955) and by field assistant Norm Hawker. 

Over the next few years Keith Waller used the Geodimeter to carry out the measurement of various baselines and triangle sides in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland; locations included Cockburn, Benambra, Melbourne, Mildura, Ouyen, Thorpdale, Somerton (NSW), Jondaryan, Mt Ainslie (ACT) and Glen Waverley.  (As a member of the then Australian Survey Corps in the late 1930s, Bill Johnson had worked on the initial measurement of the Benambra baseline.)

During these Geodimeter field operations, Keith Waller was assisted, amongst others, by Norm Hawker and Bob James who both went on to have long careers with National Mapping.

In January 1954, Keith was promoted to Surveyor Grade 2 and in February 1955 he was promoted to Surveyor Grade 3 within the National Mapping Section of the Department of the Interior. In 1956, the National Mapping Section became the Division of National Mapping in the Department of National Development.

In March 1958, National Mapping undertook a short program of Geodimeter measurements for the then Tasmanian Department of Lands and Survey. These measurements were: Cambridge Base near Hobart; Mt Rumney to Mt Wellington; Waterhouse to Mt Cameron; Lileah to The Nut; and the Half mile baseline at Cressy. At the end of this program all future electronic distance measurements undertaken by Nat Map were with the various models of Tellurometer until the arrival of the Model 8 (Laser) Geodimeter at the end of 1968.


Introduction of the Tellurometer

In July 1957, Keith created another surveying milestone when he initiated the operational survey use of Tellurometers in Australia. National Mapping’s inaugural Tellurometer program ran from July to December 1957.  It commenced with familiarisation tests of Model MRA-1 (Instrument No 11), in the Melbourne area.  This was followed by a comprehensive measuring program in the Northern Territory.  Lines were measured in the triangulation figures in the Wauchope area followed by sixteen lines of the traverse northward to Powell Creek.  Two separate measurements were taken along each line, Master and Remote instruments changed place for the second measurement (as in the Model MRA-1 Tellurometers measurements could only be made with the Master instrument).

Further Tellurometer measurements of all sides of a triangulation figure were then undertaken on some primary stations close to Alice Springs, six lines were measured.  This was followed by measuring eight lines of traverse between Mt Wudinna and Penong in South Australia and test measurements at the Carrieton Base in the Flinders Ranges before the field party returned to Melbourne in early December 1957.

In March 1958, National Mapping undertook a short program of Geodimeter measurements for the then Tasmanian Department of Lands and Survey.  These measurements were: Cambridge Base near Hobart; Mt Rumney to Mt Wellington; Waterhouse to Mt Cameron; Lileah to The Nut; and the Half mile baseline at Cressy.  At the end of this program all future electronic distance measurements undertaken by Nat Map were with the various models of Tellurometer until the arrival of the Model 8 (Laser) Geodimeter at the end of 1968.

Later in 1958, Tellurometer measurements were completed on two traverses; one along the Northern Territory-South Australia border that covered a distance of 350 miles; and the other from Aileron (located to the north of Alice Springs) in the Northern Territory to Halls Creek in the north-east of Western Australia that covered a distance of 500 miles.  Prior to this work, modifications were made to the instruments to incorporate a crystal oven.  This modification solved a crystal overheating problem that was experienced the previous year.

In these early days of experience with the Tellurometer, as two measurements were required along each line, the method adopted was to swap ends with the instruments for the second measurement.  To save considerable travelling on the long Aileron to Halls Creek traverse it was decided to take one measurement only along each line on the way to Halls Creek and do the other measurement with the instruments reversed, on the way back.  On the outward journey, about half way to Halls Creek the C crystal failed and from then on a short base had to be laid out at each station to enable a rough calculation of the distance to be made as a check against gross error.

Keith Waller had to return to Melbourne from Halls Creek owing to illness in his family.  (Surveyor Malcolm Nicholas who had recently joined Nat Map from the Royal Australian Army Survey Corps took over and completed the return measurements.  MA Nicholas and Field Assistant J Slama took the Tellurometer to Macquarie Island with Nat Map’s Joe Lines later in 1958.)


Return to Queensland 1959

Early in 1959, having pioneered the use of both the Geodimeter and the Tellurometer in Australia, Keith Waller resigned after some five years service with National Mapping.  Following his resignation Keith returned to Brisbane, his home town, where he joined the Survey Office of the then Queensland Lands Department as a staff surveyor.


Geodimeter at Moogerah Dam

Peter O’Donnell (then a Cadet Surveyor with the Queensland Irrigation and Water Supply Commission and later an Assistant Director with National Mapping) recalled first meeting Keith Waller sometime later in 1959.  This meeting was at Moogerah Dam on Reynolds Creek just south of Aratula about 80 kilometres south-west of Brisbane.  Keith was there to use a Geodimeter to measure across the dam wall and Peter was impressed with the speed of the technology compared with the traditional chaining method.


Department of Mapping and Surveying Queensland

In late 1962, Keith was appointed Chief Topographic Surveyor and was in charge of mapping and photogrammetry activities.  In 1976, Keith was appointed Deputy Director (Mapping) and Deputy Surveyor General in the then Department of Mapping and Surveying.  Later Keith was appointed Director of the Division of Mapping and held that position until he retired at age 60 years in September1982. 

Bob Skitch worked as Deputy Director under Keith Waller for a year or so prior to Keith’s retirement.  Bob recalled Keith was one of the most humble men he had ever known.  (Bob Skitch had earlier had a distinguished 26-year career with the Royal Australian Survey Corps that included active service in Vietnam during 1966-67.  Between 1976 and 1980 he was the Commanding Officer of the Army Survey Regiment with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.)  Bob Skitch recalled that the national R502 series 1: 250,000 scale topographic maps became the basis of the Queensland Department’s excellent 1:250,000 scale cadastral series which together with a County Arbitrary Meridian provided Queensland with arguably the best cadastral map series in Australia. 

Many of the R502 series topographic maps in central and western Queensland were prepared by the Royal Australian Survey Corps.  These 1:250,000 scale topographic maps were controlled by astronomical determinations connected to cadastral corners and to the County Arbitrary Meridian; a method which halved the number of astro-fixes required to control a map area.  The Queensland Survey Office hand calculated long enclosed traverses through the cadastral network that provided a remarkable degree of consistency and made it eminently suitable for 1:250,000 scale topographic map control.  Keith Waller was for some years the conduit between RA Survey’s Northern Command Field Survey Unit, later the 1 Field Survey Squadron and the Queensland Survey Office on the 1:250,000 scale mapping activities of the two organisations.

Keith had been a member of the Institution of Surveyors, Queensland Division and was appointed a fellow of the Institution in 1970.  Keith was also a member of the Australian Institute of Cartographers and served a term as a member of the Surveyors Board of Queensland in 1980-82.

For many years after he retired Keith Waller applied himself to charitable work for older people including bus driving for the Nundah Golden Years senior citizens’ centre where Wendy Skitch (Bob’s wife) was the manager.  Keith was active in the Returned Services League where he was a life member and also as a Freemason where he had served a term as Worshipful Master.



Keith Waller died in Brisbane on 31 January 2014 at the age of 92 years.  Keith was survived by his son John, a Melbourne based computer graphics design artist.  Keith’s funeral service was held on 7 February 2014 in the chapel at the Brisbane City Council’s Pinnaroo Cemetery and Crematorium in Graham Street Bridgeman Downs.  Among the mourners were a number of Keith’s surveyor colleagues including John Cridland, Graham Ledlie, Ian McGhie, Rob Melloy, Ken Nelson, Bob Skitch, Frank Stomfai, and Len Weatherley.  Afterwards Keith Waller’s remains were cremated.


Prepared by Laurie McLean in July 2014



Some of the information in this article was drawn from a farewell to Keith Waller that appeared on pages 13 and 14 of the Anzac Edition-No 56 of the Royal Australian Survey Corps Association Queensland Branch Bulletin in April 2014.  Bob Skitch’s kind permission to draw on this information is greatly appreciated.  This Bulletin can be accessed from the Royal Australian Survey Corps Association’s website at:

Other information was drawn from an obituary for Keith Waller that was prepared by Ian McGhie with assistance from John Waller and Graham Ledlie in April 2014.  Ian McGhie has kindly given permission for Keith’s obituary to be displayed on the XNatmap website; it can be accessed at this link.

Former Queensland Survey Office surveyor and senior officer Rob Melloy kindly facilitated communications between the author and Ian McGhie and provided information on Keith’s funeral service.  (Rob Melloy and Laurie McLean worked together in the Queensland Department of Lands and successor organisations between 1989 and 2006.)

Details of National Mapping’s early Geodimeter and Tellurometer operations were drawn from Reg Ford’s 1979 work: The Division of National Mapping’s Part in the Geodetic Survey of Australia-Activities Based on the Melbourne Office 1951-1969; this work can be accessed on the XNATMAP website at:

Information on Keith Waller’s use of a Geodimeter at Moogerah Dam in 1959 came from a telephone conversation with Peter O’Donnell in July 2014.