(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘cartography

“If the map doesn’t agree with the ground the map is wrong”*…

Mercator’s depiction of Rupes Nigra

Maps from hundreds of years ago can be surprisingly accurate… or they can just be really, really wrong. Weird maps from history invent lands wholesale, distort entire continents, or attempt to explain magnetism planet-wide. Sometimes the mistakes had a surprising amount of staying power, too, getting passed from map to map over the course of years while there was little chance to independently verify…

Gerardus Mercator, creator of everyone’s favorite map projection, didn’t know what the north pole looked like. No one in his time really did. But they knew that magnetic compasses always pointed north, and so a theory developed: the north pole was marked by a giant magnetic black-rock island.

He quotes a description of the pole in a letter: “In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone (…) This is word for word everything that I copied out of this author [Jacobus Cnoyen] years ago.”

Mercator was not the first or only mapmaker to show the pole as Rupes Nigra, and the concept also tied into fiction and mythology for a while. The idea eventually died out, but people explored the Arctic in hopes of finding a passage through the pole’s seas for years before the pole was actually explored in the 1900s…

See five more confounding charts at “The Weird History of Extremely Wrong Maps.”

And for fascinating explanations of maps with intentional “mistakes,” see: “MapLab: The Legacy of Copyright Traps” and “A map is the greatest of all epic poems.”

* Gordon Livingston


As we find our way, we might spare a thought for Thomas Doughty; he was beheaded on this date in 1578. A nobleman, soldier, scholar, and personal secretary of Christopher Hatton, Doughty befriended explorer and state-sponsored pirate Francis Drake, then sailed with him on a 1577 voyage to raid Spanish treasure fleets– a journey that ended for Doughty in a shipboard trial for treason and witchcraft, and his execution.

Although some scholars doubt the validity of the charges of treason, and question Drake’s authority to try and execute Doughty, the incident set an important precedent: according to a history of the English Navy, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World by Arthur L. Herman, Doughty’s execution established the idea that a ship’s captain was its absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of its passengers.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 2, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Without geography you’re nowhere”*…

Finding meaning in maps…

You may not know it, but you’ve probably seen the Valeriepieris circle – it’s that circle on a map of the world, alongside the text ‘There are more people living inside this circle than outside of it’. The name ‘Valeriepieris’ is from the Reddit username of the person who posted it and in 2015 the circle was looked at in more detail by Danny Quah of the London School of Economics under the heading ‘The world’s tightest cluster of people‘. But of course it’s not actually a circle because it wasn’t drawn on a globe and it’s also a bit out of date now so I thought I’d look at this topic because I like global population density stuff. I’ll begin by posting a map of what I’m calling ‘The Yuxi Circle’ and then I’ll explain everything else below that – with lots of maps. As in the original circle, I decided to use a radius of 4,000 km, or just under 2,500 miles. Why Yuxi? Well, out of all the cities I looked at (more than 1,500 worldwide), Yuxi had the highest population within 4000km – just over 55% of the world’s population as of 2020…

More– including fascinating comparisons– at “The Yuxi Circle,” from Alasdair Rae (@undertheraedar)

* Jimmy Buffett


As we ponder population, we might recall that it was on this date in 1995 that the day-time soap opera As The World Turns aired its 10,000th episode. Created by Irna Phillips, it aired for 54 years (from April 2, 1956, to September 17, 2010); its 13,763 hours of cumulative narrative gave it the longest total running time of any television show. Actors including, Marissa Tomei, Meg Ryan, Amanda Seyfried, Julianne Moore, and Emmy Rossum all appeared on the series.

The 1956 cast


“Maps codify the miracle of existence”*…

… and almost always, something more…

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps”, says the seafaring raconteur Charles Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). “At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.'” Of course, these “blank spaces” were anything but. The no-man’s-lands that colonial explorers like Marlow found most inviting (the Congo River basin, Tasmania, the Andaman Islands) were, in fact, richly populated, and faced devastating consequences in the name of imperial expansion.

In the same troublesome vein as Marlow, Edward Quin’s Historical Atlas painted cartographic knowledge as a candle coruscating against the void of ignorance, represented in his unique vision by a broiling mass of black cloud. Each map represents the bounds of geographical learning at a particular point in history, from a specific civilizational perspective, beginning with Eden, circa “B.C. 2348”. In the next map titled “B.C. 1491. The Exodus of the Israelites”, Armenia, Assyria, Arabia, Aram, and Egypt form an island of light, pushing back the black clouds of unknowing. As history progresses — through various Roman dynasties, the reign of Charlemagne, and the Crusades — the foul weather retreats further. In the map titled “A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America”, the transatlantic exploits of the so-called Age of Discovery force Quin to employ a shift in scale — the luminescence of his globe now extends to include Africa and most of Asia, but North America hides behind cumulus clouds, with its “unnamed” eastern shores peeking out from beneath a storm of oblivion. In the Atlas‘ last map, we find a world without darkness, not a trace of cloud. Instead, unexplored territories stretch out in the pale brown of vellum parchment, demarcating “barbarous and uncivilized countries”, as if the hinterlands of Africa and Canada are awaiting colonial inscription. 

Looking back from a contemporary vantage, the Historical Atlas remains memorable for what is not shown. Quin’s cartography inadvertently visualizes the ideology of empire: a geographic chauvinism that had little respect for the knowledge of those beyond imperial borders. And aside from depicting the reach of Kublai Khan, his focus remains narrowly European and Judeo-Christian. While Quin strives for accuracy, he admits to programmatic omission. “The colours we have used being generally meant to point out and distinguish one state or empire from another. . . were obviously inapplicable to deserts peopled by tribes having no settled form of government, or political existence, or known territorial limits”. Instead of representing these groups, Quin, like his clouds, has erased them from view.

Clouds of Unknowing: Edward Quin’s (1830) Historical Atlas. From the David Rumsey Map Collection (via the Internet Archive), where you can view it all. Via the invaluable Public Domain Review (@PublicDomainRev).

* Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet


As we find our place, we might recall that it was on this date in 1971 that an epic mapping expedition began: NASA launched the Mariner 9 space probe, the first space craft to orbit Mars (or any other planet). Mariner 9 was designed to continue the atmospheric studies begun by Mariner 6 and 7, and to map over 70% of the Martian surface from the lowest altitude (930 mi) and at the highest resolutions (from 1,100 to 110 yards per pixel) of any Mars mission up to that point. After a spate of dust storms on the planet for several months following its arrival, the orbiter managed to send back clear pictures of the surface. Mariner 9 successfully returned 7,329 images over the course of its mission, which concluded in October 1972.


“Every history is a map”*…

Antoni Jażwiński’s Tableau Muet, based on the original “Polish System” for charting historical information, later revised in France and the United States, 1834 — Source.

How does one visualize history and chart time? Is it a line, moving forever outward in one direction? A Grecian temple, as Emma Willard envisioned, with Ionic columns representing centuries, receding from view toward a vanishing point at the world’s origin? Or could it be a corkscrew ascending upward, allowing us to look down from our present position into past events similar to our own? 

For the Polish educator Antoni Jażwiński, history was best represented by an abstract grid — or at least it was for the purposes of remembering it. The so-called “Polish System” originated in the 1820s and was later brought to public attention in the 1830s and 1840s by General Józef Bem, a military engineer with a penchant for mnemonics. As Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg catalogue in their Cartographies of Time, the nineteenth century brimmed with new methods and technologies for committing historical information to memory — and Jażwiński’s contribution (and its later adaptations) proved one of the most popular. 

The Polish System — which almost anticipates Piet Mondrian’s abstract checkerboards and the wider modernist fascination with grid figures — coupled chronology to the map-making traditions of geography. In Jażwiński’s original chart, each main 10×10 box is a century and the rows separate decades. Within a century box, each individual square is a year, each color a nation (with shading for different monarchs or governments), and symbols can stand for marriages, wars, treaties, and other types of events. Should one become proficient with this system, they can peer down on the history of the world, summarized on a surface not much larger than a chessboard… 

More on this proto-modernist memory palace: “Visualizing History: The Polish System.”

* Jacob Bronowski


As we picture the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1965 that the FBI Laboratory declared the lyrics of Louie Louie to be officially “unintelligible at any speed.”

In February 1964, an outraged parent wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, then the Attorney General of the U.S., alleging that the lyrics of “Louie Louie” were obscene, suggesting that “The lyrics are so filthy that I can-not [sic] enclose them in this letter.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the complaint, and looked into the various rumors of “real lyrics” that were circulating among teenagers.  In June 1965, the FBI laboratory obtained a copy of the Kingsmen recording and, after 31 months of investigation, concluded that it could not be interpreted– and therefore that the Bureau could not find that the recording was obscene.

In September 1965, an FBI agent interviewed one member of the Kingsmen, who denied that there was any obscenity in the song. The FBI never interviewed songwriter Richard Berry nor consulted the actual lyrics that were on file with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Snopes suggests that while some teenage mondegreens were indeed pretty filthy, the song itself was clean.

“Night Time Is the Right Time”*…

An architect based in Boston by day, Andrew Thomas Shea is a photography hobbyist at night and his latest project, Neon New England, celebrates a beloved common fixture across the Northeastern United States… vintage neon signs.

More of Shea’s sumptuous work at “Nocturnal photographs of New England’s famous American neon signs.”

* song written and first performed by Roosevelt Sykes (1937), bt better known in subsequent versions by inspired many subsequent versions, including hits by Ray Charles, Rufus and Carla (Thomas), and James Brown


As we reflect on reflection, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851 that Léon Foucault famously used a pendulum suspended from the top of the dome in the Pantheon in Paris to demonstrate that the earth turns on its axis. (He used a technique developed by Vincenzo Viviani, though it was Foucault’s “experiment that caught the public’s attention.) The following year, Foucault used (and named) the gyroscope in a conceptually simpler experimental proof.

(Several years later he also helped take the first photo of the sun.)



Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 8, 2021 at 1:01 am

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