The Red Atlas

During the second half of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union’s military and civilian cartographers created topographical maps of the entire world of a very high standard of quality and accuracy. How they did so, and why, remains in large part a mystery, one that John Davies and Alexander J. Kent’s new book, The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World (University of Chicago Press, October) fails to solve completely.

The Red Atlas is not the definitive history of those Soviet mapping efforts because so much about those efforts remains a secret. The only reason we know about them is because, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, so many physical copies of those once-highly secret maps fell into the hands of map collectors. The Red Atlas talks about that: for more than a decade, Davies and Kent have been studying those maps. (I’ve been following their work. See the links at the bottom of this post for my earlier posts on the subject.) What they know about the Soviet mapping efforts—sources, methods, their reason for doing it—is extrapolated from the final product of those effort: the maps. The Red Atlas is above all else an exercise in cartographic forensics.

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The Great Lines Project

With the Great Lines Project, Karen Rann explores the history and origins of the contour line. In addition to her rather heavily illustrated blog, there’s a related exhibition, the Great Lines Exhibition (naturally enough), which opens today at the Lit & Phil (Literary and Philosophical Society) in Newcastle. Free admission. Details here and here. [WMS]

Update, 9 June: More from CityLab.

A-Z Adventure Atlas Series

az-adventure-atlasLondon Hiker reviews the A-Z Adventure Atlas series of maps. “They contain 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps, but in a book format, like the A-Z street map books you’re probably used to. […] Many of the new A-Z style map books are extremely convenient and are fast becoming a favourite with me, depending on the circumstances.”

More: A-Z Maps blog post from 2013Amazon UK.

USGS Topo Maps as Art

“For the past number of years, I have been collecting the U.S.G.S.’s maps, treating them as eminently affordable pieces of American art,” writes Tom Vanderbilt in the New York Times Magazine. “The beauty intrinsic to these maps is the byproduct of an entirely different mode of production, the last gasp of an antiquated way of representing the world.” [Gretchen Peterson]

Topographic Map of Mars

Image credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC/ASU/USGS/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)/Daniel Macháček.

Daniel Macháček released his topographic map of Mars, based on the latest probe data, in November 2014. It uses the Mercator projection between 65° north and 65° south latitude and stereographic projections for the poles. It can be downloaded in insanely high resolution: 17,400×14,700 (78 MB JPEG, 106 MB PDF). His blog post (in Czech: use the translate button) has all the technical details. I particularly like the colour scheme he used for elevation data: the low-lying areas are coloured like deep oceans, which seems appropriate. [Maps on the Web]

New National Maps of Switzerland


Switzerland is updating its official map series. The new maps are digitally based and use new fonts, symbols and colours—railways, for example, are now in red. They replace the 1:25,000 series that dates back to the 1950s; all 247 sheets should be replaced by 2019. You can compare the old and new map designs on this interactive map (screencap above). [via]

Copper Plates Used to Make Topo Maps on Display


The Michigan State University Map Library now has on display three copper plates used to make the 1912 USGS topographic map of the Lansing, Michigan area. “From the 1880s to the 1950s, the U.S. Geological Survey used engraved copper plates in the process of printing topographic and geographic quadrangle maps. Copper alloy engraving plates were inscribed with a mirror image of the points, contour lines, symbols, and text that constitute a topographic map. Each plate was inscribed with details for a single color of ink.” [via]