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Posts Tagged ‘navigation

“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


“In a long voyage… the map of the world ceases to be a blank”*…




One of the first-known maps of the Pacific, shown above, was a collaboration between the crew of Captain Cook’s Endeavour and a Tahitian man named Tupaia in 1769.

In the book Sea People, Christina Thompson tells the story behind the map. Cook and his crew wanted a chart to navigate the South Seas, so they questioned Tupaia (“a tall, impressive man of about forty, with the bearing and tattoos of a member of the chiefly class“) and tried to transcribe what he told them, on their coordinate system of north–south and east–west.

From Sea People:

“It is a truly remarkable artifact: a translation of Tahitian geographical knowledge into European cartographic terms at the very first moment in history when such a thing might have been possible; a collaboration between two brilliant navigators coming from geographical traditions with essentially no overlap; a fusion of completely different sets of ideas. There was no precedent for it; it has no known equal; and, with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like something of a miracle that it was ever created at all.”

But she continues:

“Unfortunately for Cook—though interestingly for us—Tupaia’s chart is ‘opaque with trans-cultural confusion.'”

In a more literal way than Korzybski meant, “the map is not the territory“: “Tupaia’s Map.”

(Many thanks to MK)

* Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle


As we get lost in translation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1826 that the HMS Beagle set sail from Plymouth on its first voyage, an expedition to conduct a hydrographic survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in support of the larger ship HMS Adventure,

The Beagle‘s second voyage (1831-1836) is rather better remembered, as it was on that expedition that the ship’s naturalist, a young Charles Darwin (whose published journal of the journey, quoted above, earned him early fame as a writer) made the observations that led him to even greater fame for his theory of evolution.

300px-PSM_V57_D097_Hms_beagle_in_the_straits_of_magellan source



Written by LW

May 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly – to develop strategies of seeing and showing”*…




The Science Museum is always alive with children. School groups scribble on clipboards, five-year-olds drag parents and grandparents by the hand, push buttons, and make lights flash. Toddlers flag for ice-cream. The halls and galleries ring with noise. By contrast, in the softly lit exhibition space on the second floor, a sudden quiet descends. But almost at once, on entering the museum’s new show, “The Art of Innovation: From Enlightenment to Dark Matter,” here are the children again. In Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on an Orrery in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun (1766) [above], they lean over, faces lit up, as the girl, her eyes glowing, points over her brother’s shoulder at the tiny planets circling the sun.

That sense of excitement defines the exhibition, as visitors zig-zag from The Lecture on the Orrery through 250 years of art and science. In the book that accompanies the show, far more than a catalog, the curators, Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth, lay out their stall. “Throughout history,” they write, “artists and scientists alike have been driven by curiosity and the desire to explore worlds, inner and outer. They have wanted to make sense of what they see around them and feel within them: to observe, record and transform. Sometimes working closely together, they have taken inspiration from each other’s practice.” To illustrate this dual heritage and point to the leaps of imagination in both fields, they have placed twenty works—painting, sculpture, film, photographs, posters, and textiles—alongside the scientific objects that inspired them. Thus A Lecture on the Orrery hangs near James Ferguson’s wooden pulley-operated mechanical model of the solar system [below], an orrery from the Museum’s collection…



A glorious (and gloriously-illustrated) appreciation: “Beauty in Ingenuity: The Art of Science.”

* Edward Tufte


As we bask in beauty, we might spare a cartographically-correct thought for, one of history’s most impactful scientific artists: Gerardus Mercator; he died on this date in 1594.  The most renown cartographer of his time, he created a world map based on a new projection– the Mercator Projection— which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines, an approach still employed in nautical charts used for navigation.

While he was most esteemed as the foremost geographer of his day, Mercator was also an accomplished engraver, calligrapher and maker of globes and scientific instruments.  And he studied theology, philosophy, history, mathematics, and magnetism.




Written by LW

December 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“With the sextant he made obeisance to the sun-god”*…



A practice exam in the navigation workbook of C. J. Boombaar (1727–32)


In 1673, in a North Sea skirmish that killed nearly 150 men, the French privateer Jean-François Doublet took a bullet that tossed him from the forecastle and broke his arm in two places. How did the precocious young second lieutenant choose to spend his convalescence? Doublet repaired to the French port city of Dieppe, where he signed up for three months of navigation lessons…

During the 16th to 18th centuries, Europeans embarked on thousands of long-distance sea voyages around the world. These expeditions in the name of trade and colonisation had irreversible, often deadly, impacts on peoples around the globe. Heedless of those consequences, Europeans focused primarily on devising new techniques to make their voyages safer and faster. They could no longer sail along the coasts, taking their directional cues from prominent landmarks (as had been common in the preceding centuries). Nor did they have sophisticated knowledge of waves and currents, as did their counterparts in the Pacific. They had no choice but to figure out new methods of navigating across the open water. Instead of memorising the shoreline, they looked to the heavens, calculating time and position from the sun and the stars.

Celestial navigation was certainly feasible, but it required real technical skills as well as fairly advanced mathematics. Sailors needed to calculate the angle of a star’s elevation using a cross-staff or quadrant. They needed to track the direction of their ship’s course relative to magnetic north. Trigonometry and logarithms offered the best way to make these essential measurements: for these, a sailor needed to be adept at using dense numerical tables. All of a sudden, a navigator’s main skill wasn’t his memory – it was his mathematical ability.

To help the average sailor with these technical computations, maritime administrators and entrepreneurs opened schools in capital cities and port towns across Europe. Some were less formal arrangements, where small groups of men gathered in the teacher’s home, paying for a series of classes over the course of a winter when they were on shore…

How did the sailors of early modern Europe learn to traverse the world’s seas? By going to school and doing maths problems: “When pirates studied Euclid.”

* “With the sextant he made obeisance to the sun-god, he consulted ancient tomes and tables of magic characters, muttered prayers in a strange tongue that sounded like Indexerrorparallaxrefraction, made cabalistic signs on paper, added and carried one, and then, on a piece of holy script called the Grail – I mean, the Chart – he placed his finger on a certain space conspicuous for its blankness and said, ‘Here we are.’ When we looked at the blank space and asked, “And where is that?” he answered in the cipher-code of the higher priesthood, “31 -15 – 47 north, 133 – 5 – 30 west.” And we said, ‘Oh,’ and felt mighty small.”                           – Jack London, The Cruise of the Snark


As we find our way, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to John Locke; he died on this date in 1856.  A namesake of the famous philosopher, Locke trained as a doctor, but turned to geology– and to the invention of scientific, surveying, and navigational instruments, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks.  The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, Washington, in 1848.  It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second.  When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by pressing a telegraph key.

Locke,_John source


Written by LW

July 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“We have always been taught that navigation is the result of civilization, but modern archeology has demonstrated very clearly that this is not so”*…




The islands of Polynesia stretch over thousands of miles of ocean, presenting a daunting barrier to ancient people before the invention of magnetic compasses and modern navigation equipment.

Yet early Europeans exploring the Pacific found island after island full of people who shared similar customs and beliefs despite their far-flung distribution. They told tales of epic voyages of discovery and colonization, undertaken in ocean-going canoes, robust enough to make the trip but fragile enough to make some Western scholars doubt they could have made the crossing, preferring instead a narrative of accident and drift.

Who the Polynesians were, where they came from, and how they navigated such formidable seas has puzzled explorers, missionaries, anthropologists, and archaeologists for centuries…

A conversation with Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson, author of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, in which she examines what’s known about what might be humanity’s most epic migration, and what questions remain: “The history and mystery of Polynesian navigation.”

[Image above: source]

* Thor Heyerdahl (who had a hand in unraveling [some of] the secrets of ancient Polynesian navigation)


As we find our way, we might recall that it was on this date in 1606 that James I of England established the Virginia Company of London by royal charter with the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in North America.  Several months later, on Dec 20, the Company loaded three ships with settlers, who set sail to establish Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.  As this was the UK’s first colony, that day can be considered the birthday of the British Empire.

A rendering of the initial settlement/fort at Jamestown, c. 1607



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