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Posts Tagged ‘atlas

“What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable?”*…




Now that we’re corralled into our homes and apartments, something seems pre-modern in how our worlds have shrunk. Unlike past quarantines, we’re also connected by digital technology to the rest of the globe, calling to mind poet John Donne’s line from a 1633 poem about making “one little room an everywhere.” Donne came of age able to envision a mental map of the globe based on new and detailed evidence about a dizzying array of locations. His poetry is replete with globes, maps, and atlases. What’s considered to be the first atlas was first available in an Antwerp print shop 450 years ago [see here] only two years before Donne was born. It was large, handsome, and expensive, with the grandiose title of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or in English Theater of the Orb of the World. Donne was undoubtedly familiar with it. Produced by the cartographer Abraham Ortelius, it was one of the most popular books of the era. Ortelius had invented the world.


Never before had all cartographic knowledge been compiled together; never before could a reader imagine the totality of the Earth so completely…

Ortelius wasn’t the first mapmaker to be concerned with what the coastlines actually looked like, or with making sure that islands were in the right location. But he was the first to gather all of that detailed material in a single place. Those who purchased the Theatrum were not unlike those first seeing The Blue Marble, a photograph of Earth the members of the 1972 Apollo 17 mission took from space.

As with that image, Ortelius’ atlas birthed a new mental geography, a new imagined space. If Medieval thinkers saw themselves as living in a symbolic and allegorical geographic order, then the Theatrum presented the physical world in its totality. The cartographer didn’t prove that the world was round (people already knew that) or that the world was large (they knew that too) but he gave people the mental images necessary to imagine themselves on that large, round globe. Ortelius gave us not disenchantment, but a differing enchantment—a sense of the sheer magnitude of the planet.

It was the most expensive book ever published (up to then), and one of the most impactful: “The Book That Invented the World.”

* David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas


As we find our places, we might recall that it was on this date in 1790 that Peruvian-Spanish explorer and cartographer Manuel Quimper began his exploration and mapping of The Strait of Juan de Fuqua (known until a few years earlier as The North Straits).  Running into the Pacific at the northern extreme of what is now Washington State, the center of the Strait defines the international boundary between Canada and the United States (and in earlier maps, per the link in the quote above, contributed incorrectly to defining California as an island).

Manuel_Quimper source


“Few things are more enjoyable than lingering over the atlas and plotting a trip”*…


atlas of outer space


I’m excited to finally share a new design project this week! Over the past year and a half I’ve been working on a collection of ten maps on planets, moons, and outer space. To name a few, I’ve made an animated map of the seasons on Earth, a map of Mars geology, and a map of everything in the solar system bigger than 10km…

Data visualizer extraordinaire Eleanor Lutz has announced “An Atlas of Space.”

Follow her progress on her blog Tabletop Whale, or on Twitter or Tumblr.

[TotH to Kottke]

* J. Maarten Troost


As we see stars, we might spare a thought for Daniel Kirkwood; he died on this date in 1895. Kirkwood’s most significant contribution came from his study of asteroid orbits. When arranging the then-growing number of discovered asteroids by their distance from the Sun, he noted several gaps, now named Kirkwood gaps in his honor, and associated these gaps with orbital resonances with the orbit of Jupiter.  Further, Kirkwood also suggested a similar dynamic was responsible for Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings, as the result of a resonance with one of Saturn’s moons.  In the same paper, he was the first to correctly posit that the material in meteor showers is cometary debris.

Kirkwood also identified a pattern relating the distances of the planets to their rotation periods, which was called Kirkwood’s Law. This discovery earned Kirkwood an international reputation among astronomers; he was dubbed “the American Kepler” by Sears Cook Walker, who claimed that Kirkwood’s Law proved the widely held Solar Nebula Theory.  (In the event, the “Law” has since become discredited as new measurements of planetary rotation periods have shown that the pattern doesn’t hold.)

Daniel_Kirkwood source


“The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go”*…




Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660), an atlas of the stars from the Dutch Golden Age of cartography, maps the structure of the heavens in twenty-nine extraordinary double-folio spreads. We are presented with the motions of the celestial bodies, the stellar constellations of the northern hemisphere, the old geocentric universe of Ptolemy, the newish heliocentric one of Copernicus [as above], and Tycho Brahe’s eccentric combination of the two — in which the Moon orbits the Earth, and the planets orbit the Sun, but the Sun still orbits the Earth. The marginal area of each brightly coloured map is a hive of activity: astronomers bent over charts debate their findings, eager youngsters direct their quadrants skywards, and cherubs fly about with pet birds in tow…

northern stars

The Northern Stellar Hemisphere of Antiquity

More marvelous maps of the heavens at “The Celestial Atlas of Andreas Cellarius (1660)

* Galileo (quoting a librarian at the Vatican)


As we look to the stars, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that Sir William Rowan Hamilton conceived the theory of quaternions.  A physicist, astronomer, and mathematician who made important contributions to classical mechanics, optics, and algebra, he had been working since the late 1830s on the basic principles of algebra, resulting in a theory of conjugate functions, or algebraic couples, in which complex numbers are expressed as ordered pairs of real numbers.  But he hadn’t succeeded in developing a theory of triplets that could be applied to three-dimensional geometric problems.  Walking with his wife along the Royal Canal in Dublin, Hamilton realized that the theory should involve quadruplets, not triplets– at which point he stopped to carve carve the underlying equations in a nearby bridge lest he forget them.



Written by LW

October 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All things are metaphors”*…


For much of the 17th century, Europeans believed that California was an island.  Indeed, readers who have suffered through your correspondent’s explanation of scenario planning know that a 17th century map in which California is depicted as an island, very like the one above, figures into the talk as an example of the way that incorrect maps– cartographical or mental maps– are hard to change and often lead us astray.

But as this appreciation of Stanford’s collection of California maps points out, there may be a deeper truth to the depiction:

The fact that a number of explorers knew that California was not an island was not enough to nip the idea in the bud. Yet it would be a shame to think of the idea as simply an error, a cartographical crease which needed ironing out. Even though maps may be presented as accurate, they cannot escape their metaphorical nature. They reflect much more than physical geography. That California was mapped as an island for so long speaks to its separateness. The writer Rebecca Solnit, a student of the Stanford maps, has argued that, “An island is anything surrounded by difference.” The state contains around 2,000 plant species found nowhere else. Its borders comprise dizzying mountains, harsh deserts and immense ocean. It has been home to the Gold Rush, the psychedelic era, the silicon boom. In several ways then, California is an island…

More (and more marvelous maps) at “Maps Showing California as an Island.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


As we remember that “the map is not the territory,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1570 that Gilles Coppens de Diest at Antwerp published Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum— a collection of 53 maps that is generally agreed to have been the first modern atlas.

Interestingly (for reasons explained in the article linked above), Ortelius’ maps, which pre-date the charts in the Stanford collection, portray California more accurately.

Title page from a 1606 edition



Written by LW

May 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It is wonderful to be here in the great state of Chicago”*…


A page from Anna Heermans’ 1875 project, A Hieroglyphic Geography of the United States

These pages… tell little stories about the New England states and New York, in picture form. Published by E.P. Dutton & Co., a company that then specialized in juvenile texts, the pictorial atlas was intended for children’s use—an attempt to bring life to geographical information through imagery.

A rebus (the broad name for this type of writing system) replaces words, or parts of words, with pictures. To take one example, from the New Hampshire page:

Translation: “Mt Washington, the most elevated peak, is 6,234 feet high. The summit is an acre of comparatively level ground, upon which is the Tip Top House.”

More (and larger) examples, and a discussion their significance in the history of geographical education, at the redoubtable Rebecca Onion’s “Go Ahead, Try to Decode This 19th-Century Rebus Atlas of New England.”

* Dan Quayle, who might have avoided the gaffe had he paid more attention in geography class… or not.


As we consult our maps, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that the first transcontinental air race in the U.S. got underway.  63 planes set out from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, vying to be the first to reach San Francisco, 5,400 miles away.  The winner, Belvin W. Maynard, an Army Lieutenant and Baptist preacher from North Carolina, reached the Presidio in his Havilland DH-4 (Named “Hello Frisco”) in just over three days. He and his two-man crew rested and serviced the plane for another three days; and then returned to Long Island in just under four days.  The victory made Maynard such a celebrity that the Army assigned him to PR and recruiting duty, and his native Winston-Salem named its first airfield for him.

Soon thereafter, however, Maynard fell afoul of the Army.  While delivering a series of both lectures and sermons in New York in November of 1919, the Flying Parson averred that many military airmen were accustomed to flying drunk, and that drunkenness had been the cause of the twelve deaths during a recent aerial derby.  In a sermon just days later, he condemned the women of New York for their lack of clothes and frivolous lifestyles.  The Army yanked him off of the publicity trail and discharged him.



Written by LW

October 8, 2014 at 1:01 am

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