Maps and views blog

25 posts categorized "Science"

23 June 2020

Maps and photography: a brief history, part 2

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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.

Photograph of Royal Engineers Survey Team circa 1860

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.

Photograph of Survey of India staff with levelling instrument 1909

Photograph of Survey of India staff with levelling staves 1909

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.

Photograph of Congo-Zambesi Boundary Commission 1927-34

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.

Map of Samarra 1919

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.

Air photograph of Hambledon Hill in Wessex 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 air photograph 1930s

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.

Air photographs of waves 1940s

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.

Beach gradient map of island in Burma 1944

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.’

Photograph of beach near Ryde reproduced 1940

Map of Ryde on Isle of White 1940

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.

Photomap of Iloilo Town in Philippines 1944

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 map of Creully in Normandy 1944

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...

Nick Dykes

11 June 2020

Great Barrier Reef ‘discovery’

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Exactly 250 years ago today Captain James Cook ‘discovered’ the Great Barrier Reef the hard way when his ship Endeavour ran into it on the 11th June 1770 and nearly sank. The Reef is located in the Coral Sea off the north-eastern coast of Australia and stretches some 2,300 km (over 1,400 miles). This unique marine ecosystem is the world’s largest structure made of living organisms which UNESCO declared a protected World Heritage Site in 1981.

Add MS 15500  f 1 detail1

Detail from Part of the southern Hemispher[e] showing the Resolutions track through the Pacific and southern ocean’ by Joseph Gilbert taken during Captain James Cook's voyage in the Resolution through the Pacific and Southern Oceans (1772-1775) showing the coast of Australia with the Great Barrier Reef depicted as unconnected shoals and small islands. Add MS 15500, f 1

Maps and charts drawn by Captain James Cook can be found among the British Library’s collections as well as other documents related to his voyages, including Endeavour’s log book. According to the captain’s log on Monday 11 June 1770 the conditions were good with ‘fine weather and smooth sea’. Cook was aware of underwater obstacles and was cautiously navigating through the maze of rocks and shoals recording depth soundings regularly, when suddenly just before 11pm the ship collided with a rock (which he later realised was a bank of coral).

Add MS 8959  f.125

Detail from the Captain’s log dated 11th June 1770 reporting the incident (folio 125r). Log-book of the Endeavour, Lieutenant James Cook, Commander,  from May 1768 to July 1771, Add MS 8959, f. 125r

After 23 long hours of desperate attempts to re-float the ship (including throwing cannons, iron and stone ballast, casks, even oil jars, overboard to lighten the vessel) Cook and his crew finally managed to get Endeavour off the reef. They made their way to shore where on the banks of the river at the site of modern Cooktown repairs were carried out.


 Add_ms_7085_39 detail
A chart of part of the sea coast of New South Wales, on the east coast of New Holland, from Cape Tribulation to Endeavour Straits; drawn by Lieut. James Cook, 1770. Second image: detail showing the locations of the incident and a makeshift harbour on the Endeavours River. Add MS 7085, f 39

Cook never fully realised the vastness of the Great Barrier Reef, nevertheless the maps and charts compiled during his voyages were extremely detailed and provided the basis for further exploration of the Australian coastal waters. They were gradually improved upon through painstaking surveys carried out over the following years by various Admiralty captains and naval officers. A series of navigational charts produced by the Hydrographic Office covering the region were constantly updated and reissued with corrections well into the 20th century. Sir David Attenborough recalls using Cook’s charts as late as the 1950s when sailing parts of the Great Barrier Reef.

10491.e.18 p20

Chart of the Northern part of the Great Barrier Reef including Torres Strait & yt adjacent coast of New Guinea published in A sketch of the physical structure of Australia..., 1850. 10491.e.18

Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reefs

Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reefs ... from the surveys of Captains Flinders, P.P. King, Blackwood, Owen Stanley and Yule, 1802-50 ; the outer detached reefs, and line of Great Barrier Reefs from Captain Denham, R.N. 1858-60 compiled in the Hydrographic Office by Mr. F.J. Evans, 1860. Maps SEC.14.(2763, 2764.) Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

The Great Barrier Reef is home to the richest biodiversity on Earth providing feeding grounds, nursery areas and living space to countless marine species. The Reef is incredibly important not only to the oceanic life, it also helps to shield coastal ecosystems by reducing erosion and absorbing wave energy during storms and hurricanes. In recent years alarming reports about the impact that climate change has had on the Reef highlight issues such as rising sea temperatures, pollution and bleaching factors contributing to coral damage, ultimately leading to gradual languishment and death of portions of the Reef.

Maps play an incredibly important role in environmental projects and conservation initiatives which rely on the most up to date data and work closely with mapping agencies surveying the ocean floor which help scientists to understand and address the issues posed by the challenges climate change.

09 June 2020

Maps and photography: a brief history, part 1

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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.

Aerial photograph by Robert Petschow

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.

Photograph of Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Burma by Linnaeus Tripe

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.).

Photograph of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, by James McDonald

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.

Aerial photograph by Cecil Victor Shadbolt

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.

Photograph of a pigeon with German miniature camera

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.

WW1 air photo mosaic

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.

WW1 aerial photograph

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 used in terrestrial photogrammetry

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.

Aerial photographs of Somalia boundary

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.

Glass slide with photo interpretation guidance

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

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...

Nick Dykes

28 May 2020

Automated text extraction from colonial-era maps of eastern Africa

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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.

Detail of a manuscript map of Umkamba Province in Kenya held at the British Library in the War Office Archive

Detail of a manuscript map entitled Masailand held at the British Library in the War Office Archive

Details of 'Umkamba Prov. part of (Central)', 1901 - BL Maps WOMAT/AFR/BEA/54 (above), and 'Masailand', 1901 - BL Maps WOMAT/AFR/BEA/41 (below). Transcribed words have been highlighted.

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:

Detail of resource providing text extracted from maps held at the British Library in the War Office Archive

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...’):

Detail of resource providing text extracted from maps held at the British Library in the War Office Archive

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.

Geographical search interface for maps held at the British Library in the War Office Archive

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.

Nick Dykes

26 May 2020

Thomas Tuttell: a most unfortunate mapmaker

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You may have seen one of the British Library’s historic globes included in a ’curators on camera’ feature on social media recently. 

It's the unique surviving example of a celestial globe published by Thomas Tuttell (1674-1702) in London  in 1700, one of a number of globes we've recently digitised and turned into interactive 3D models for the web.

Tuttells celestial globe-Maps-G53-resized
Thomas Tuttell, [32 inch celestial globe], 1700. BL Maps G.53.

Thanks to the research of Ashley Baynton-Williams and Laurence Worms (whose indispensable reference work on British Map Engravers  was published in 2011) we have some compelling insights into the life and appearance of its creator.

Thomas Tuttell was a versatile craftsman, publisher, surveyor, mathematician and instrument maker, a polymath in today's eyes but something which then was pretty standard given that it all came together under the canopy of popular science. Tuttell, along with a number of other London practitioners, made a living thanks to a new enthusiasm for compasses, quadrants, measuring devices, maps, globes, calendars and mathematical guides. His terrific trade card, below, presents his wares, including what is very probably our celestial globe.

Trade card of Thomas Tuttell

Trade card of Thomas Tuttell [London, c. 1700].  1934-123. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

But was Tuttell any good? Not everyone thought so, particularly a rival mapmaker Robert Morden, who described him in 1702 as “a late upstart Hydrographer who never did, nor ever knew how to project or draw a map or sea-chart”. He would say that though, wouldn't he. London mapmakers loved insulting their rivals. We can balance Morden's opinion with the one of John Lenthall, who described the ‘Late ingenuious Mr Tuttell’ in his 1717 reissue of a set of mathematical cards first produced by - yes - Thomas Tuttell. 

Whether Tuttell was a genius or an upstart, we do know that he was both very resourceful and unbelievably unlucky.

Tuttell label detail Maps G 53
A detail of Maps G.53 showing the label of Thomas Tuttell

In the first instance, Tuttell didn't actually make the globe himself. A man called Joseph Moxon did, around 50 years earlier. What Tuttell did was cut out a lozenge-shaped piece of paper bearing his name and imprint and stick it over Moxon's name appearing on the globe he had acquired the rights to. The globe was and is an extremely proficient piece of British cartography and craftsmanship - indeed it was the first British-made celestial globe to have been produced in over half a century. Why try and improve an already excellent product? It made good business sense.

Secondly, Tuttell is undoubtedly one of the most unfortunate mapmakers we know of. For example, in June 1692 he advertised in The Post Boy for the return of his distance-measuring instrument called a waywiser (the wheeled object illustrated in the centre foreground of his trade card) that he’d lost or had purloined on the road between Barnet and St. Alban’s. Now, a waywiser isn’t an inconsiderable object in size and heaviness. Very unlucky indeed.

Tuttell also has the tragic accolade of being one of very few mapmakers to have died whilst actually in the process of making a map. He very unfortunately drowned in the River Thames around Dagenham at around 10am on 22 January 1702 whilst surveying on behalf of the Admiralty. He was only 28 years old.

We actually also have a description of poor Tuttell, from a note placed in The Post Boy by his widow Mary requesting the return of his body: ‘He was of a Middle Stature, fair light Hair but his Head newly shaved, his Coat a Grey Cloath napped, trimmed with black Buttons, his Waistcoat Gray, Breeches a light Colour; and his Linnen marked with a red T.’

A portrait of the young mapmaker, recently deceased.

07 May 2020

Antarctica: A brief history in maps, part 2

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Part 1 of this map tour ended with a late nineteenth-century depiction of the Antarctic that, whilst recognisable to us in the present day, was still substantially blank.

The updated chart below was made twelve years later by the same cartographer, J.G. Bartholomew. The most significant additions include the label ‘Antarctica’ on the continent itself, and the depiction of ‘schemes for Antarctic exploration’ proposed by Sir John Murray. Murray was a pioneering oceanographer, who was strongly engaged in the promotion of a new age of exploration in the far south. The map assists his cause: the route of a proposed British expedition leads across the landmass from one side to the other, and a wide ring around the continent is labelled, ‘Area for Bathymetric Research, to be surveyed by ships during winter’.

The wide extent of ‘Observed pack ice’, which is coloured green, is not credible for that time, and the choice of shade lends a more benign aspect to those regions than they deserved. This is a persuasive map that exaggerates the extent of current knowledge, and downplays the difficulties involved in completing the picture.

South Polar Chart, in The Scottish Geographical Magazine 1898

South Polar Chart, in The Scottish Geographical Magazine 1898 p 572. BL Maps 162.

It worked! The ‘Heroic Era of Antarctic Exploration’, a twenty-year period of extensive activity and research on the continent, began in 1901 with the departure of the British National Antarctic (‘Discovery’) Expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott. The map below documents the work of the expedition from 1902-04, and shows the extent of surveys carried out in the course of ‘Sledge Journeys’. The small-scale inset in the upper right corner shows the track of Scott’s first attempt towards the pole itself, and his furthest point south.

Map showing the work of the National Antarctic Expedition, 1902-3-4

Map showing the work of the National Antarctic Expedition, 1902-3-4. BL Maps 88710.(8.)

George Mulock, the expedition geologist, carried out a detailed survey of the area around the winter quarters in McMurdo Sound, shown here in large scale. In common with most Antarctic mapping of the period, this sheet was published as an accompaniment to the official expedition account. Locations of camps and a handful of sightlines, used in the construction of the map, are included; regions are coloured to show geology, and contour lines capture relief. Features named on the map for the first time include ‘Mount Discovery’ and the ‘Royal Society Range’, and a 'Camel’s Hump’ outcrop lies beside ‘Cathedral Rocks’.

Map of the district near the ‘Discovery’ winter quarters, 1906

Map of the district near the ‘Discovery’ winter quarters, 1906. BL Maps X.11702.

The British Antarctic (‘Nimrod’) Expedition 1907-09, led by Ernest Shackleton, claimed a new furthest south, and became the first to reach the magnetic south pole. The treks of both parties are documented on the sheets below, Shackleton’s extended journey trailing down towards the geographic pole on the left, while the route of the South Magnetic Polar Party appears on the right. The arbitrary location of the wandering magnetic pole is given an appropriate spot in the extreme top left corner of the sheet.

Maps showing Southern Journey Party [left] and South Magnetic Polar Party [right], in the Geographical Journal 1909 Vol 34 no 5

Southern Journey Party [left] and South Magnetic Polar Party [right], in the Geographical Journal 1909 Vol 34 no 5. BL Maps 159.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition was the first to reach the geographic south pole, arriving on 14 December 1911. In events that are now well-known, Scott’s British Antarctic (‘Terra Nova’) Expedition arrived at the pole just five weeks later to find that they had been defeated. The entire polar party perished on their return and were not found for another eight months. In this short period Amundsen published an account of his own expedition, which featured this expressive sketch map depicting his route to the polar summit at the top of the page. With the fate of Scott’s party unknown, only the ‘Base of Scott’s Expedition’ is marked at the foot of the route previously followed by Shackleton.

Approximate Bird's-Eye View, Drawn from the First Telegraphic Account, in The South Pole 1912

Approximate Bird's-Eye View, Drawn from the First Telegraphic Account, in The South Pole 1912, opp p 32. Image courtesy Wellesley College Library. Rare Books 2370.f.13.

The routes of both explorers are honoured on a map published by Stanfords before 1921. The larger shaded region of the continent is unexplained, but would appear to indicate areas observed or surveyed. However, this would greatly exaggerate the area known at the time, and requires another explanation.

Shortly before this map was produced, Great Britain had asserted her claim over Antarctic territory lying in a sixty-degree arc between 20 and 80 degrees West (beneath South America), and by 1923 the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies was stating his ambition that the whole of the continent should be incorporated into the British Empire. A look at some of the sub-regions incorporated in the shaded area – Victoria Land, King George V Land, King Edward VII Land – gives a clue that perhaps this sheet emphasises the ‘Britishness’ of these areas for an audience that was supportive of her territorial ambitions.

Map of the Antarctic Regions 1921

The Antarctic Regions, [1921]. BL Maps 88710.(13.)

On 1 December 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed into effect by twelve nations, who set aside all territorial claims on the continent in pursuit of peaceful scientific collaboration. The map below, made two years previously for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, still shows the continent sliced into national sectors, and yellow shading indicates ‘Areas explored or seen by man’.

A thick red line passing across the continent through the pole indicates the planned route of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which, over the summer season of 1957-8 became the first expedition to cross the continent from one side to the other.

The map also shows a network of proposed scientific bases, to be established during the International Geophysical Year 1957-8, a major scientific project featuring collaboration between East and West during the Cold War. At the pole itself the names of Amundsen and Scott are joined by that of American naval officer Richard E Byrd, who flew an aeroplane over the pole for the first time in 1929, and was one of the first to bring aerial survey techniques to the mapping of Antarctica.

The Daily Telegraph Map of Antarctica 1957

The Daily Telegraph Map of Antarctica, [1957]. BL Maps 88710.(57.)

From the 1960s onwards, satellites were employed in mapping the vast areas of the continent still unknown, and in 1972 the Soviet Union incorporated Antarctica into a series map of the world for the first time. This map of the pole is sheet number 234 of the Karta Mira series. Shades of purple indicate fluctuations in the height of the polar plateau.

Soviet map of the world Karta Mira 1:2,500,000 sheet 234

Karta Mira 1:2,500,000 sheet 234, 1972. BL Maps 920.(494.)

In the early 1990s the British Antarctic Survey was one of the founding partners involved in a collaboration between 11 nations to create a seamless digital map of the continent, by digitising existing maps and satellite images. The BAS sheet below takes its topographical detail from this Antarctic Digital Topographic Database, which is updated every six months. Since the 1960s, radio echo sounding techniques have been deployed to calculate the thickness of ice sheets, and the inset on the lower left shows the relief of the rock surface that lies beneath the ice.

British Antarctic Survey map of Antarctica, 2015

Antarctica, 2015. BL Maps X.13411.

The United States produces another data model of the continent. This sheet is a print-out of a digital image made by the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and other partners, who employed a Blue Waters supercomputer to process data derived from high-resolution satellite imagery. The underlying dataset is described as ‘a high-resolution, time-stamped digital elevation model for the Antarctic ice sheet’.

The Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (cartographic), 2018

The Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (cartographic), 2018. [Shelfmark yet to be allocated]

These last two maps reflect the switch made by cartography to digital data from the latter part of the twentieth century, and aptly conclude this brief history of the mapping of Antarctica.

Nick Dykes

30 April 2020

Antarctica: A brief history in maps, part 1

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Antarctica presents many unique challenges to cartographers: as the last continent to be explored, its vast landmass – half as big again as Europe – is largely inaccessible, covered by sheets of mostly featureless ice, and shrouded in perpetual darkness for half of the year.

In this 200th anniversary year of the first known sighting of the continent, this first of two articles gives a whistle-stop tour through maps held in the British Library that chart Antarctica’s gradual emergence from obscurity into light.

Stuck awkwardly at the bottom of the conventional world map, Antarctica is poorly served by many map projections, which distort it out of recognition. On occasion, its lack of military or geopolitical significance has provided a convenient excuse to leave it off the map entirely, as seen in the United Nations logo. Yet this image of the continent created by the Mercator projection does bear a surprising, if superficial, similarity to some of its earliest depictions, long before it was discovered.

Map of the world on the Mercator Projection

Mercator projection. Image created by Strebe, taken from Wikimedia Commons

From ancient times it was believed that a southern continent must logically exist to counterbalance the weight of the known northern hemisphere. In a world map first published in 1570, Abraham Ortelius perpetuated this belief with a southern landmass depicted prominently, but drawn entirely from conjecture.

Map of the world published in 1570 by Ortelius

[Typus orbis terrarum], 1598. BL Maps C.2.d.7.

The continent eluded several voyages of exploration to the far south, so that over time it became untenable to maintain the tension between the boldness and extent of the coastline’s detail, and the uncertainty of the label, ‘Nondum Cognita’ [‘not yet known’]. On this circa 1690 imprint of a map originally published by Dutch mapmakers Hondius and Janssonius, a polar projection is adopted, focussing interest on the blank centre. Recent voyages had documented islands of ice trailing through the empty seas, and the appearance of these on the map indicate where the continent is not. The mapmakers made no attempt to delineate the area that is still labelled ‘Terra Australis Incognita’.

Map of the southern hemisphere published in 1690 by Hondius

[Polus Antarcticus. H. Hondius excudit], [1690]. BL Maps * 88710.(2.)

James Cook was the first to circumnavigate the pole, during his second voyage (1772-75), but the continent itself eluded him. Two years after his return the chart below was published in a record of the voyage. It is updated with many new findings, and features ‘the Tracks of some of the most distinguished Navigators’, which now encircle and crowd the blank centre. The focus here is on what is known, rather than what is not, and the label seen on earlier maps, ‘Terra Incognita’, has been replaced by, ‘The Ice Sea’.

Chart of the southern hemisphere published in 1777 by Captain James Cook

A Chart of the Southern Hemisphere, in A Voyage towards the South Pole..., 1777. BL 10025.f.20.

Fabian Bellingshausen, commander of the first Russian Antarctic expedition (1819-21), is regarded by many to have been the first to set eyes on the continent. A reproduction of his manuscript chart of January 1820 shows a patch of blue at the lower edge that marks the first tentative departure from blank space near the pole – and indicates a feature that would later be named the Fimbul Ice Shelf. The original manuscripts are preserved in the Archives of the Russian Hydrographic Office and were published in facsimile in 1963. During the Cold War some British and American commentators cast doubt on their interpretation, and on the Soviet claim that a Russian had first discovered the continent.

Facsimile of a manuscript chart of the Southern Ocean made in 1820 by Fabian Bellingshausen

[A facsimile of the MS chart drawn by F. Bellingshausen...], 1963. BL Maps 1.c.57.

Only two days after Bellingshausen’s sighting of the ice shelf in January 1820, Edward Bransfield, an officer in the British Royal Navy, sighted the first land feature of the continent, now known to lie at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The discovery appears on a map published in 1844 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. A short red line accurately delineates a portion of the terrestrial coastline for the first time, and bounds a region now called the Trinity Peninsula (just below the tip of South America on the left of the image).

Map of the southern polar region published in 1844 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

Circumjacent the South Pole, 1844. BL Maps 38.e.8.

In 1843 another officer of the British Royal Navy, James Clark Ross, completed his own voyage of scientific exploration to the Southern Ocean. Science undertaken by the expedition included the first magnetic survey of the Antarctic, and succeeded in inferring the location of the magnetic south pole. The results were published by the Royal Society in 1869. With its wandering lines of magnetic declination, this sheet constitutes one of the earliest examples of thematic mapping of the Antarctic.

Map showing the Antarctic Magnetic Survey published in 1869 by the Royal Society

Antarctic Magnetic Survey, Epoch 1840-1845, Declination, in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1869, vol 158 part 2. BL L.R.292.

Global shipping routes traversed the Southern Ocean in the middle of the nineteenth century, giving rise to a market for navigational aids. This commercial chart, published by J.D. Potter in 1858, was designed ‘to facilitate the practice of Great Circle Sailing’ around the southern latitudes, and allowed merchant navigators to plot the shortest routes through the Southern Ocean without encountering sea ice.

Chart of the southern hemisphere published in 1858 showing great circle sailing routes

A Chart of South Latitudes beyond 20 Degrees, to facilitate the practice of Great Circle Sailing, with ... Diagram for the determination of the Courses and Distances, 1858. BL Maps 88710.(6.)

By 1886 the shape of the continent as we now know it had started to emerge. This chart was published in The Scottish Geographical Magazine and shows a ‘Supposed outline of [the] Antarctic Continent’ - a reminder perhaps of the, ‘Terra Incognita’, of old. But the extent of what is now known is indicated in the coastal detail, complete with heights of land and depths of sea, given here in shades of orange and blue.

Chart of the south polar region published in 1886 in The Scottish Geographical Magazine

South Polar Chart, in The Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol 2 p 576, 1886. BL Ac.6182.

The next article will continue the tour, from the ‘Heroic Era’ of Antarctic exploration up to the present day...

Nick Dykes

21 April 2020

A View of the Open Road

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During the current pandemic, the next best thing to heading outdoors is (of course) to lose yourself in the printed landscapes of maps instead. In our London flat last weekend, I couldn’t help reaching for my Ordnance Survey Explorer sheets of the English Lakes and tracing the routes of Easter walks in years gone by.

Although busy depicting roundabouts and service stations, road maps and atlases also give us armchair explorers a flavour of the landscapes, the countries and the times we move through in our mind’s eye.

This example from the United States comes from a time when the American highway map was at its peak, when the automobile was an icon of progress, and state departments and commercial oil companies handed out road maps in their millions, free of charge.

A road map from 1967 entitled Official North Carolina Highway Map

The back of a road map from 1967 entitled Official North Carolina Highway Map

Front and back of North Carolina Official Highway Map, 1967. Held at State Archives of North Carolina

While useful to many, these maps were also the vehicles for carefully chosen images and text promoting industry, nature, social progress and Christian values. A Motorist’s Prayer on this sheet begins, ‘Our heavenly Father, we ask this day a particular blessing as we take the wheel of our car...’

A detail of the back of road map from 1967 entitled Official North Carolina Highway Map, showing a man working in an industrial control room to illustrate the labor force

Detail of North Carolina Official Highway Map, 1967

A similar agenda is found on the other side of the Iron Curtain, where a Soviet regional map from the same year focussed on places and monuments of revolutionary history, industrial mines (asbestos, brown coal, gypsum...), pine forests and swan nesting sites.

A detail from a Soviet map of Orenburg Oblast published in 1967

A detail of the list of symbols from a Soviet map of Orenburg Oblast published in 1967

Details from map of Orenburg Oblast, GUGK, 1967. BL Maps 35885.(63.)

Industrial prowess is emphasised again in the strong design on the cover of this regional atlas.

The cover of an Atlas of Orenburg Oblast published in 1969

Atlas of Orenburg Oblast, 1969. BL Maps 54.e.48.

But unlike in Britain or America, the Soviet general public had no large scale Ordnance Survey or US Geological Survey maps to turn to for raw topographical detail. These were restricted to the military. Even generalised maps were deliberately distorted during the 1970s to make them harder to use for navigational and targeting purposes, should they fall into the wrong hands.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, restrictions on sophisticated military mapping were relaxed, and elements of larger scale maps made their way into practical road atlases, amongst other products, for the general public. The evolution of these maps from military specification to a hybrid form more closely resembling the typical road map can be traced over the following years.

Details of two Soviet/Russian topographic maps of Orenburg published in 1987 and 2003

Left: Detail from Topographic map of the world at scale 1:200 000 produced by the Soviet Army General Staff, Sheet NM 40-2, 1987. BL Maps Y.1575.

Right: Equivalent detail from Orenburg Oblast, one of the Road Atlases of Russia series published by Roskartografia, 2003

In the road atlas on the right new colouring distinguishes road types and routes, and makes them more prominent while rivers fade away, and symbols are added to indicate petrol stations, medical facilities, museums and places of interest.

Detail of a topographic map of Orenburg published in 1987 by the Soviet Army General Staff

Detail of Sheet NM 40-2, Soviet Army General Staff, 1987

Detail of a Russian road atlas map of Orenburg published in 2003

Equivalent detail from Orenburg Oblast Road Atlas, 2003

Precise bridge dimensions and maximum loads have been removed, though contours and direction of river flow remain, and the close mesh of the military grid has been replaced by a broad system of squares that correlates with the place name index at the back.

The cover of the Orenburg Road Atlas published in 2003

Cover of Orenburg Oblast Road Atlas, 2003

At last the landscape was revealed, and civilians could take to the open road better equipped.

And who knows, perhaps even now fingers are tracing imaginary routes from armchairs throughout Russia...


Nick Dykes

Further reading:

Denis Wood and John Fels, Designs on Signs/Myth and Meaning in Maps, in Cartographica vol 23 no 3, 1986, pp 54–103.

Zsolt G. Török, Russia and the Soviet Union, Fragmentation of, in The History of Cartography, vol 6, University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp 1376-1379.

Alexey V. Postnikov, Soviet Cartography, 1917-1991, in Cartography and Geographic Information Science vol 29(3), 2002, pp 243-260.