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Posts Tagged ‘ballooning

“Like guns and crosses, maps can be good or bad, depending on who’s holding them, who they’re aimed at, how they’re used, and why”*…


World Map

“A New and Accurat [sic] Map of the World,” John Speed 1626. For background, see here

We expect maps to tell us the truth. They seem trustworthy, after all: when you need to figure out how to get from Copley Square to Fenway Park, or if you’re interested in comparing the income levels of Boston’s neighborhoods, the first reference material you’re likely to seek out is a map.

But maps, truth, and belief have a complicated relationship with one another. Every map is a representation of reality, and every representation, no matter how accurate and honest, involves simplification, symbolization, and selective attention. Even when a map isn’t actively trying to deceive its readers, it still must reduce the complexity of the real world, emphasizing some features and hiding others. Compressing the round globe onto a flat sheet of paper, and converting places, people, and statistics into symbols, lines, and colors is a process inherently fraught with distortion.

Meanwhile, what we understand to be true is based on what we have seen in maps. For example, how do you know that New Zealand is an island off the coast of Australia if you’ve never been on a ship in the Tasman Sea or flown up in space to see it yourself? That fact about the world is one you can believe because you’ve seen it reproduced over and over again in maps produced by people and institutions that you trust…

Because they seem to show the world how it “really is,” maps produce a powerful sense of trust and belief.  But maps and data visualizations can never communicate a truth without any perspective at all.  They are social objects whose meaning and power are produced by written and symbolic language and whose authority is determined by the institutions and contexts in which they circulate.  From the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, a remarkable online exhibit that explores the many ways in which maps and data can mislead: BENDING LINES: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception. (Lots of fascinating information and LOTS of glorious maps!)

See also: “How to Detect the Distortions of Maps.”

And lest we underestimate the innate challenges facing cartographers, “The U.S. Is Getting Shorter, as Mapmakers Race to Keep Up.”

* Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps


As we aspire to accuracy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1784 that Élisabeth Thible became the first women to ascend in an untethered balloon (eight months after the first manned balloon flight).  When the balloon left the ground Thible, dressed as the Roman goddess Minerva, and her pilot, Monsieur Fleurant sang two duets from Monsigny’s La Belle Arsène, a celebrated opera of the time.  The flight lasted 45 minutes, covered four kilometers, and achieved an estimated height of 1,500 meters.  Their audience included King Gustav III of Sweden, in whose honor the balloon was named.


Élisabeth Thible on a later flight



“Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?”*…


Detail from the “Balloon-Prospect” image, featured in Thomas Baldwin’s Airopaidia (1786) [source]

Although it is often dismissed as a comedy moment, an amusing episode in the history of flight, ballooning had a profound effect on the epistemological model of being in the world and viewing landscape. That balloons are innately comic is undeniable, and their physical attributes were a gift to satirists of the late eighteenth century, who riffed delightedly on the graphic and semantic associations of this new and somewhat unlikely technology. Furthermore, in the first few decades of ballooning, its utility was unclear. Although flight had been achieved, the power to navigate had not, so balloons could not be used as aerial transport. Once airborne, balloonists were dependent on the mysteries of the upper air and its currents to carry them along. In this captive state, aeronauts set about conducting experiments with a full array of scientific instruments, their own senses and perception being among these. Tasting ginger to see if it was as spicy, or undertaking a complex mathematical equation to test mental acuity at altitude, went alongside checking height and air pressure.

In some cases, science funding had got them up there in the first place. The first successful manned balloon flights were conducted in France with state support. The ascents themselves became known as “experiments”, and were concerned with an exploration of the upper air. In Britain, the Royal Society withheld support from such endeavours, so the first British ascents were underwritten, in the words of one early balloonist, by “a tax on the curiosity of the public”. This affected the cultural profile of ballooning in England: it was always more of a spectacle than a science. In 1785 Tiberius Cavallo, a member of the Royal Society and author of the first English history of ballooning, concluded that:

…many, if not the greatest number of the aerial voyages, though said to be purposely made for the improvement of science, were performed by persons absolutely incapable of accomplishing this purpose; and who, in reality, had either pecuniary profit alone in view, or were stimulated to go up with a balloon, for the sake of the prospect, and the vanity of adding their names to the list of aerial adventurers….

The late-18th Century version of Stewart’s impulse: “‘For the Sake of the Prospect’: Experiencing the World from Above in the Late 18th Century.

* Stewart Brand, as part of his 1966 campaign to have NASA release the then-rumored satellite image of the entire Earth as seen from space


As we jettison the sandbags, we might send high-flying birthday greetings to Amelia Earhart; she was born on this ate in 1897.  An aviation pioneer and author, she was the fist female to fly solo across the Atlantic (a distinction for which she received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross).

Earhart set many other records, wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots.  She joined the faculty of the Purdue University aviation department in 1935 as a visiting faculty member to counsel women on careers and help inspire others with her love for aviation, and was a member of the National Woman’s Party, and an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

During an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight of the globe in 1937 in a Purdue-funded Lockheed Model 10 Electra, Earhart disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean.  Fascination with her life, career, and disappearance continues to this day.



Written by LW

July 24, 2016 at 1:01 am

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