Thinking inside the box

This week’s @visualoop Vintage Infodesign roundup had a number of interesting entries, but this Soviet admin map caught my eye:

[Original image can be found here.]

Main Administration Regions of the Soviet Union in 1944

It reminds me of a map I made a few years ago. I had a dream where I saw a completely rectangular map of the lower 48 states of the USA. Perhaps I’d been reading too much Dr Seuss, but it made perfect sense, so when I woke up, I tried to recreate it.

Rectangular USA
Amazing, isn’t it?

I took a US States dataset and edited each state polygon down to just four points, then moved them around and added one or two more points where necessary. The result is quite pleasing, and most of the states are still a recognisable shape, though there are some notable exceptions. When distorting features in this way, there has to be some compromise and in the end, I chose to prioritise the state areas, then try to preserve  the shapes as much as possible. Some states, like Florida and Texas were never going to fit neatly into a rectangle, but I can at least make sure they stay the same size.

Let’s take a closer look at how the new “improved” map compares with the old.

USA NE

New England doesn’t really work at all when compressed into a rectangle, but most of the borders stay intact. Vermont and New Hampshire have shuffled westwards, so they now border New York instead of Massachusetts and Maine has moved across to take their place.

USA Midwest

Not such a bad fit in the Midwest, although the Great Lakes have dried up and Michigan now has a land border with New York.

USA NW

The larger states in the north west are probably the closest match to their original outlines.

USA SW

Likewise the southwest, though Texas has had a large part sliced off.

USA SE

Florida is probably the worst victim of this arrangement, but the panhandle was never going to fit into a neat rectangle.

Anyway, enough silliness for today, let’s get back to work.

Ships, Clocks & Stars

Despite the fact that my family is from London, and I was born there, I’ve never been to Greenwich. This means I’ve never seen the Royal Observatory or the Greenwich meridian, even though it is, quite literally, the centre of the world. Kind of.

Anyway, last weekend was a good time to put this right, as the Royal Museums Greenwich are holding an exhibition to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act. If you haven’t been already, I strongly recommend a visit before the exhibition ends on 4th January 2015. It’s the first time that all five of John Harrison’s timepieces are on public display together.

Sailing in the 18th century was a hazardous business, and poor navigation often resulted in longer journeys or even shipwreck, as with the Scilly disaster of 1707. The main difficulty was determining a ship’s position while at sea; establishing latitude was fairly straightforward, by measuring the angle of the sun over the horizon at midday, but longitude proved more of a challenge. The most common method was to use dead reckoning – basically to follow a bearing and assume that you haven’t been blown off course by the wind or tides.

The government decided to start a competition to solve the problem and passed the Longitude Act of 1714, which established the Board of Longitude, who would award a prize of up to £20,000 to whoever could come up with a method of determining longitude at sea.

(Interestingly, this article suggests that the Longitude Act was just a distraction to postpone actually doing something about the appalling conditions on board ship at that time.)

Five methods emerged as contenders, most of which used time to determine longitude. Given that the sun moves through 360° every 24 hours, that’s 15° every hour. So, if you are 15° W of Greenwich, it will be midday one hour later. The local time can be determined by seeing when the sun is at its apex (i.e. midday), so it follows that if you know the local time and the time at Greenwich, you can work out how many degrees of longitude you have travelled. So, how do we know the time in Greenwich when we have been at sea for weeks or months on end? Clocks of that period were unreliable and could not keep time during a long voyage.

Signalling

Probably the least plausible method was to set up an array of signalling stations that would send up a rocket at regular intervals, say every hour. The idea was that sailors would hear the signal and recalibrate their onboard timepieces. Also, the time difference between seeing and hearing the flare would allow the distance from the signal to be calculated.

The problem with this method is the difficulty of maintaining the position of ships at sea, making sure the signals were released at the right time, and the reliability of ordnance. Would the rocket reach the right height, or explode too early?

Magnetism

It was known at the time that the Earth’s magnetic field varied and that there was a difference between magnetic north (as shown by a compass) and true north (as shown by the Sun and stars). Some people thought that if the all the magnetic fields across the globe could be mapped, then they could be used to determine a ship’s position. This chart by Edmond Halley is an attempt at plotting these fields:

Sea chart of magnetic variations

A new and correct sea chart of the whole world showing the variations of the compass as they were found in the year 1700
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Unfortunately, the Earth’s magnetic field changes over time and has too many local variations for this method to be of any use.

Jupiter’s Moons

The idea of using lunar or solar eclipses to determine time had been considered before, but these events were too infrequent to be of much use. However, when Galileo discovered in 1610 that Jupiter had four moons that disappeared behind the planet and reappeared at regular intervals, he realised that this method had some potential. He attempted to persuade first the Spanish, then the Dutch government to produce telescopes and train navigators to make the observations, but he was unsuccessful. Even one hundred years later, improved technology could not make instruments accurate enough to view a small object like Jupiter from the deck of a moving ship. This method did prove to be very effective though for establishing longitude on land and was used well into the 18th century.

Lunar Distances

If Jupiter’s moons were difficult to observe, a method requiring observations of our own moon should have been much easier. The idea was that an angle could be measured between the Moon and a star, for example the pole star, giving a ‘lunar distance’. After consulting an almanac of distances – and also altitudes of the Moon and stars – for various places around the globe, the local time should be easily determined. However, the Moon’s motions are very complex and constructing such a table proved very difficult.

Timekeepers

The most accurate clocks of the period incorporated pendulums, which were unable to function properly on a moving ship. Watches and smaller timepieces were too susceptible to heat and humidity to remain accurate over long periods of time. A young clockmaker from Lincolnshire, John Harrison, had started to experiment with using wooden components, which required no oil, yet were almost frictionless. Over the next few decades, he constructed a series of timepieces (H1-5, on display as the centrepiece of the exhibition), continually making improvements, but never quite doing enough to please either himself or the Board of Longitude. The clocks performed well over a number of sea trials, with, for example, Captain Cook referring to his ‘trusty friend’ and ‘never-failing guide’. Eventually, Harrison petitioned the Prime Minister, and after a debate in parliament, he was awarded  £8750.

John Harrison's H1

Three-quarter view of Harrison’s marine timekeeper H1
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Ministry of Defence Art Collection

It’s clear that the Board were reluctant to award any of the prize to Harrison and continued to champion the lunar distance method, as favoured by Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal. They kept asking for Harrison’s timepieces to be sent on more sea trials and often discounted the trials that had taken place, claiming they were ‘unofficial’. The Board was stuffed with parliamentarians, Fellows of the Royal Society, and other members of the establishment and they weren’t about to give to prize away to some chippy northener. (This article sheds a little more light on Maskelyne’s role in the affair.)

I don’t think the exhibition made enough of Harrison’s struggles against the establishment, but nevertheless, it is fascinating and packed with information. There is so much more to see, as the institution is actually four museums on one site – hopefully I’ll have time to go and visit the rest of it before too long.

The First Casualty of War

It seems like you can’t move without falling over a World War I anniversary at the moment, and in the Guardian last week there was a full page reproduction of a page from the Manchester Guardian of one hundred years earlier.

Manchester Guardian 5th August 1914

Fans of Alexander Gross’ Geographia Ltd will know all about his decision to sell high quality maps to the Telegraph in the run up to the war, but it looks like the Guardian had to throw something together at the last minute. This map of the North Sea is particularly ropey – it looks like I drew the coastlines of Norway and Denmark with my eyes closed. They say the first casualty of war is the truth, and this map seems to be telling more lies than most. If its only task is to show the rough position of May Island, however, it is performed adequately. There is at least a north arrow and a scale, and everything is spelled correctly. Maybe spending a bit more time on the Scottish border would have been good though. Compared to other cartographical cock-ups from media outlets, perhaps it is forgivable.

WWI_north_sea

The main map at the head of the page looks a little less rushed, but is still kept fairly simple. Some of the borders are obviously different to today’s maps, but contemporary maps show they are not far off.
WWI_naval_theatre

The other insert map, of eastern Belgium and surrounding countries, is also a bit scrappy. Some of the defects here could be due to the reproduction of a hundred-year-old newspaper though. I find it hard to get a sense of the region we’re looking at, without any coastline in view, but this map gives a good idea of how the Kingdom of Belgium looked at the time.
WWI_belgium

Mrs P’s Journey

A few weeks ago, I was browsing my site stats (as you do), and I noticed that the most popular page on this blog, by a long way, is the page on Geographia Ltd. There is not a lot of information online about them, which is probably why so many searches have ended up here. However, I did recently find a book that gave a lot more detail about this intriguing company.

I read an article about a musical based on the life of Phyllis Pearsall, which mentioned a biography, Mrs P’s Journey, by Sarah Hartley, and I wasted no time in getting hold of it. It is a fascinating read and definitely worth looking at.

Even though her father was a successful businessman, Phyllis’ life wasn’t particularly easy. Like many self-made men, Sandor Gross was a highly strung, enormously driven monster, who would regularly scream and shout at his staff (and family) for the smallest mistake. Her mother, on the other hand, was less aggressive, but rarely showed Phyllis any affection. On one night in Paris, Bella dragged her fifteen year-old daughter from midnight mass to café after café, even though Phyllis had a raging fever and clearly needed to be taken home and put to bed.

Another time, after her parents had divorced, Sandor was declared bankrupt. Unable to pay Phyllis’ school fees, he sent her a telegram:

I’VE BEEN ROBBED OF MY FORTUNE. YOU WILL HAVE TO LEAVE ROEDEAN FOR GOOD. TELL NO ONE. GET YOUR SHOES MENDED AND GET A WINTER COAT ON TICK.

Even though she was only 13 at the time, she travelled back to London, alone with her huge trunk, and caught a taxi to her mother’s house. Instead of welcoming her home, Bella just packed her little girl off to an employment agency with all her belongings. Luckily, Phyllis was unphased by this; she calmly accepted a teaching job in France and headed there straight away. As she said on so many occasions, On we go.

Alexander (Sandor) Grosz left his native Budapest and made his way across Europe to London, arriving, penniless, in 1900. Within a few years he had married and built a successful business selling lamps. One day, on finding that his brother-in-law sold maps for a living, he decided to sell his business and produce his own map. Initially, he asked his draftsmen to produce a map of the British Isles in one week. It actually took the best part of a year, despite Sandor’s constant presence in the office, shouting, slamming doors, and generally getting frustrated at the lack of progress. Eventually, one hundred maps were produced, varnished and mounted on cloth and rollers, and quickly sold to offices across the capital.

His success brought him into more exclusive social gatherings; he met with Lord Burnham, the proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, and suggested a new series of maps to help pinpoint the current troublespots of the Balkans and the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Apparently, no newspaper had tried this before, but the maps that Geographia produced were a success. The Telegraph’s circulation increased and the two companies’ relationship lasted many years.

Though Geographia turned out to be a fairly significant company in the world of cartography, it was only really by chance that it came into existence at all. “What did I love about oil lamps? Nothing. Maps? I long to see my name printed over and over again at the bottom of each copy. Produced under the direction of Alexander Gross.” he said, years later.

Sandor’s wife, Bella, played an active role in the company, keeping an eye on the finances and making sure he didn’t over stretch them. However, he rarely acknowledged her contribution and regularly undermined her. When she wrote a play, he financed a West End run, but the critics savaged it. They simply weren’t ready for a story involving a financially astute woman in business. What Suffragette nonsense. Sandor probably knew the play would fail and he deliberately encouraged Bella in order to gloat over her and establish his superiority.

Watching the way her father treated her mother must have been a huge influence on Phyllis’ behaviour later in life and on her determination to do things for herself. When, in 1935, she got lost on the way to a dinner party, Phyllis tried to buy a street map of London to make sure she didn’t lose her way again. On finding that such a map didn’t exist, she decided to make her own, spending the next ten months walking the city for up to 18 hours a day, filling many notebooks with street names, house numbers, sketches, and so on. The work didn’t end there – having persuaded one of her father’s old draughtsmen to produce her map, she then had to spend a further three months transferring her notes onto index cards for him to work from.

Finally, a map was ready, and she tried selling door-to-door, with little success. Phyllis went to a wholesaler, but, as the only woman in the waiting room, she was ignored for days on end. Finally, she was seen and her persistence paid off – a massive order of 1250 A-Z atlases, which she produced and delivered herself to branches of WHSmith across the capital.

Eventually, she took on more staff, and the company went from strength to strength. Phyllis continued to work hard, refusing to delegate any part of the business, even when she was seriously injured in a plane crash. Her father was still exerting his influence, sending unhelpful telegrams, such as:

HURRY UP OUT OF HOSPITAL. YOU CANNOT RUN A BUSINESS FROM BED. WHY MUST MY DAUGHTER ALWAYS BE SICK?

[It sometimes seems as if the family communicated entirely by telegram, as there are many more examples:

MOTHER SENT YOU & TONY HORSE EACH. WHITE.

Or this one, sent from Bella to each of Sandor, Phyllis and Tony:

FILING FOR DIVORCE. NEW LIFE.

The pedant in me was slightly irritated by the added punctuation though. I know it makes them read better, but still...]

Despite the many hours Phyllis spent running her business, she still found time for her first love, painting. In an interview with the Daily Mail, she said that she always wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. As a successful map-maker, she didn’t need to use her art to pay the rent and could cherish it instead of exploiting it to make money.

All in all, Mrs P’s Journey is a fascinating story and a worthwhile read, which sheds more light on two important cartographic companies. I would have preferred the book to contain references, like other non-fiction works, for example Rachel Hewitt’s excellent Map of a Nation. There is one small section detailing the history of cartography, which also mentions how snooty some people are about the A-Z style.

These conventional colours are of course of enormous assistance in distinguishing between the crowded details of a London street guide: the difference can best be appreciated when one compares the copy of a cheap monotone guide such as the A-Z with Bartholomew’s or Philip’s expensive colour atlases. (Phillipa Glanville, ‘London in Maps’, The Connoisseur, 1972.)

Some have complained about the chronology and accuracy of the book (see these fairly amusing Amazon reviews), but the author herself acknowledges that Phyllis’ story is not straightforward. Even in her own autobiography, there are many contradictions. I agree that it’s more important to go with the most interesting interpretation of events. As Steve Coogan says in 24 Hour Party People – “When forced to pick between truth and legend, print the legend.”

A Rare Outing for Pierre Desceliers’s 1546 World Map

randomactsofcartography:

This just in: another gem from the John Rylands library collection has been on display. We’ll have to make do with the digital version, but it looks pretty nice.

Originally posted on John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog:

One of the Library’s great treasures is a remarkable manuscript map of the world, or Mappe Monde, produced in 1546 by the distinguished French cartographer Pierre Desceliers (French MS 1*).

Because of its size (260 x 130 cms), fragility, and the sheer logistical challenge of manoeuvring it around the building, the map is very rarely removed from it storage location, but last week it had a rare outing so that it could be examined by a researcher, Chet van Duzer, from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Chet is an expert on early world maps, and has been commissioned to write a book about a similar map by Desceliers now at the British Library (Add. MS 24065).

Chet van Duzer consults the Desceliers Mappe Monde (French MS 1*)

Chet van Duzer consults the Desceliers Mappe Monde (French MS 1*)

It took a team of five conservators to move the map in its 19th-century wooden case, and we had to limit access…

View original 318 more words

Geography is awesome

I love living in the Pennines, the landscape really is stunning. Here in Hebden Bridge, beautiful sandstone mills and houses cling to the steep valley sides, while narrow, twisty roads wind impossibly between them. The valley does present a slight obstacle if, like me, you’re into cycling or running though. Basically, you have a choice between going along the canal, which is a bit dull, taking your chances on the main road with all the lorries and buses, or a brutal ascent up the valley side. If you take the third option, however, you are rewarded with fresh air, amazing views, and an excellent reminder of how the forces of nature have carved out the landscape over thousands of years.

I went for a run to Stoodley Pike this afternoon and on the return leg, saw this beautiful view (the way out was much less pleasant, running uphill into a blinding sun, but maybe that makes it more worthwhile).

Kilnshaw Lane

I love how as you travel up the valley, you can see two kinds of erosion – here to the right, above the green barn, is the side of a classic U-shaped glacial valley. During the last ice age, millions of tons of ice flowed along here, slowly grinding away at the base rock. When the ice melted, a broad,  flat valley was left behind. A slightly better defined example is shown below.

Glacial valley

You want more detail? Of course, this page should tell you everything you need to know about glaciers.

Further over to the left, the valley is cut again by fluvial erosion, as the River Calder wears a V-shaped scar into the landscape. It’s not very clear in the image above, so here is a better view, taken from Hell Hole rocks, below Heptonstall.

Calder Valley

I’ll leave The British Geographer to explain the process in detail, but you can clearly see how the straight valley sides contrast with the curved side above.

I never tire of the views up here, and think that seeing the results of these two processes next to each other always reminds me how awesome Geography is.

The Apple Dog

Entering the US is never easy, especially with children in tow. I came through Dulles airport recently with my family and had the usual hour waiting in line to get through passport control. We picked up our bags, then just as we were heading through customs, with the exit in sight, I heard a voice behind me.

“Excuse me sir, do you have an apple in your bag?”

I turned round to see a uniformed woman with a very excited dog by her side. After a brief moment of panic, I remembered – there were two apples in there earlier in the day, but luckily the kids had eaten them during the flight. I explained and let her check my bag and we were free to go. Hopefully the dog wasn’t too disappointed, but I told him he’d done well anyway. The handler told me he could identify 60 types of fruit and vegetables, but didn’t elaborate on how he could tell her which one he’d found – one can only imagine. It all happened behind me, so I’m not sure what he did on this occasion.

I knew that detection dogs could be used for drugs, explosives, and people, but I didn’t know they could do fruit and veg too. It’s all very impressive, and I’m glad that man’s best friend can help us out in so many ways – for more examples, see here (can require login, cached version here) and here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 159 other followers