Who can invent for us a cartography of autonomy, who can draw a map that includes our desires? - Hakim Bey
January 27, 2005 5:51 PM   Subscribe

Cartography is a skill pretty much taken for granted now, but it wasn't always so. Accurate maps were once prized state secrets, laborious efforts that cost a fortune and took years (or even decades) to complete.

How things have changed. (Yours now, $110) It took almost 500 years to map North America, but it's only taken one tenth of that to map just everything else. In the last 50 years, we've been able to create acurate atlases of two planets and one moon (with a second in the works). Actually, we've done a lot more than that. We're actually running out of things to map.

Maybe Not.
posted by absalom (17 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Neat post. I have the NASA Atlas of the Solar System, but it's not the compact version--it's the biggest book I own, something like two feet tall, and it's amazing, even if it is out of date by now. Thanks for the post.
posted by interrobang at 5:58 PM on January 27, 2005

Great post!

Funny how the article your 'Maybe' links to - the space.com one - goes from 'mapping known Universe' in the title to 'mapping known Galaxy' in the article itself. There's a world of difference there. Several billion worlds, in fact.
posted by cosmonik at 6:03 PM on January 27, 2005

I'd love to say it was a great post, except that whole distinct lack of any information regarding how maps were prized state secrets does sort of suck. Yes, information about a book that'll tell me about that -- there's a link to that -- but that doesn't count.
posted by effugas at 6:13 PM on January 27, 2005

A little more about the secret history of maps.

A particularly sexy quote:
Thanks to efforts of adventurers like the Houtmans and a number of superb cartographers, the Dutch East India Company put together a collection of 180 navigational charts. It had the status of a state secret and was, in fact, called the Secret Atlas. With it the Dutch ousted the Portuguese and became the dominant colonial power the southwestern Pacific.

Sheesh, so picky. Do I have to do everything myself?
posted by absalom at 6:21 PM on January 27, 2005

I am still trying to figure out why 'Not' links to someplace in central California...
posted by blacklite at 6:25 PM on January 27, 2005

Presumably because it's Groom Lake, the secret US Government aircraft development site. It's the birthplace of the SR-71 and other marvels; closely guarded and, presumably, not described in detail on any commercially available map.
posted by tss at 6:30 PM on January 27, 2005

Man, if I didn't suspect I'm being laid off in a month I'd be spending some money on old maps. This is a really cool post. I love cartography (though I would be lousy at it) and the history of navigation.
posted by substrate at 6:33 PM on January 27, 2005

Someone is selling a commercial "value-added" (read: "homemade") Groom Lake SW topo linked in "not" link at the end. It's a reasonable approximation of traditional USGS 7.5' Topo symbology, and looks pretty well done.

There are still places in the world that are in the process of conducting an interior cadastral survey--Madagascar and the Philippines both come to mind, I'm sure that there are more. As a cartography graduate, nothing would please me more than being involved with a project like that.

My undergraduate RA work was a glorified data entry position where we read microfilm of 1840-60s surveyors journals (to plot land-use changes). These journals were wonderful retellings of what must have been an awesome adventure--the survey of the lands gained in the Louisiana Purchase. Those men were praiseworthy. (Me and co-worker Blake would always kind of get sad when we'd see an entry like: "axeman Vittiori dead from _______, service held and provisions redistributed." Blake and I must've buried at least 15 axemen, 3 chainmen and one head surveyor that year).
posted by cadastral at 6:52 PM on January 27, 2005

Great post -- the more map geeks here, the better!

Personally, I think the next big project is mapping what's slightly below the surface.
posted by ontic at 7:08 PM on January 27, 2005

Ontic, do you mean geological maps? I'm learning how to do that right now- it's a lot of work and pretty crazy, but amazing that we can determine what's beneath the surface based on very little information.
posted by fossil_human at 7:18 PM on January 27, 2005

...In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography. -- J.L. Borges Of Exactitude in Science

Tangential to the topic (TTTT?) I know - but really, how could I resist?
posted by Opus Dark at 7:24 PM on January 27, 2005

Primarily geological, yes, but much more detailed than we've seen before -- locations of underground rivers, habitats, soil depth, plus, of course, caves and mineral concentrations. Sort of like this, but for underground.

If you can't tell, I'm into habitat maps right now.
posted by ontic at 8:02 PM on January 27, 2005

I walked in the house tonight after a few days spent mapping a small area in 5500' water depth. What a great post to see on the front page.

Yes, there is plenty left to map. Most of the surface of the Earth is water, you know. High-resolution deep-water bathymetry is still at a premium, thankfully. It's going to keep us busy for years to come. And as the tsunami should remind us, our world is anything but static. The proud cartographer is not an endangered species.

And Ontic, we collect subsurface (or sub-seafloor) data, too. You're right, it's a growing field.
posted by MotorNeuron at 8:17 PM on January 27, 2005

That Groom Lake Topo map is very strange. There are a couple of grids but no coordinates or projection information. That's a little unusual, to a map geek, but even more interesting is that the tangent mapping link takes me to a porn site. Looks like I work for the wrong survey company!
posted by MotorNeuron at 10:25 PM on January 27, 2005

We're actually running out of things to map.

posted by keswick at 10:32 PM on January 27, 2005

Nice post. I love stuff about historical mapping.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 7:13 AM on January 28, 2005

Thanks for the post, this is a great read.

Somewhat off topic, but to me maps are representations (as there are thermal maps, radar maps, topos, etc.) So in light of information representation, I offer this.

(And on the topic of representing information, Edward Tufte should be considered. From his website, I found this project. (From Parchment to Ether: Fusing Historical Maps with Web GIS)
posted by fluffycreature at 7:21 AM on January 28, 2005

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