24 September 2020
UK hydrographic charts published by the British Admiralty in the early twentieth century are notable for the high density of information compressed within their two dimensions, and for the harmonious blend of registers and visual perspectives they incorporate in the pursuit of clarity. Whilst documenting local visual navigation techniques handed down over the centuries, charts from this period also feature networks of lights, beacons and buoys more recently installed around the coastlines of the British Isles.
This example, first surveyed and published through the Hydrographic Office in 1847, shows the bays of Long Island and Baltimore in West Cork, Ireland with information updated to 1909.
Detail of Admiralty Chart 2129, Long Island and Baltimore Bays, Ireland, 1909. BL Maps SEC.1.(2129.)
As the seabed rises towards land, the approaching navigator is assisted by depth soundings, and abbreviations that tell the composition of the seabed at each point – sand, shells, gravel... The original measurements were taken with a sounding line marked along its length in fathom intervals, that was dropped over the side of the survey vessel. The lead plummet at its end was covered with sticky pitch or tallow that brought up a sample of the sea floor beneath.
Some of these data points cluster around and almost interfere with the map title. Navigators would use these measurements to inform the plotting of their routes and, by dropping their own sounding lines, would attempt to pinpoint their location.
Along the bottom edge of the sheet, a sketch testifies to a tradition of visual navigation techniques that have persisted even through the introduction of electronic aids later in the century. ‘View A’ provides a perspective in silhouette of the entrance to Skull Harbour, and demonstrates how Cosheen Crag in the foreground should be lined up with Barnacleeve Gap on the horizon in order to avoid rocks at Castle Ground on the way in. This horizontal view nestles on the page between the scale bar and a compass rose, while further soundings caught in-between call for a vertical viewpoint.
The correct angle of approach to Skull Harbour is also marked with a line across the chart. A number of other sightlines bisect the chart at various points, guiding seafarers past areas of danger.
More recent networks of buoys, beacons and lights also appear - in an update to earlier editions a light has been added at the western entrance to Baltimore Harbour. The chart indicates a wide arc facing southwards and out to sea from which the light appears white, and the crossover point upon entering the harbour from which the same light shows red.
For a distance inland, just enough of the topography - relief, landmarks, buildings and communications - is provided that might be of use to a vessel and her crew, before the detail gradually rubs to a blank on the chart.
The visual attraction of these sheets lay in the skill of the production draughtsmen whose finished drawings were transferred to copperplate for printing. From the late 1960s a programme of modernisation was introduced to update Admiralty Charts with metric units, simplified lettering and colour washes – a palette of blues for different water depths, and buff for the land – a style that persists to this day.
21 July 2020
We held our just-for-fun World Map World Cup during the week of 6 July. 16 carefully selected world maps (drawn from a considerably longer long list) produced from between the 11th and 20th centuries, taken from the British Library map collection, voted for by you in a series of Twitter polls. You can look back on the selection in previous blog posts here.
A montage of the sixteen historical maps involved the the British Library's world map world cup competition
For those of you not on Twitter, here’s how the voting panned out.
Group stages (top two maps from each group qualified)
The British Library’s ‘favourite’ world map is the mid-11th century ‘Anglo-Saxon or Cottonian World map. The British Library shop will be creating a ‘Print-on-demand’ edition of the map to celebrate (using brilliant new photography of the map taken as part of the Library’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition (thank you to Alison Hudson for mentioning this to me).
What did our mini map tournament tell us? Well, apart from “don’t even attempt to do an online Twitter tournament unless you are really organised and ever so slightly unhinged,” here are five key points that stood out:
1. You know what you like….. some of the time.
The voting was remarkably even, with all maps receiving at least 17% of every vote. This is really interesting for what it says about your broad appreciation for a wide range of historical mapping - even the comparatively abstract Ptolemaic maps.
2. You’re particularly interested in non-European maps
I was keen to bring in as many non-western maps as possible to the table. Whilst this did tilt the balance (there are overwhelmingly more European than non-European maps in the British Library collection, and Islamic cartography is very poorly represented), where these went head-to-head with non-European maps, the Japanese, Chinese and Korean maps won almost every time. The Korean Cheon’hado's victory over Blaeu’s great Dutch 'Golden Age' map stood out particularly strongly.
3. Medievalists continue to rule HistoryTwitter
Not only did a medieval map win, but it was an all-medieval final. And, with the exception of the 1506 Contarini map, an all-medieval semi final draw. For two medieval maps not to make it through the group stages was something of a world cup upset (think France, football World Cup 2010). Perhaps medieval maps were comparatively over-represented, but it’s difficult to argue against this given their astonishing rarity and capacity for insight. Do not mess with Medieval Twitter!
4. You value historical significance over beauty
In the final head-to-head you had the choice of the delicate beauty of the Psalter map over the rugged historical weight of the Anglo-Saxon map, The latter won through.
5. And finally…. accuracy nowhere in sight
The map you voted the British Library’s favourite is one of our least ‘accurate’ maps in the modern conventional western sense. Despite the seeming obsession with mathematical accuracy in maps (and its particular value to the digital humanities), it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. You said it.
Thank you again for participating, as always it couldn't have happened without you.
17 July 2020
This final chapter discusses a number of cartographic innovations from the middle of the twentieth century onwards that exploited the ability of photographs to capture data - from developments in aerial photogrammetry, through multispectral satellite mapping and surveillance imagery, to the digital map platforms of today.
Technical innovations that had begun during the Second World War soon extended into the civilian sphere with the widespread adoption of aerial photogrammetry by national mapping agencies worldwide – a development that arguably had a greater impact than any other on mapping practices of the twentieth century. New radar surveying techniques allowed air photographs to be pinpointed on the ground more accurately, more economically and over far greater areas than before, bringing vast regions of inaccessible terrain within the mapmaker’s scope for the first time.
Between the 1950s and the 1980s, the whole of the Soviet Union was mapped in this way, resulting in over 300,000 sheets at a scale of 1:25,000. During the same period, the British Directorate of Overseas Surveys also covered over 2.5 million square miles of land, mostly over former British colonies and administrations that had no mapping capability of their own. The image below shows an isolated settlement and nearby areas of subsistence agriculture in eastern Nigeria. Maps made from such images contributed to state economic and social planning initiatives.
Aerial photograph of Nanguru, Nigeria, 1974. Image courtesy National Collection of Aerial Photography.
Mapping vast, sometimes featureless, inland regions led to some eccentric examples of cartography. The following detail is taken from one Australian map sheet that covers more than 2,750 square kilometers of the Great Sandy Desert. Each square is one kilometre on the side. Of the total 3,062 sheets in the series covering the whole country, only half were printed – this sheet was selected for print on account of a single track that meanders briefly along the bottom edge, before diverting back to the adjacent sheet beneath.
Detail of Australia 1:100,000 topographic survey, Weenoo Sheet 3256, 1972. BL Maps 90050.(125.).
Widespread use of air photographs also led to security concerns. As part of the British reconstruction effort after the war, the RAF covered the whole of Great Britain with aerial photography in order to assess bomb damage. Between 1945 and 1951 the Ordnance Survey published the photography as OS Mosaics, large-scale rectified photomaps of towns, cities and some rural areas.
After many images had already been published, it was feared that foreign states might benefit from the level of detail of sensitive sites that was revealed. Further editions of the same sites were therefore over-painted before publication in order to remove or disguise these features. The military airfield shown in the image below has been replaced by a fictitious pattern of fields and country lanes in the later version beneath. In 1954 OS Mosaics were removed from sale entirely.
Air photo mosaics of Britain, sheet 26/32 NE, 1946 (above), 1950 (below). BL Maps O.S.M. Image courtesy Lie of the Land, pub The British Library, 2001.
An alternative and innovative approach to photomapping was taken in Sweden. From as early as 1935, aerial photography was incorporated into the Ekonomisk Karta land use series. The large-scale photographs provided a base layer onto which topographic, cadastral and land use symbols and colours were added.
Detail of Ekonomisk Karta Över Sverige, Sheet 20K7D, 1959. BL Maps 35290.(48.). Image courtesy Lantmäteriet.
Stereo pairs of air photographs could be made into three-dimensional ‘anaglyph’ images, which were viewed through coloured glasses. Examples of these were created for military planning purposes during the Second World War, such as a German series from 1944 showing the Istrian coastline (held at BL Maps Y.3842.). After the war, the French national mapping agency published a number of anaglyphs in a Relief Form Atlas of 1956. The purpose of the atlas was to teach readers to understand the mapping of a wide variety of landscapes by showing three-dimensional views alongside maps of the same location. The following image of the volcanic cone atop Mount Karthala in the Comoros is striking when viewed through a pair of red and blue 3D glasses.
Anaglyph image and map of complex crater, Comoros, 1949, in Relief Form Atlas, pub IGN, 1956. BL Maps Ref. 912 1956.
Images taken from aeroplanes were soon joined by those taken from satellites, after the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 sparked the Space Race between themselves and the USA. The speed of technological developments over this period is encapsulated in the three images following. This annotated photograph taken from a military aeroplane in 1936 captures the curvature of the Earth for the first time, and shows the highest point then reached by man.
The first photograph ever made showing the division between the troposhere and the stratosphere and also the actual curvature of the earth, National Geographic Society, 1936. BL Maps Y.84. Image courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Only two decades later an unmanned Russian spacecraft, Luna 3, took the first pictures of the far side of the moon as it orbited in 1959. The images were transmitted back to Earth by radio link and published in Moscow the following year in the Atlas of the Far Side of the Moon.
Atlas obratnoi storony luny [Atlas of the Far Side of the Moon], pub Akademia NAUK SSSR, 1960. BL Maps 29.b.68.
Within the next ten years man too had travelled round the moon. American astronaut William Anders took this iconic photograph, which looks back at the Earth as it rises above the lunar surface – an image of the world that had previously been possible only in the imagination.
Earthrise, 1968. Image © NASA.
Both the Soviet Union and the USA launched military reconnaissance satellites during the early 1960s that were capable of creating high resolution imagery for intelligence and mapping purposes. Civilian satellites followed, perhaps the most successful of which was Landsat, launched by the USA in 1972.
Multispectral satellite imagery became an essential feature of land survey and resource management, leading to a proliferation of thematic maps, and a new category of mapping under the title satellite image maps. The ease with which satellite imagery could track changes over time in the environment also brought new insights to many areas of study, including urbanisation, de-forestation, analysis of weather systems, and ocean dynamics.
Upper Chesapeake Bay satellite image map, second experimental edition, USGS, 1972. BL Maps X.2987. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Nowadays aerial photographs and satellite images are ubiquitous in digital mapping products that have become a common feature of everyday life. 2001 saw the launch of Google Earth, an application in which satellite imagery and aerial photography are draped over digital terrain models to provide interactive three-dimensional map views.
Screenshot showing the Island of Stromboli, Google Earth, 2020.
In other applications, maps and photographs are now interchangeable - users can choose between map or satellite viewing modes.
Screenshots taken from Google Maps, 2020.
Google Street View, launched in 2007, integrates terrestrial photography and cartography to create a model of the world from a horizontal viewpoint – a mode of representation with antecedents in artworks of former times. In the early 1900s, Eugène Atget started to make images of the older parts of Paris with the intention to record streets and buildings that risked being torn down and re-developed. By 1920 he was able to write, ‘This enormous artistic and documentary collection is now complete. I may say that I have in my possession all of Old Paris’.
Cabaret ‘Au Port-Salut’ by Eugène Atget, 1903. Image courtesy Bibliotèque historique de la Ville de Paris.
Half a century later, American artist Ed Ruscha created an artwork entitled Every Building on the Sunset Strip by fixing a camera onto the back of his truck and driving up and down as it took pictures on a timer. His intention was to recreate the experience of moving through the landscape.
Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha, 1966. Image courtesy National Gallery of Australia.
Google Street View now also employs cameras fixed to cars, or strapped to pedestrians’ backs, to create strips of 360-degree images stitched together. The artistry and focus on aesthetic have been lost in these pictures made by machines, but those qualities have been replaced by functionality. Google’s georeferenced, navigable imagery allows users to search and interact with a vast database of (mainly business) information. The corner building shown below, tagged so that one can choose to see the menu or make a booking at the restaurant within, is the same as that in the Atget photograph from 100 years before.
Screenshot taken from Google Street View, 2020.
The perceived realism of digital maps and photographs makes them particularly persuasive. However, two posts reproduced from Twitter, below, document conflicting facts about the shooting down of an American drone by Iranian forces in June 2019. The first, published by US Central Command, shows the drone flying through international, not Iranian, airspace when it was hit, while the second image, posted the following day by the Foreign Minister of Iran, shows the drone in a different location, within Iranian airspace.
Screenshot of Image posted by US Central Command on Twitter, 2019.
This incident reminds us that the latest generation of maps and images remains as susceptible as any before to manipulation or exploitation.
Today more than ever, maps and photographs go hand-in-hand in our ceaseless attempts to capture, model, and mould the world around us.
08 July 2020
We have come to the fourth and final qualifying group of our British Library world map world cup, and in it we have four extraordinary and breathtaking examples of cartography from between the 11th and 20th centuries. I hope the following descriptions, links and images will provide you with what you need to make your difficult choice.
Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals tomorrow, Friday July 10th.
1.Beatus of Liébana world map. Drawn in Burgos, Spain, between 1091 and 1109 (Add.MS 11695)
The 15 surviving 'Beatus' maps are included in textual commentaries on the Apocalypse of St John (from the New Testament Book of Revelation) written by the Spanish theologian Beatus of Liébana (fl.776–86). The British Library’s example, arguably more powerful and brooding than the others, is a diagrammatic image with powerful pictorial elements. These include fishes swimming in the sea encircling the world, the‘molehill’ mountains and the unforgettable image of the Garden of Eden at the top of the map, in the east. It was produced in northern Spain (in the monastery of San Domingo de Silos) in around 1109, and as a result reflects Islamic pictorial influences that had spread from northern Africa.
Link to digitised example: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beatus-world-map
Further reading: Peter Barber, 'Medieval world maps; in Paul Harvey, The Hereford World Map: medieval world maps and their contexts (London: British LIbrary, 2006).
2. The Contarini-Rosselli world map. Engraving, published in Florence in 1506 (Maps C.2.cc.4).
This is the earliest surviving printed map to show any part of the Americas. It was published in Florence in 1506, only a decade or so after Christopher Columbus's first voyage in 1492. The map, which is by the Venetian Giovanni Matteo Contarini and Florentine Francesco Rosselli, has been celebrated for its American content ever since this only known copy was purchased by the British Museum in 1922. But it is an extremely early and partial glimpse of eastern America: Newfoundland and Labrador are shown cemented on to Kamchatka, Cuba and Hispaniola are floating next to Japan, and South America is joined to the vast Southern Continent.
Link to digital copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/first-known-printed-world-map-showing-america
3. Aḍhāīdvīpa. Painted in Rajasthan in 1830 (Add.Or. 1814).
This is a map showing the structure of the world of Jainism, a religious system founded in northern India in the sixth or seventh century BCE. The map, which is in Sanskrit, was painted onto cloth in Rajasthan in 1830, and like many of the European medieval mappamundi, it illustrates a fusion of human and sacred geography. At the centre is the recognisable, terrestrial world of people (Mount Meru is at the centre, as it is in the Korean Ch’ ōnhado maps). Surrounding it is the spiritual world: green concentric-ringed continents illustrated by lunar symbols and separated by fish-filled oceans, beyond which is the outer land of the jinas or prophets.
Link to digital copy: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_Or_1814
Further reading: Joseph E. Schwartzburg, 'Cosmological mapping' in The history of cartography volume two, book one: cartography in the traditional Islamic and South Asian societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).
4. Self determination world map, by F. Klimesch. Published in Berlin in around 1919 (Maps CC.5.b.29).
The only 20th century world map to make it into our World Map World Cup competition (not that there aren't many great 20th century world maps, just a mere 16 places to fill), is a German map produced in the wake of the peace treaties following the defeat of Germany and the end of the Great War, 1914-1918. It shows the victorious allies Britain, France, Russia and the USA as soldier figures, holding leashes attached to their respective national beasts. These beasts have been placed over the colonies they controlled.
The title explains why: 'What would be left of the entente if it made serious the right of self-determination of their own people and let go of the reins!' The map calls out the Allies' decision to confiscate German colonies under the principle of 'self determination,' but to retain theirs regardless. Given the century-long process of decolonisation that ensued, and ensues, the map is profoundly and powerfully prescient.
Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/was-von-der-entente
04 July 2020
World maps are amazing things for their ability to conceptualise the earth and capture it in miniature. Of course, this comes at a price. World maps, perhaps more than any other 'image,' are powerful and subjective. Each one contains a particular world view, and throughout history they, or rather their makers, have tended use them to impose their views upon others. Who is at the world's centre? Who is relegated to the margins? Who is shrunken in size, and who is removed from the map all together?
So it's a strange quirk of history that during the 20th century, that most antagonistic of eras, the world map came to be seen as a symbol of co-operation, togetherness, shared heritage and environmental awareness (thanks in no small part to NASA's famous 1968 Earthrise photograph of our vulnerable planet hanging in the void). As a result, a world map is now capable of saying “we’re all in it together”. It’s World Population Day on Saturday 11 July, so let's attempt to reclaim some of that spirit.
I'd like to invite you to help us choose the British Library’s favourite world map. Over the next week I’m going to introduce sixteen of the most extraordinary and groundbreaking world maps from between the 11th and 20th centuries, carefully selected from the British Library’s collection of over 4 million maps.
The maps will be arranged into 4 groups, with one Twitter poll per day (Monday to Thursday) deciding which two maps from each group will go through to the quarter finals on Friday. The semi finals and final poll will happen on Saturday, and we’ll think up something special for the winner. Follow us @BLMaps, hashtag #BLWorldMapWorldCup.
What selection criteria might you use? Well, did the map capture some signal shift in civilisation? Is it unique, beautiful, technically accomplished or cleverly made? Or do you just like it because you like it? That’s valid too.
Hopefully through this just-for-fun competition it will be possible to appreciate the history of a world of multiple viewpoints; and, though it won't be easy, to begin to rediscover ones which have been erased.
23 June 2020
The previous part of this article discussed the introduction of photography into maps and mapmaking over the first hundred years after its invention in the 1830s. Photography was initially used to complement information found on the map, by recording topographical views or objects of antiquity, and it was incorporated into the map production process from the 1850s. In this early period photographers also began to capture the work of survey teams in the field. Soldiers in the British Royal Engineers were specially trained in the use of cameras for this purpose. This group photo from circa 1860 was taken by one such soldier-photographer, and shows colleagues posing in a cutting cleared through the forest to enable survey work along the border between the United States and Canada.
Cutting on the 49th Parallel, on the Right Bank of the Mooyie River Looking West, c.1860. Image courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum, Museum No. 40090.
Cameras were also employed to record advances in cartographic technology and instrumentation. The following scenes were set up to demonstrate use of the latest levelling instruments by staff at the Survey of India in 1909. Beyond this original purpose, the first image also illustrates the colonial hierarchy in the division of labour that was based on race.
Observer with Cylindrical Level and Recorder (above) and General Walker’s Staves Erected upon Pegs (below), in Account of the Operations of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, Vol 19, Levelling of precision in India, 1910. BL IOR/V/19/20.
Another later image demonstrates the same division of labour in Africa amongst members of the Anglo-Belgian Congo-Zambesi Boundary Commission, as European surveyors take observations from a trig point around 1930. A contemporary account of the survey published in The Geographical Journal highlights the pressure the Commission was under from the two European administrations to agree and demarcate this African boundary quickly, so that valuable mining rights could be settled between them.
Observing from Trig. Point, Congo-Zambesi Boundary Commission, 1927-34. BL shelfmark not yet allocated.
After the First World War there was a drive to realise the potential of aerial photography in new fields of geographical and archaeological analysis away from the battlefield. In 1919 G.A. Beazley published an article entitled Air Photography in Archaeology, in which he described wartime aerial survey work carried out around Samarra in modern-day Iraq. The survey had revealed the layout of an ancient city, details of which were transferred to the military map, below, though they were evident only from the air.
Detail of Central Quarter of the City with Public Gardens, in The Geographical Journal Vol. 53, No. 5 (May, 1919), pp. 330-335. BL Maps 159. [Detail also appears on ‘Tigris Corps’ map sheet T.C. 109, held at BL Maps C.14.s.]
Another pioneer of aerial archaeology was O.G.S. Crawford, who was appointed the first archaeological officer at the Ordnance Survey in 1920. He used air photographs made by the RAF to measure the length of the Avenue at Stonehenge, and later joined with Alexander Keiller to make an aerial survey of archaeological sites in several British counties. Together they published Wessex from the Air in 1928.
Hambledon Hill, in Wessex from the Air, 1928. BL General Reference Collection 7709.t.13. Image courtesy Digital Library of India.
With the introduction of black and white infra-red photographic film in 1931, a new kind of geographical analysis became possible. Infra-red film responds to different wavelengths of light from the panchromatic type, and was useful in indicating high tide lines and different types of vegetation. The glass slide below shows an infra-red image from the 1930s, in which bare hills appear dark and sharply distinguished from the characteristically bright areas of cultivation at their feet. The water in the meandering river also shows up black.
Early infra-red film slide, location unknown, 1930s. BL shelfmark not yet allocated.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the use of infra-red film was amongst a number of techniques trialled with aerial photography to map the gradients of enemy-held beaches. In the end, the most successful method used air photographs taken with panchromatic film to determine the shape of the seabed by studying the shapes and velocities of wave patterns as they came to shore.
W.W. Williams, The Determination of Gradients on Enemy-Held Beaches, in The Geographical Journal Vol. 109, No. 1/3 (Jan. - Mar., 1947), pp. 76-90. BL Maps 159.
This crucial element of wartime invasion planning appears in the following beach map of an island off the coast of modern-day Myanmar. The diagrams in red, on the right, were derived from air photographs and show the beach gradients at different numbered points on the map.
Detail of Hind 603 beach map [Burma], 1944. BL Maps 13496.
Photography fulfilled other roles in wartime invasion planning. During the Second World War German forces created volumes of geographical intelligence by country, in preparation for the invasion of foreign nations in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. These volumes included photographs that complemented the information found on maps by giving a visual impression of the lie of the land, and by providing additional geographical intelligence. Pictures illustrating local geomorphology appear alongside images of industrial buildings, harbours and fortifications.
In the volume dedicated to the South Coast of England a number of what appear to be pre-war tourist postcards have been reproduced. The example below shows location 255 on the map of the Isle of White that follows. The accompanying text explains its inclusion - ‘Narrow sandy beach in front of the bank fortification, is exposed at low tide.’
Militärgeographische Angaben über England, 1940. BL Maps 47.g.13.
Advances in aerial photogrammetry had continued between the wars with the invention of multiplex instruments in Italy and Germany in 1930, which allowed a single operator to map large areas quickly from small scale air photographs. In the United States the technique was adopted by USGS, the national mapping agency, and was widely used to map agricultural areas under New Deal public works projects, so that by the start of the Second World War a large number of trained photogrammetrists was available for the American war effort.
Many of these photogrammetrists were put to work creating photomaps of islands in the South-East Asian Theatre, producing innovative sheets that consisted of a conventional line map on one side and a rectified photomap on the reverse.
Iloilo Town, Central Philippines 1:25,000 photomap, 1944. BL Maps Y.2602. Image courtesy University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.
Similar advances had been made in large-scale aerial photogrammetry with the invention of the slotted template method in the United States in 1936. This was a development of radial line plotting techniques first promoted by the British Air Survey Committee in the 1920s, and provided a method of adjusting and correlating large numbers of overlapping air photographs.
One of the most intensive periods of large-scale aerial survey activity during the war came with the secret preparation of the so-called ‘Benson’ series of maps, named after the RAF station in Oxfordshire from which many of the survey and reconnaissance flights departed during 1942–43. The series was completed in advance of the D-Day landings in 1944, and features an overprint showing German defences along the Normandy coast of France. The British Library is currently conserving a representative set of materials used in the compilation of these secret maps, which will be made available at shelfmark BL Maps Y.4169. The material includes a US Army report that compares the accuracy of a sheet made by the multiplex method with one made by the slotted template technique.
Benson Series, Creully sheet, 1944. BL Maps MOD GSGS 4347 [Defence O/P].
The final chapter will lead this brief survey up to the present day...
09 June 2020
Since the invention of photography in the late 1830s, the camera’s ability to record and document its surroundings has made it a natural partner of the mapmaker. From the beginning, photographers recorded landscapes in the manner of artists’ topographical views, providing ‘scientific’ perspectives to complement the view from the map. Subsequently, photographs became integral to the mapmaking process – by capturing data that is incorporated into maps, or by transformation into maps themselves. Cameras also recorded the methods, tools and people employed in making maps; and in the world of art, photographers showed the influence of cartography’s ordered aesthetic.
A Crossing of the Single Track Sandau-Schonhausen Railway Line and the Main Berlin-Hannover Line, by Robert Petschow, in Das Land der Deutschen, 1933. BL General Reference Collection J/X.802/4246.
With the help of items held in the British Library collection, this first of three articles provides a brief introduction to the varied uses of photography in and around mapping up to the 1930s.
In 1855 photographer and army officer Linnaeus Tripe was included amongst the members of a diplomatic mission sent from the Government of India to Upper Burma. Here he fulfilled instructions to record the country and the people of the region by making over 200 architectural studies and landscape views. Many of his photographs appeared in the official published account of the mission (BL General Reference Collection 2354.h.7.), where they accompanied sketches, watercolours and maps to form an important record of the region that was little known by outsiders at the time.
No. 107. Rangoon. Shwe Dagon Pagoda, by Linnaeus Tripe, 1855. BL Photo 61/1(107).
In the same period, photographers were employed for the first time by the British Ordnance Survey. Colonel Sir Henry James, Superintendent of the OS, introduced photography into the process of map production in 1855, and encouraged a role for photography in the recording of objects of antiquity, which he saw as integral to the wider work of survey and mapping. In 1864 he ordered the Survey of Jerusalem, where surveyor-photographer James McDonald of the Royal Engineers made 87 photographs showing various views of the Holy City. The images were published in their own separate volume of the official report (BL Maps 30.e.19.).
West entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, by James McDonald, 1864. BL AdF72/27947 (27b).
The first recorded photographs taken from the air also date from this early period. In 1858 French photographer Nadar took pictures of Paris from a hot air balloon tethered near the Arc de Triomphe. Oblique views obtained in this way from balloons or from cameras tethered to kites were sometimes labelled to identify streets and landmarks, arguably making these the earliest photomaps, but of higher value to cartographers were images taken from cameras that pointed vertically down to earth. Cecil Victor Shadbolt made the first such photograph of the UK still in existence, from a hot air balloon over Stamford Hill, London on 29 May 1882.
An aerial view showing Stonebridge Road, Stamford Hill, and Seven Sisters Curve, part of the Tottenham and Hampstead Junction Railway, taken from 2000ft, by Cecil Victor Shadbolt, 1882. Image courtesy Historic England Archive.
The British Library holds another of Shadbolt’s aerial photographs, made in 1884 over Blackheath (BL Maps C.44.d.49.).
By the turn of the twentieth century, rockets were also employed to carry cameras into the air. Even pigeons were fitted with miniature cameras, a technique first demonstrated in 1907. Soon after, aeroplanes joined this list, offering a more stable and controlled platform for airborne cameras.
Pigeon with German miniature camera, during the First World War. Wikipedia.
After the outbreak of the First World War, these methods were used for reconnaissance purposes, gathering intelligence about enemy trenches or build-ups of troops and artillery, and became of major importance in the planning of engagements. Mosaics of overlapping images were put together to cover entire trench systems.
Map. No. 5522. Air photo mosaic sheet 36 I 26. Image courtesy Imperial War Museum. © IWM Q 47658.
The need to revise and re-draw maps led to the development of systematic aerial survey techniques. During the course of the war, the major combatant nations employed a variety of methods - optical techniques involved projecting aerial photographs onto existing maps and tracing points from one to the other, while graphical methods allowed points to be plotted from perspective grids that were drawn onto and correlated between the images and the existing maps.
The high value placed on the contribution of aerial survey to the war effort is indicated by the sheer volume of images made - in the first nine months of 1918, British forces alone took over five million aerial photographs. They could be processed and delivered in under one hour from the time the pictures were taken.
Reserve Army Front: vertical of Thiepval village, and German front-line and support trenches, while undergoing bombardment by British artillery. Image courtesy Imperial War Museum. © IWM Q 63740.
Attempts were also made to transfer to vertical imagery a set of techniques previously developed for horizontal imagery – terrestrial photogrammetry, as it was known, utilised overlapping pairs of horizontal views taken from the ground in combination with stereoplotting devices to recreate and plot the landscape. However, the trials met with little success, as inconsistencies in the angles of the vertical images could not be eliminated.
Terrestrial photogrammetry continued to be used and developed after the war. The glass plates shown below carry overlapping negative images taken by British surveyors during the Iraq-Turkish Boundary Survey of 1927, and were made with a photo-theodolite, in which a camera was inserted into the surveying instrument.
Glass plates made by the Iraq-Turkish Boundary Commission using the Wild photo-theodolite, 1927. BL shelfmark not yet allocated.
Despite the high costs associated with aerial survey, the technique brought with it significant advantages over traditional land-based methods. The images below, made by the Anglo-Italian Somaliland Boundary Commission in 1929, demonstrate its use in mapping large areas of inaccessible terrain. However, aerial surveys supplemented, rather than replaced land parties, who still surveyed control points onto which the imagery was to be fixed. In this early example they even constructed marks on the ground to guide the flights taking photographs above.
Vertical aerial photographs made by the Anglo-Italian Boundary Commission, 1929. BL WOMAT/ADD/87/1/7.
The image above demonstrates the complexities involved in identifying and interpreting features from the air. The following British War Office lecture slide from around the same era provides guidance in the art of black and white aerial photo interpretation.
Detail of Air Photographs, General Idea of Relative Depth of Tone, glass lantern lecture slide from the British War Office, c.1930. BL shelfmark not yet allocated.
The aesthetic of aerial photography soon spread into wider culture, and was taken up by European artists such as Robert Petschow and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with an art movement called New Photography. The patterned and grid-like images represented their ideas around the influence of mechanisation on society at the time, and held out the hope of finding a new, ‘objective’ way of viewing the world.
Parking Lot in Chicago, by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1938. Image courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
The next article will continue this story through the Second World War...
28 May 2020
After recently completing a pilot course in Computing for Information Professionals at Birkbeck University, I have just released a new dataset containing the text extracted from almost 2,000 colonial-era maps and documents covering eastern Africa. The resource is available now from the Shared Research Repository, and provides access to thousands of names of historical settlements and regions, descriptions of historical land use, topography and vegetation, and notes of ethnographic, military or administrative context.
The resource consists of a downloadable spreadsheet, which lets users browse or search the extracted text. I hope it will be of particular use in identifying and locating place names in eastern Africa during the colonial period, for which there is a gap in current research resources. I’m also hopeful it will facilitate the contribution of these maps to studies of the history of the environment.
The text was harvested from maps and documents that are held at the British Library in the War Office Archive, a collection of over 14,000 mostly unique, hand-drawn items originally kept by the British War Office between c.1880 and 1940 and used to compile printed maps over large parts of the world. They came from a variety of sources, including military surveyors, explorers, missionaries and spies. Generous funding from Indigo Trust recently allowed us to digitise those items relating to eastern Africa.
Automated extraction of the text was carried out using the Google Vision API, which found a total of 633,451 pieces of ‘text’ on the maps. However, after the majority of erroneous results or results that were not useful had been cleaned out, the final dataset was reduced to 317,133 transcriptions. These are sorted alphabetically and displayed in an Excel spreadsheet, shown in the following screenshot:
The order in which the pieces of text were transcribed from the maps was retained in the second column of the spreadsheet so that, if the spreadsheet is re-ordered by that column, each word can also be seen in its original context – for example, the text in the screenshot below can be read from top to bottom (‘The topography has been supplied...’):
The spreadsheet enables a user to identify the image in which any piece of text appears, and links to a geographical search interface for the archive, shown below, which in turn provides links to high-res versions of the images and their catalogue records on the BL website. The combination of these resources lets users identify each piece of text and see it in context on the face of the map.
The maps are drawn in a wide variety of different hands, and the text often overlaps or is written over background features, making automated transcription tricky. Some errors do remain - for example, where individual characters have been incorrectly transcribed within words, though the words themselves should still be identifiable. In addition, not all words appearing on the maps were captured.
The resource came about after I was fortunate enough to join a cohort of colleagues from the British Library and the National Archives attending the pilot postgraduate course at Birkbeck. After speed-learning Python and SQL coding languages in the first term, I then focussed on the development of a software tool that enlists the Google Vision API to auto-transcribe text found on maps. Once made, I set it to work harvesting words found on the eastern Africa maps.
I am very grateful to BL Digital Curator Nora McGregor, who set up and coordinated the initial pilot (now launching this autumn as an Applied Data Science Postgraduate Certificate), to the Institute of Coding, who funded it, and to BL managers for allocating study time during work. This project would also not have been possible without Indigo Trust, whose generous funding to conserve, catalogue and digitise War Office maps over the last five years has made them accessible to the world online, and enabled further initiatives such as this.
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