A Brief History of Maps

Distilling the entire three-thousand-year history of maps and mapmaking into a 2,400-word article seems awfully hubristic, but Clive Thompson’s piece for the July 2017 issue of Smithsonian Magazine gives it a try, tying everything together right from the outset:

Is it possible that today’s global positioning systems and smartphones are affecting our basic ability to navigate? Will technology alter forever how we get around?

Most certainly—because it already has. Three thousand years ago, our ancestors began a long experiment in figuring out how they fit into the world, by inventing a bold new tool: the map.

[Tony Campbell]

The Lost Art of Asking for Directions

“If my parents lamented a generation lost to knowing how to read a paper map, I’m wondering if mine will note the loss of one who doesn’t need the people of the places it passes through,” writes Lorraine Sommerfeld in a piece for Postmedia’s Driving that celebrates the advantages of asking locals for directions rather than relying on your car’s navigation system.

Harrison Reassessed

Jim Bennett, author of the new book, Navigation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), reassesses the history of John Harrison and his marine chronometer solution to the longitude problem, a story that has been popularized by Dava Sobel’s 1995 bestseller, Longitude (reviewed here).

It is difficult to claim without important qualification that Harrison solved the longitude problem in a practical sense. In the broad sweep of the history of navigation, Harrison was not a major contributor.

The Harrison story seems to attract challenge and controversy. The longitude exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in 2014 was an attempt to offer a more balanced account than has been in vogue recently. The Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, for example, has been maligned without justification. A recent article in The Horological Journal takes a contrary view and offers ‘An Antidote to John Harrison’, and we seem set for another round of disputation. From a historian’s point of view, one of the casualties of the enthusiasm of recent years has been an appreciation of the context of the whole affair, while a degree of partisanship has obscured the legitimate positions of many of the characters involved. There is a much richer and more interesting story to be written than the one-dimensional tale of virtue and villainy.

Gender Differences in Spatial Ability Are a Social Construct

A recent psychology paper challenges the notion that men are better than women at directions. When the same test was presented as a measure of spatial ability that women typically did worse at, women did worse than men. But when the same test was presented as a measure of empathy, women did just as well as men. Social conditioning, in other words, may be at play here. Good magazine. [MAPS-L]

How Not to Get Lost

I am not one of those people who is always getting themselves lost. In fact the idea of lost is a more or less academic concept to me: I have a rock-solid sense of direction. I suspect that the same is true for most of the map aficionados who read this website. But maybe you are someone who gets lost very easily, or you at least know someone who is. For such people, the New York Times’s Christopher Mele has a set of practical tips to improve your sense of direction, most of which are predicated on grounding yourself, observing your surroundings and relying not so much on the technology. [MAPS-L]