# 1854 Map of the world's tallest mountains and longest riversNovember 21, 2013 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Behold, a 1854 Map of the world's tallest mountains and longest rivers (alt. link), as understood at that point in time, when Dhaulagiri was thought to be the tallest mountain in the world. This is taken from the General Atlas Of The World: Containing Upwards Of Seventy Maps, which can be read (awkwardly) on Archive.org as scanned from black and white microform, or go straight for the good stuff and browse the full color maps in David Rumsey's collection of high-resolution scans of historic maps (via Dark Roasted Blend and io9).
posted by filthy light thief (17 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

If you'd like more of these historic maps of comparisons, MeFite peacay put together this great blog post, charting the progress of such efforts to document information.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:13 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's such a great Enlightenment-era artifact, the idea that you could just take all the great rivers in the world, straighten them out, sort them by length, and then draw them on a single page. It's as beautiful as it is uninformative. As if height (or length) were the most important thing to do know about geographical features.
posted by Nelson at 9:24 AM on November 21, 2013

Very cool maps. How on earth do did they measure altitude in the 1800s with and precision!?

Here is a question that I've asked many times but to which I've never received an answer: are there maps that show the area/size of various countries (or smaller regions) taking into acoount the topography? In other words, mountainous regions have much more surface area than flat plains and deserts, but is this difference ever accounted for, and shouldn't it be?
posted by NiceParisParamus at 9:25 AM on November 21, 2013

How on earth do did they measure altitude in the 1800s with and precision!?

Here's a short answer [very simple trigonometry: h = x tan a, or only slightly more complex trig: h = x tan a1 = (x-10) tan a2], and the article linked to a longer article on measuring the highest mountains in the world. Mind you, these don't take into account the necessary "correction for the curvature of the Earth that makes the trig a bit more complicated, and another correction for optical refraction that makes it a lot more complicated," the relatively simple trig gets you a lot closer than other available methods.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:54 AM on November 21, 2013

And your second question, regarding surface area (mapping in the X, Y and Z coordinates) versus the planimetric area (only measuring distances in X and Y) of a region -- given that just measuring the actual surface area of a region (PDF) takes a good bit of work, most of the country measurements I've seen are focused on planimetric area measurements.

That said, if you have access to elevation grids in the right format and ArcView 3.x, you can calculate surface area on your own.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:09 AM on November 21, 2013

Thanks, FLT. It just seems odd that taking into account "XYZ" isn't more recognized. I mean, little mountainous countries should have started using this long ago to raise their status; US states too...
posted by NiceParisParamus at 10:24 AM on November 21, 2013

I think by the 19th century they were also using barometers to measure altitudes, although I'm not sure if that worked very well for extreme altitudes. Some details here and here. These days we use GPS receivers which ultimately is just another fancy version of trigonometry (albeit with relativistic corrections).
posted by Nelson at 10:31 AM on November 21, 2013

How on earth do did they measure altitude in the 1800s with and precision!?

The Hugh Grant movie "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, and After the Audience Fell In and Out of Sleep for Sixty Minutes, Finally Came Down a Mountain" covers this.
posted by yeti at 11:12 AM on November 21, 2013

> It's as beautiful as it is uninformative. As if height (or length) were the most important thing to do know about geographical features.

Huh? That makes no sense. You seem to be claiming that unless a map shows "the most important thing to ... know about geographical features" it's ipso facto uninformative. I can't believe anyone could think that. And who is to decide what's the most important thing? You seem to assume it's obvious that the height of a mountain and the length of a river are unimportant, and yet those are the first things most people want to know (hence the popularity of graphics like this). I guess the people are sheep who don't appreciate the superior importance of... what? the geological origin of the mountain? the fish-bearing qualities of the river? Do let us know what we should focus on.

Anyway, a gorgeous map and a nice post!
posted by languagehat at 11:40 AM on November 21, 2013

Interesting that they show "Nevada de Sorata" as the highest mountain in the Americas and over 25000' high according to the scale on the map. As near as I can tell it must be referring to Janq'u Uma, located near the town of Sorata, Bolivia, which is 4000' lower in elevation.
posted by dabug at 11:55 AM on November 21, 2013

Woah languagehat, you sound angry. It's OK for me to poke at a beautiful thing a little bit, and maybe I'm even wrong! I'm sorry if I sounded like some smug guy on the Internet. I really admire this visualiation. I just think these straightened rivers and arrayed mountains are a great example of Enlightenment thinking, the idea that by simplifying and ordering things we can understand them.

Yes the height of a mountain is interesting, but what's more interesting to me is the slope of the mountain and the shape of the peak. Also its height relative to surrounding terrain and its relation to nearby mountains and other topography. Similarly the length of a river is interesting, but the width and depth is also a very important thing to know. And the windiness of the river, and its overall fall, and its situation in the terrain, etc etc.

To be fair the artist does show a lot more than just a bar chart of lengths. I love the way the lakes are rendered for the St. Lawrence, for example. The depictions of snow lines and volcanos for the mountains are great. The peak shapes (and slopes) seem entirely made up to me; I'm not sure we can spot the distinctive Matterhorn, for instance. And the artist's thorough depiction of every tiny little hill in the British Islands is charming, particularly alongside the tiny sketch of London and the Director's house in Scotland. That's a great way to contextualize the data for his audience.

It's a beautiful visualization. It's also coming from a very distinctive theory of geography, one I both admire and criticize. It seems to say "look here, we have now mapped the grand features world". But this picture barely conveys anything of the territory.
posted by Nelson at 12:02 PM on November 21, 2013

> I'm sorry if I sounded like some smug guy on the Internet.

You kind of did, so thanks for the clarification! (I've gotten pretty sick of people dropping into a thread to let everyone know how much the linked thing sucks and how much more they know about whatever it is, so I have a hair trigger.) It is indeed a great example of Enlightenment thinking.

> As near as I can tell it must be referring to Janq'u Uma

According to Spanish Wikipedia it's the nearby peak of Illampu.
posted by languagehat at 12:05 PM on November 21, 2013

It's such a great Enlightenment-era artifact

It's a Victorian artifact. Between about 1820 and 1870 there was a public mania for the natural world. See The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870:
From butterfly mania to aquarium fever to gorilla madness - Victorian society yielded to the excesses of a grand passion for natural history. In the name of 'rational amusement,' the bored upper classes ventured outdoors to look for 'sermons in stones' or invited fashionable friends in for 'an evening at the microscope.' No middle-class drawing room was complete without its exotic ferns, insect collections, shell pictures, and stuffed birds. And, at all levels of British and American society, public demand for fascinating facts, bizarre anecdotes, and pious homilies about nature made books such as 'Marvels of Pond Life' national bestsellers.

Why? What caused this popular obsession that lasted from the 1820s to the 1860s? 'This book traces the relationship between the natural history craze and 'nation theology' - the belief that the study of nature led to spiritual enlightenment. It brings to life the notorious eccentrics of 19th-century naturalism, the gentlemen-scientists who managed to ignore the real controversies brewing between science and religion. And it describes the religious and intellectual shock waves created by the advent of Darwinism - why its impact was irreversible and how the 'Origin of Species' undermined and finally killed the popular enthusiasm for natural history.
The only thing missing from that map is a little picture of Noah's Ark or a timeline going back to the beginning in 4000 BC when earth was created.
posted by stbalbach at 12:31 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah notice how Ararat (#8) is one of the few peaks actually named on the map. That would have been the first thing pious readers looked for, the peak water line of the great flood. Ararat also coincides with the "snow line" in Europe, and the highest growth of lichens line - if this is true or not who knows, but the message is clear: God's fingerprint can be seen in nature. All is well in Victorianland, science and religion concur.
posted by stbalbach at 12:37 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've been puzzling over what a modern version of this kind of visualization would be. For the mountains a Google Earth tour would work nicely, flying from one to the next with a God's eye view rendered digitally. But that's an interactive video, I'm less clear what a static image would be. Rivers are a little easier, a 2 dimensional view doesn't lose as much important information as with mountains. The National Geographic World of Rivers map is a pretty terrific modern treatment, but it's really showing watersheds more than individual rivers.
posted by Nelson at 1:35 PM on November 21, 2013

Metafilter: as beautiful as it is uninformative
posted by blue_beetle at 2:57 PM on November 21, 2013

Meant to comment earlier, but: I like that it's the Missouri, and not the Mississippi river. At the confluence the Missouri has a far greater flow than the Mississippi.
posted by notsnot at 7:53 PM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

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