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Posts Tagged ‘cartography

“Geographers never get lost. They just do accidental field work.”*…



An image from The Catalan Atlas, 1375


When Christopher Columbus first set foot in what’s now the Bahamas, it was the lucky sum of a 1,400-year-old cartographical error and Columbus’s own miscalculations of the globe. The Genoese explorer believed the Eurasian landmass to cover nearly 2/3 of the earth’s circumference—the actual distance from Spain eastward to his target of eastern Asia was closer to 1/3 of the circumference.

Columbus’s image of the world was based on ancient maps that greatly overestimated the size of the Eurasian continent and depicted the planet’s circumference some 25 percent smaller than it actually was—a misjudgment compounded by his own wishful thinking and erroneous math. By his calculation, India lay within a 2,500-mile voyage west of Spain. He was off by about 8,000 miles.

Columbus’s errors are only a chapter in a series of discoveries, theories, and mistakes that tell the story of maps and mapmaking. Maps are a 10,000-year journey of humans trying to understand Earth. In 1492, most people had no idea what the world looked like; even some impressively accurate maps were full of myths and mistakes, from fantastical monsters to entire missing continents to swaths of terra incognita, or “unknown territory.”

Over time, errors were corrected and empty spaces were filled in, and today, much of the population walks around with a map of the entire Earth in their pocket that’s so detailed you can see your own front door…

Eight maps, from antiquity to today, that changed how we see the world: “Why Maps Are Civilization’s Greatest Tool.”

* Nicholas Chrisman


As we find our way, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1415 that Henry the Navigator led Portuguese forces to victory over the Marinids at the Battle of Ceuta, the Muslim port on the North African coast across the Straits of Gibraltar from the Iberian Peninsula– which marked the beginning of the Portuguese Empire in Africa.  Henry remained a central figure in the early days of the Portuguese Empire and was a key driver of the 15th-century European maritime discoveries and maritime expansion. Through his administrative direction– including his patronage of cartographers– he is regarded as the main initiator of what would be known as the Age of Discovery.

220px-Henry_the_Navigator1 source


“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



“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


“A map is the greatest of all epic poems”*…



A marmot hiding in plain sight in the Swiss Alps


Errors—both accidental and deliberate—are not uncommon in maps (17th-century California as an island, the omission of Seattle in a 1960s AAA map). Military censors have long transformed nuclear bunkers into nondescript warehouses and routinely pixelate satellite images of sensitive sites. Many maps also contain intentional errors to trap would-be copyright violators. The work of recording reality is particularly vulnerable to plagiarism: if a cartographer is suspected of copying another’s work, he can simply claim to be duplicating the real world— ideally, the two should be the same. Mapmakers often rely on fictitious streets, typically no longer than a block, to differentiate their accounts of the truth (Oxygen Street in Edinburgh, for example).

But there is another, less institutional reason to hide something in a map. According to Lorenz Hurni, professor of cartography at ETH Zurich, these illustrations are part inside joke, part coping mechanism. Cartographers are “quite meticulous, really high-precision people,” he says. Their entire professional life is spent at the magnification level of a postage stamp. To sustain this kind of concentration, Hurni suspects that they eventually “look for something to break out of their daily routine.” The satisfaction of these illustrations comes from their transgressive nature— the labor and secrecy required to conceal one of these visual puns…

Slipping one past one of the most rigorous map-making institutions in the world: “For Decades, Cartographers Have Been Hiding Covert Illustrations Inside of Switzerland’s Official Maps.”

* Gilbert H. Grosvenor (President of the National Geographic Society, first editor of the magazine, and champion of cartography [and photojournalism])


As we hide Easter eggs, we might recall that it was on this date in 1345– according to 14th century scholars at the University of Paris– the Black Death was created… from what they called “a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius, occurring on the 20th of March, 1345.”

AKA the Pestilence, the Great Bubonic Plague, the Great Plague, the Plague, or less commonly the Great Mortality or Black Plague, the Black Death was actually transmitted by fleas who had fed on diseased rats.  It killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.

More on “the greatest catastrophe ever.”


Spread of the Black Death in Europe and the Near East (1346–1353)



Written by LW

March 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Now my eyes are turned from the South to the North”*…


Your correspondent is off for a week or so to time zones sufficiently distant that regular service will be suspended for about a week.  (R)D should return on or around March 15.  Meantime…



One of the selections at “Hilarious Terrible Maps.”

[TotH to KE]

* Ernest Shackleton


As we find our way, we might recall that it was on this date in 1930 that General Foods put the first nationally-branded individually-packaged frozen foods– “Birds Eye Frosted Foods”– on sale in 18 retail stores in Springfield, Mass. to test the market.  General Foods (recently renamed from the Postum Corporation) had acquired the frozen food business from Clarence Birdseye; inspired by seeing Canadians thawing and eating naturally frozen fish, Birdseye had invented the category in the early 1920s.  The initial Birds Eye line featured 26 items, including 18 cuts of frozen meat, spinach and peas, a variety of fruits and berries, blue point oysters, and fish fillets.

Clarence Birdseye and his handiwork



Written by LW

March 6, 2020 at 1:01 am

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