William Austin Burt

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William Austin Burt
sketch, before 1873
William Austin Burt

June 13, 1792
DiedAugust 18, 1858(1858-08-18) (aged 66)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Resting placeElmwood Cemetery,
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
EmployerUnited States government
Known for
  • Inventor
  • government surveyor
TitleHon. Wm. A. Burt
Political partyJeffersonian Republican
SpousePhoebe Cole
Children5 sons
The "wedding cake house" in Washington Township, Michigan
Historic plaque
Surveying crew at Marquette
Burt at Elmwood Cemetery, Detroit
Letter selector and the printing hammer
Solar compass
Equatorial sextant

William Austin Burt (June 13, 1792 – August 18, 1858) was an American inventor, legislator, surveyor, and millwright.

Burt was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and lived in Michigan from 1822 until his death in 1858. He was a member of the Michigan Territorial Legislature, 1826–7. He served as Mount Vernon's first postmaster from 1832 to 1856. He was a Macomb County Circuit Court judge in 1833, a state legislator in 1853, and a deputy U.S. surveyor from 1833 to 1853.[1] While surveying, he won acclaim for his accurate work on public land surveys. In 1857, Burt moved to Detroit, where he died a year later.[2]

Among Burt's numerous inventions were the typographer in 1829, which was a predecessor to the typewriter.[3] He also invented the solar compass, a surveying tool used in the Michigan Survey, employed in regions which had an abundance of minerals that would interfere with accurate readings when using ordinary instruments. While out surveying on September 19, 1844, in what is today Marquette County, Michigan, Burt discovered one of the largest iron ore deposits in the United States.[4] His solar compass and adaptations of it became standard instruments for the government land survey in much of the western US, and were used until GPS was available in the late 20th century. A historical plaque commemorates Burt at Stony Creek, near his home in Mt. Vernon, Michigan.

He was awarded the John Scott Medal by The Franklin Institute in 1834.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tuttle, Charles Richard (1873). General History of the State of Michigan, pp. 515–518. Detroit: R.D.S. Tyler & Co.
  2. ^ Tuttle (1873), p. 523.
  3. ^ Martin, John Bartlow (1986). Call It North Country: The Story of Upper Michigan, p. 47. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 081431869X.
  4. ^ Tuttle (1873), p. 520.


External links[edit]