Posts Tagged ‘cartography’
Lake Superior contains a phantom island. After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris established the boundary between the United States and Canada as running “through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux to the Long Lake,” following an inaccurate map created by John Mitchell. In the 1820s surveyors discovered that Phelipeaux does not exist, and the boundary had to be negotiated anew.
Around the same time, the dramatically named Mountains of Kong appeared on maps of West Africa, apparently placed there originally by English cartographer James Rennell. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French explorer Louis Gustave Binger discovered that they don’t exist either. They persisted in Goode’s World Atlas until 1995.
One of the wonders at The Futility Closet– “an idler’s miscellany of compendious amusements.”
As we remember that the map is not the territory, we might recall that it was on this date in 1759 that the the first exhibition galleries and the reading room of the British Museum opened. The institution had been established in 1753 by King George II and Parliament– the first of a new kind of museum: belonging to neither church nor king, freely open to the public, and aiming to collect everything. With the subsequent acquisition of of Montagu House in Bloomsbury, and the inclusion of several “foundation collections” (including the Lindisfarne Gospels, the sole surviving copy of Beowulf, and many others of the most treasured books now in the British Library), the museum moved toward reality. (The Trustees had rejected Buckingham House, on the site now occupied by Buckingham Palace.)
Among the earliest treasures on display in 1759 were a starved cat, a rat, a tree trunk gnawed by a beaver, and a mummified thumb found beneath the St. James’s Coffee House. This emphasis on books, manuscripts, and “natural history” (perhaps better said, “cabinet of curiosities”) began to shift when in 1772 the Museum acquired for £8,400 its first significant antiquities: Sir William Hamilton’s “first” collection of Greek vases.
“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected”*…
Just one of the scores of maps available at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab’s Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States.
And as a (more global) bonus: Edward Quin’s 1830 Historical Atlas in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods, with an Historical Narrative, featuring 21 plates that visually depicted what Quin called “the world as known at different periods.” Dramatic clouds cover the “unknown,” rolling back slowly as time moves on.
Click the image above or here for an enlarged and animated version of the GIF that runs through the plates in sequence, from 2348 B.C., “The Deluge” (Quin, not unusually for his time period, was a Biblical literalist) through A.D. 1828, “End of the General Peace.”
* Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
As we travel through time, we might recall that it was on this date in 1861 that New York City Mayor Fernando Wood, a “Copperhead” (sympathizer of the incipient Confederate cause), suggested to the New York City Council that New York secede and declare itself a free city, to continue its profitable cotton trade with the Confederacy. Wood’s Democratic machine was concerned to maintain the revenues (which depended on Southern cotton) that maintained the patronage that provided its electoral margins.
“I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future”*…
Jason Rentfrow and his team at the University of Cambridge analyzed a total of 1.5 million online surveys to create a psychographic survey of the U.S. The results, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, cluster traits together, with the darker colored areas indicating higher correlation… and reveal three distinct regions: “Friendly & Conventional” (blue), which extends across the Midwest into the South; “Relaxed & Creative” (green), made up mostly of Western states; and “Temperamental & Uninhibited” (orange), which takes in the Northeast, plus Texas.
* Jack Kerouac, On the Road
As we self-diagnose, we might spare a thought for Thomas Phillip ”Tip” O’Neill, Jr.; he died on this date in 1994. Elected to the Massachusetts State House of Representatives in 1936 (at age 24), he rose to become that body’s first Democratic Speaker in 1949, a post he held until he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1952. In 1977, at the same time that Jimmy Carter became President, O’Neill became Speaker of the House. He retired in 1987, making him the only Speaker to serve for five complete consecutive Congresses, and the second longest-serving Speaker in U.S. history (after Sam Rayburn).
It was, of course, O’Neill who famously reminded us that “All politics is local.”
This speculative map imagines a world divided into 665 territories of approximately equal population (10-11 million people each). The logic of the map does not entirely discount existing ethnic or national boundaries, but neither is it beholden to them. The particular political rationale behind these divisions is not addressed – whether these are independent nation-states or provinces of a world government is left to the imagination of the viewer. The map is rather meant to provide a visual representative of the radically unequal distribution of the world’s population. For example, one New York City and Long Island = half of Karachi = one Russian Far East = one of every Pacific Island. What does this make you think about the current distribution of the world’s resources, the movement of populations and the arbitrariness of territorial divisions?
Explore this “geography thought experiment” at World of Equal Districts.
As we ponder proximity, we might send hard-boiled birthday greetings to James Myers “Jim” Thompson; he was born on this date in 1906. Arguably the finest of all pulp-crime writers, Thompson began his career as a “traditional” author, publishing his first two novels, Now and on Earth and Heed the Thunder as hardbacks. After these books failed to find wide audiences, Thompson found his voice in crime fiction, grinding out hellish tales for paperback mills such as Lion Books and Gold Medal. While he was quite prolific– Thompson once produced 12 books in 2 years– his crime fiction wasn’t paying the bills; so he turned to screenwriting, working with Stanley Kubrick on The Killing and Paths of Glory, to writing for TV series (Mackenzie’s Raiders, Cain’s Hundred, and Convoy), and to penning novelizations (e.g., Ironside).
But through it all, Thompson wrote thrillers– noir nuggets that included The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, A Hell of a Woman, and Pop. 1280. Thompson was convinced that recognition would come to him only after his death; and while two of his novels (The Killer Inside Me and The Getaway) were made into films during his lifetime, he was, sadly, largely right. Since his death in 1977, both those films have been remade (The Getaway, twice, if one counts the first half of the Rodriguez/Tarantino mash-up From Dusk ’til Dawn), and several others adapted: The Grifters (nominated for four Oscars), After Dark, My Sweet, and This World, Then the Fireworks, among others. More to the point, Thompson’s writing has increasingly been appreciated for the marvel that it is.
The guy was over the top. The guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn’t know the meaning of the word stop. There are three brave lets inherent in the forgoing: he let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it.
- Stephen King
If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett & Cornell Woolrich could have joined together in some ungodly union & produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it.
- Washington Post
The fifth volume of Raymond Howgego’s Enyclopedia of Exploration: Invented and Apocryphal Narratives of Travel covers 640 imaginary places, from Aak to Zu-Vendis…
For every Utopia or Gulliver’s Travels, bursting with fantasy and politics, there is a book like John Brickell’s Natural History of North Carolina — an influential but banal account of the young American colony. Published in 1737, it turned out to be part plagiarism and part invention. Many of the texts Howgogo explores fall somewhere in between, toying with the limits of credibility…
Many were invented for personal gain. In 1801, under the pseudonym of Christian Freidrich Damberger, a German writer published a wildly successful and false account of travels in the African hinterland. The hoax was revealed soon afterwards, but not before the book was translated into French and English, where its sales required at least seven printings…
Other times, the profit motive was more complex. The Spanish explorer Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado, for example, claimed at the turn of the 17th century to have discovered a method of calculating longitude with a compass, and offered to divulge his methods for 5,000 ducats. Maldonado also tried to convince Philip III that he had found the Northwest Passage and argued that his “discovery” should be protected by the Crown.
Narratives with political or social ends are well-represented too. Sometimes, these stories were so powerful that they inspired real-life action. Theodor Hertzka’s Freeland was one such tract, though the 15-strong group that attempted to recreate his vision in the Rift Valley was not up to the task, and had to be rescued by the British government a few years later. The American Alexander Horr was slightly more successful, founding the Freeland-inspired town of Equality on the banks of the Puget Sound in 1896. Many utopian authors spawned similar real-life followings.
In the case of Shangri-La, utopia and profit collided. Now a common term for earthly paradise, Shangri-La was invented by the English novelist James Hilton in his book Lost Horizon. Hilton never claimed Shangri-La was real — by the 1930s, the report of the 250-year-old High Lama was a bridge too far — but the Chinese government is trying to capitalize on it, rechristening and rebuilding the Tibetan county of Zhongdian in an attempt to attract Western tourists.
The entries only get weirder. I was not aware, for example, of an entire genre of exploration writing that used travel as a thinly veiled metaphor for sexual discovery. Samuel Cock’s (another nom de plume) 1741 book A Voyage to Lethe is a classic example: on his way to deliver a cargo in Buttock-Land, he passes through “a landscape composed of female and male body-parts… replete with pintle trees and monuments, furry-mouthed caves, female natives with insatiable sexual desires and male natives with enormous, full functioning ‘machines’.”
Explore further at “A Complete History of Fake Journeys.”
Image above: “Gulliver in Brobdingnag“
As we plot our courses, we might congratulate Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia; on this date in 1678 she became the first woman to earn a PhD. The degree was conferred after her brilliant career as a student at the University of Padua.
Her accomplishment is memorialized in the Cornaro Window in the West Wing of the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College.