Waldo R. Tobler, Geography Professor Emeritus, passes away

Waldo R. Tobler, professor emeritus of Geography, famed cartographer and founder of the first law of geography, passed away on February 20, 2018 at the age of eighty-eight.

Waldo received his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Washington in 1961. After graduating, he spent sixteen years at the University of Michigan. His service at UC Santa Barbara began in 1977 where he held the positions of Professor of Geography and Professor of Statistics until his retirement. He taught a range of courses, including the History of Cartography, Geographic Transformations, and Migration. Waldo was an active Professor Emeritus at UCSB until his death, and the Geography department and university benefited greatly from his decades of involvement.

Stuart Sweeney, Professor and Department Chair shares some of his fondest memories. “Waldo was always kind and generous with his time in all his interactions. He remained keenly interested in the department and frequently came to campus on Thursdays to attend Colloquium. At the conclusion of many student presentations, and sometimes job candidate talks, he would ask, ‘How will you know when you are finished?’ Which was his whimsical way of noting that the problem you were working on was ill-defined. In looking back at some of his articles, it’s his conversational tone and occasional whimsical insights that I so enjoyed,” said Sweeney. “In his classic 1970 article where he offhandedly penned the first law of geography, in defending the parsimony of his model of urban population growth, he noted: ‘The model I describe, for example, recognizes that people die, are born, and migrate. It does not explain why people die, are born, and migrate. Some would insist that I should incorporate more behavioral notions, but then it would be necessary to discuss the psychology of urban growth; to do this properly requires a treatise on the biochemistry of perception, which in turn requires discussion of the physics of ion interchange, and so on’ (1970, pp. 234).” The first law of geography is succinctly stated as: “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” Waldo invoked that law in modeling the growth of an urban region over time based upon relationships with nearby towns.  In a 2004 retrospective on his first law, after responding to comments by several prominent geographers who had taken up discussion, he concluded by saying: “I did not expect such a discussion when I wrote that paper in 1970. I was just having fun doing an animation in order to bring time into geography more explicitly” (2004, pp. 308).

Waldo was the recipient of many well deserved honors including: Member of the National Academy of Sciences, Honorary Fellow of the American Geographical Society, Osborn Maitland Miller Medal of the American Geographical Society (Outstanding contributions in Cartography or Geodesy), Meritorious Contributor Medallion of the Association of American Geographers, ESRI Lifetime Achievement in GIS Award, among others. “We will certainly miss his weekly visits, his keen insights, and our conversations,” shared Sweeney. Waldo was a great friend and colleague to many of us and he will be greatly missed.

A memorial gathering and reception took place on May 25th, 2018 on UCSB campus. Please click here to watch a recording of the event.


Tobler, W.R., 1970. A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region. Economic geography, 46(sup1), pp.234-240.

Tobler, W., 2004. On the first law of geography: A reply. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 94(2), pp.304-310.