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Posts Tagged ‘maps

“When the graphs were finished, the relations were obvious at once”*…

We can only understand what we can “see”…

… this long-forgotten, hand-drawn infographic from the 1840s… known as a “life table,” was created by William Farr, a doctor and statistician who, for most of the Victorian era, oversaw the collection of public health statistics in England and Wales… it’s a triptych documenting the death rates by age in three key population groups: metropolitan London, industrial Liverpool, and rural Surrey.

With these visualizations, Farr was making a definitive contribution to an urgent debate from the period: were these new industrial cities causing people to die at a higher rate? In some ways, with hindsight, you can think of this as one of the most crucial questions for the entire world at that moment. The Victorians didn’t realize it at the time, but the globe was about to go from less than five percent of its population living in cities to more than fifty percent in just about a century and a half. If these new cities were going to be killing machines, we probably needed to figure that out.

It’s hard to imagine just how confusing it was to live through the transition to industrial urbanism as it was happening for the first time. Nobody really had a full handle on the magnitude of the shift and its vast unintended consequences. This was particularly true of public health. There was an intuitive feeling that people were dying at higher rates than they had in the countryside, but it was very hard even for the experts to determine the magnitude of the threat. Everyone was living under the spell of anecdote and availability bias. Seeing the situation from the birds-eye view of public health data was almost impossible…

The images Farr created told a terrifying and unequivocal story: density kills. In Surrey, the increase of mortality after birth is a gentle slope upward, a dune rising out of the waterline. The spike in Liverpool, by comparison, looks more like the cliffs of Dover. That steep ascent condensed thousands of individual tragedies into one vivid and scandalous image: in industrial Liverpool, more than half of all children born were dead before their fifteenth birthday.

The mean age of death was just as shocking: the countryfolk were enjoying life expectancies close to fifty, likely making them some of the longest-lived people on the planet in 1840. The national average was forty-one. London was thirty-five. But Liverpool—a city that had undergone staggering explosions in population density, thanks to industrialization—was the true shocker. The average Liverpudlian died at the age of twenty-five, one of the lowest life expectancies ever recorded in that large a human population.

There’s a natural inclination to think about innovation in human health as a procession of material objects: vaccines, antibiotics, pacemakers. But Farr’s life tables are a reminder that new ways of perceiving the problems we face, new ways of seeing the underlying data, are the foundations on which we build those other, more tangible interventions. Today cities reliably see life expectancies higher than rural areas—a development that would have seemed miraculous to William Farr, tabulating the data in the early 1840s. In a real sense, Farr laid the groundwork for that historic reversal: you couldn’t start to tackle the problem of how to make industrial cities safer until you had first determined that the threat was real.

Why the most important health innovations sometimes come from new ways of seeing: “The Obscure Hand-Drawn Infographic That Changed The Way We Think About Cities,” from Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson). More in his book, Extra Life, and in episode 3 of the PBS series based on it.

* J. C. R. Licklider


As we investigate infographics, we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to Lewis Fry Richardson; he was born on this date in 1881.  A mathematician, physicist, and psychologist, he is best remembered for pioneering the modern mathematical techniques of weather forecasting.  Richardson’s interest in weather led him to propose a scheme for forecasting using differential equations, the method used today, though when he published Weather Prediction by Numerical Process in 1922, suitably fast computing was unavailable.  Indeed, his proof-of-concept– a retrospective “forecast” of the weather on May 20, 1910– took three months to complete by hand. (in fairness, Richardson did the analysis in his free time while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I.)  With the advent of modern computing in the 1950’s, his ideas took hold.  Still the ENIAC (the first real modern computer) took 24 hours to compute a daily forecast.  But as computing got speedier, forecasting became more practical.

Richardson also yoked his forecasting techniques to his pacifist principles, developing a method of “predicting” war.  He is considered (with folks like Quincy Wright and Kenneth Boulding) a father of the scientific analysis of conflict.

And Richardson helped lay the foundations for other fields and innovations:  his work on coastlines and borders was influential on Mandelbrot’s development of fractal geometry; and his method for the detection of icebergs anticipated the development of sonar.



The wharves of Manhattan, 1851: “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves
as Indian isles by coral reefs.”

I first encountered the work of Peter Gorman via his glorious book Barely Maps (a gift from friend MK). Early in the pandemic, Peter picked up Moby Dick

I read Moby-Dick in April 2020. For weeks afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started making maps and diagrams as a way to figure it out.

Moby-Dick is infamous for its digressions. Throughout the book, the narrator disrupts the plot with contemplations, calculations, and categorizations. He ruminates on the White Whale, and the ocean, and human psychology, and the night sky, and how it all relates back to the mystery of the unknown. His narration feels like a twisting- turning struggle to explain everything.

Reading Moby-Dick actually made me feel like that—like I’d mentally absorbed its spin-cycle style. I developed a case of “Kaleidoscope Brain.” The maps I was making were obsessive and encyclopedic. They were newer and weirder and they digressed beyond straightforward geography…

Ocean currents, February- U.K. Admiralty Navigation Manual, Volume 1: “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose
gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

Moby Dick, mapped and charted: Kaleidoscope Brain, from @barelymaps. It’s a free pdf download, though one has the opportunity– well-taken– to become a Patreon sponsor.

* Headline in New York Day Book, September 8, 1852


As we wonder about white whales, we might recall that it was on this date in 2008 that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN was first powered up. The world’s largest and highest-energy particle collider, it is devoted to searching for the new particles predicted by supersymmetry theories, and to exploring other unresolved questions in particle physics (e.g. the Higgs boson)… that’s to say, to mapping and charting existence.

A section of the LHC


A “map” of a proton-proton collision inside the Large Hadron Collider that has characteristics of a Higgs decaying into two bottom quarks.


“Without a map who would attempt to study geography?”*…

History and maps!…

Imagine creating a timeline of your country’s whole history stretching back to its inception.

It would be no small task, and simply weighing the relative importance of so many great people, technological achievements, and pivotal events would be a tiny miracle in itself.

While that seems like a challenge, imagine going a few steps further. Instead of a timeline for just one country, what about creating a graphical timeline showing the history of the entire world over a 4,000 year time period, all while having no access to computers or the internet?…

John B. Sparks maps the ebb and flow of global power going all the way back to 2,000 B.C. on one coherent timeline.

Histomap, published by Rand McNally in 1931, is an ambitious attempt at fitting a mountain of historical information onto a five-foot-long poster. The poster cost $1 at the time, which would equal approximately $18 when accounting for inflation.

Although the distribution of power is not quantitatively defined on the x-axis, it does provide a rare example of looking at historic civilizations in relative terms. While the Roman Empire takes up a lot of real estate during its Golden Age, for example, we still get a decent look at what was happening in other parts of the world during that period.

The visualization is also effective at showing the ascent and decline of various competing states, nations, and empires. Did Sparks see world history as a zero-sum exercise; a collection of nations battling one another for control over scarce territory and resources?

Crowning a world leader at certain points in history is relatively easy, but divvying up influence or power to everyone across 4,000 years requires some creativity, and likely some guesswork, as well. Some would argue that the lack of hard data makes it impossible to draw these types of conclusions (though there have been other more quantitative approaches.)

Another obvious criticism is that the measures of influence are skewed in favor of Western powers. China’s “seam”, for example, is suspiciously thin throughout the length of the timeline. Certainly, the creator’s biases and blind spots become more apparent in the information-abundant 21st century.

Lastly, Histomap refers to various cultural and racial groups using terms that may seem rather dated to today’s viewers.

John Spark’s creation is an admirable attempt at making history more approachable and entertaining. Today, we have seemingly limitless access to information, but in the 1930s an all encompassing timeline of history would have been incredibly useful and groundbreaking. Indeed, the map’s publisher characterized the piece as a useful tool for examining the correlation between different empires during points in history.

Critiques aside, work like this paved the way for the production of modern data visualizations and charts that help people better understand the world around them today…

Histomap: a 1931 attempt to visualize the 4,000 year history of global power. (via Visual Capitalist)

* John B. Sparks, creator of Histomap


As we ponder patterns in the past, we might spare a thought for Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt; he died on this date in 1897. Probably best known for The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (which established that period as the vaunted subject it has become), he was a historian of art and culture and an influential figure in the historiography of both fields. Indeed, he is considered one the the founders of cultural history.

Sigfried Giedion said of Burckhardt’s achievement: “The great discoverer of the age of the Renaissance, he first showed how a period should be treated in its entirety, with regard not only for its painting, sculpture and architecture, but for the social institutions of its daily life as well.”


“All roads lead to Rome”*…

Spanning one-ninth of the earth’s circumference across three continents, the Roman Empire ruled a quarter of humanity through complex networks of political power, military domination and economic exchange. These extensive connections were sustained by premodern transportation and communication technologies that relied on energy generated by human and animal bodies, winds, and currents.

Conventional maps that represent this world as it appears from space signally fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information. Cost, rather than distance, is the principal determinant of connectivity…

ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World reconstructs the time cost and financial expense associated with a wide range of different types of travel in antiquity. The model is based on a simplified version of the giant network of cities, roads, rivers and sea lanes that framed movement across the Roman Empire. It broadly reflects conditions around 200 CE but also covers a few sites and roads created in late antiquity…

For the first time, ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.

Taking account of seasonal variation and accommodating a wide range of modes and means of transport, ORBIS reveals the true shape of the Roman world and provides a unique resource for our understanding of premodern history.

Ancient transportation and travel: “ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.”

* The proverb “All roads lead to Rome” derives from medieval Latin. It was first recorded in writing in 1175 by Alain de Lille, a French theologian and poet, whose Liber Parabolarum renders it as ‘mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam’ (a thousand roads lead men forever to Rome)


As we plot our paths, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Sylvan Goldman introduced the first shopping cart in his Humpty Dumpty grocery store in Oklahoma City.


“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.


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