State of The Map Room

  1. Assume I’m no longer on Twitter. While my account is still there, and I check in very occasionally, it’s very much in read-only mode to catch things I might otherwise miss. The account is locked and I stopped posting to it in December. While I still cross-post to the Facebook page and Tumblr, the best place to follow me on social media is on Mastodon.
  2. Back to blogs. My blogroll page is always (a) out of date and (b) a mess, and needs keeping up to date (and cleaning up). If you have (or know of) a blog that should be listed, drop me a line.
  3. That goes for podcasts too. I’m only aware of a few of them. Podcasts: links: send them to me.
  4. Old posts going offline soon. To keep my hosting costs under control, I have to more or less break the old, Movable Type-based archives. These are posts made between January 2004 and June 2011. (They’re running on a different hosting plan, I unwisely coded them with hard server links, moving servers breaks those links, and I can’t edit the templates directly any more, not in Movable Type anyway.) These posts don’t get a lot of page views any more and I assume most have dead links; even so, a lot of them are worth keeping, so at some point I will be moving at least some of them into the current system. There are 4,004 posts involved so this will be a time-consuming task, and I’ll be doing it in chunks. In the meantime I’ll put up a placeholder page.
  5. I really need to find a better design template for this site.

A Kickstarter Project to Rediscover 19th-Century Atlases

Alejandro Polanco’s latest Kickstarter, Geography 1880, is in the vein of some of his previous ones: restoring and reprinting works from the late 19th century. This time he’s looking to create an anthology of maps from family and school atlases of the era.

The idea is to give shape to a new atlas that brings together maps forgotten in time that were once enjoyed again and again, by the light of a fire or gas lamps, from the great era of family atlases. To this end, I am undertaking a process of scanning the atlases of the period between 1860 and 1900 that I have in my library. Alongside this material, the book includes maps from various map libraries around the world (from USA, Spain, UK and Germany), with the corresponding attribution. All this forms an atlas full of authentic 19th century works of art that I hope will spark the imagination of my backers just as it was in the 1880s. Alongside the maps and illustrations of the period, my descriptive commentaries include details of the graphic styles, cartographers and geographical curiosities that appear on each page.

Hardcover, softcover and PDF versions will be produced, the hardcover in a 100-copy limited edition that has already been spoken for.

Previously: A Project to Restore a 19th-Century Treatise on Hand-drawn Mapping.

‘What Is a Map’: A Terrible Educational Film from 1949

Sometimes a terrible old movie is only watchable when you add an audio track in which it’s being brutally and relentlessly mocked: this was the MO of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, the latter featuring plenty of MST3K alumni. Such is the case with this 1949 educational film, late 1949, “What Is a Map,” which takes an awfully long time to (a) well, do much of anything and (b) get to the subject of maps, so RiffTrax’s version makes it a bit easier to stomach. A bit.

The Soviet Space Program’s Remarkable Electromechanical Navigation Device

Front-facing view of a Globus navigational device from a Soyuz capsule.
Ken Shirriff

You must see this. Ken Shirriff got his hands on an example of a navigational device from a Soyuz spacecraft and opened it up to see how it worked. Known as a Globus (its proper name is Индикатор Навигационный Космический—roughly, space navigation indicator), it’s an incredibly complicated marvel of gears and cams, an electromechanical analog computer that showed the capsule’s position on a physical globe. The position was predicted—the Globus received no navigational data. Ken’s got lots of photos of the innards at his website. See also his Mastodon thread. He has hopes of getting the thing operational, so keep an eye out for that.

(Based on the presence of NASA tracking sites on the globe, Ken thinks this particular unit was meant for the Apollo-Soyuz program, but I kind of wonder whether that was a function of the 1967 Rescue Agreement between the U.S. and the USSR instead.)

The Mercury capsule had something similar for a while: the Earth Path Indicator. One example sold for nearly $100,000 in 2019.

Large-Scale Geologic Maps of Mars

Geologic Map of Olympus Mons Caldera, Mars (USGS)
Geologic Map of Olympus Mons Caldera, Mars. USGS SIM 3470.

The USGS’s Astrogeology Science Center highlights three geologic maps of Mars released in late 2021. The maps are large-scale, focusing on specific Martian features (e.g. Olympus Mons, above).

Though maps have historically covered large areas, with crewed lunar missions on the horizon and other missions across the solar system in the planning stages, large-scale, small-area maps are starting to steal the limelight. These large-scale, small-area maps provide highly detailed views of the surface and allow scientists to investigate complex geologic relationships both on and beneath the surface. These types of maps are useful for both planning for and then conducting landed missions.

The maps are of Olympus Mons Caldera, Athabasca Valles and Aeolis Dorsa. Interactive versions, with toggleable layers over spacecraft imagery, are also available: Olympus Mons Caldera, Athabasca Valles, Aeolis Dorsa.

Online Map Roundup for January 2023

Apple Maps

Apple Maps now provides parking information for 8,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada.

Apple also launched Business Connect, a tool for businesses to upload their information to be used by Apple’s various apps: not just Maps, though that’s obvious (and something Google has been offering for quite some time: see James’s post for context). More at Ars Technica.

Google Maps

The first cars to get Google’s enhanced maps (previously), which include things like traffic lights and stop signs, will be the Volvo EX90 and Polestar 3, via Android Auto.

Meanwhile, turn-by-turn directions on Google’s Wear OS smart watch platform will no longer require a connected smartphone.

The Return of Paper Maps, Again

Every so often we see a story about how paper maps are making a comeback. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that sales of paper maps have been going up in recent years—a story that NBC’s Today show picked up yesterday. One of the appeals of paper maps, these stories note, is that they provide context—the “bigger picture,” as the WSJ article puts it. Something that can be lost when focusing on getting to the destination.

I’m not remotely surprised that paper maps refuse to go away, that they keep showing signs of renewed life. I have a thought or two about this, and about the perennial question of paper maps in the digital age. There’s a reason this question keeps coming up—which these stories do get at. It’s that every new technology that supplants the old does so imperfectly and incompletely.

Continue reading “The Return of Paper Maps, Again”

Maps on Stamps

Except for a couple of posts here and there, I really haven’t focused on the phenomenon of maps on postage stamps. But it’s very much a thing, and has been for some time: the CartoPhilatelic Society has been around since 1955. And there are a lot of examples of stamps with maps on them: the Society’s checklist has 41,300 entries, and there are 17,906 examples on the searchable database that is Gilad’s Maps on Stamps. Strange Maps gives the subject a proper writeup, grouping stamps by several themes.

The Unreal Ebstorf Map

A screenshot from the interactive Ebstorf Map (British Library)

The Ebstorf Map, a 13th-century mappa mundi, was destroyed by bombing during World War II; it survives only as black-and-white photographs and colour facsimiles of the original. Those images were used by the Leuphana Universität Lüneburg to create a digital version in 2008. And now that digital version has been used to create an interactive version of the Ebstorf Map using a video game engine. The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog has the details.

The British Library has collaborated with Escape Studios’ School of Interactive and Real Time to create an interactive version of the Ebstorf map. A team of students and graduates participated in the ‘Escape Pod’ incubator to create a 3D version of the map, using the digital facsimile created by Leuphana Universität Lüneburg.

The interactive map, created in Unreal Engine, has been set in a fictional medieval scriptorium to suggest the tone of the space in which it was created. All aspects of the room were imagined, researched and created by the students at Escape.

The interactive map ties in with the British Library’s ongoing exhibition, Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth; the map’s 15 clickable points of interest relate to Alexander. Details here.

It sounds like overkill, albeit a fun kind of overkill. It’s a free download, but requires a PC with a graphics card (i.e., no integrated graphics) running Windows 10, so I can’t try it out. But if you can, and want to, you can download it here.

The Rationale Behind Overture

A couple of links regarding the Overture Map Foundation announcement (previously) afford some context and background. James Killick chalks up the decision to launch Overture to a combination of needs to control costs and maintain control while ensuring interoperability: “the reasons for the birth of OMF seem to be valid and defensible.” Meanwhile, the Geomob Podcast interviews geospatial veteran Marc Prioleau, in which (among other things) Marc observes that the companies behind Overture (including Meta, where he’s currently at) and OpenStreetMap are not on the same page: OSM’s focus does not serve the companies’ needs, and changing that focus would harm the OSM community. (Since “why not just use OpenStreetMap?” is a recurring question.)

Update, 3 Feb 2023: Tom Tom is running with Killick’s take.

‘One Bad Map a Day in February’

#mapfailbruarychallenge: a list of categories to create one bad map a day in February.

It’s like the #30daymapchallenge in November, in which mapmakers are challenged to make a map a day on a given daily theme, only the reverse: the MapFailbruaryChallenge is about making a bad map on a given daily theme. “The idea is to create the worst map possible.” Bad maps happen; will a deliberately bad map be better or worse? Either way, it’s probably worth stocking up on popcorn for when maps with the #mapfailbruarychallenge hashtag start showing up on our timelines.

(Failbruary. Fai-EL-bru-AIR-y. Say that ten times. And resign yourselves to the fact that Reddit is probably going to kick everyone’s ass on this.)

Update, 19 Jan: There’s an official website now.

Imhof’s High School Atlas

A relief map of a part of Switzerland. From Eduard Imhof (ed.), Schweizerischer Mittelschulatlas, 15th ed. (Zürich, 1969), p. 7. David Rumsey Map Collection.
Eduard Imhof (ed.), Schweizerischer Mittelschulatlas, 15th ed. (Zürich, 1969), p. 7. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Well, would you look at that. The David Rumsey Map Collection has uploaded a copy of the 1969 edition of the Schweizerischer Mittelschulatlas—a Swiss school atlas—edited by none other than Eduard Imhof. From the 1930s through the 1970s Imhof was responsible for Swiss school atlases at both the primary and high school level. And this example is, as you can see, just full of Imhoflichkeit. Just look at it.

The Lake District in Lego


BBC News has the story of Jon Tordoff’s 100-square-foot scale model of the Lake District, which he built during lockdown out of LEGO pieces.

New Boston-Focused Map Exhibitions at the Leventhal Center

Atlas of the city of Boston, Roxbury: plate 14 (1931)
From Atlas of the City of Boston (1931). Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

Opening today at the Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map Center, Building Blocks: Boston Stories from Urban Atlases is an exhibition that explores street-level changes to Boston in the period between the Civil War and World War II. Media release.

Building Blocks: Boston Stories from Urban Atlases features rare materials from the BPL’s historic collection of maps and atlases alongside lithographs, photographs, and sketches of familiar local landscapes. Visitors will discover how the atlas collections opens up a world of fascinating stories, with vignettes including the city’s first African Meeting House in the heart of Beacon Hill, landmarks of leisure like the “Derby Racer” and “Giant Safety Thriller” amusement rides in Revere, public health infrastructure on Gallops Island in Boston Harbor, and many more.

The in-person exhibition at the BPL’s Central Library opens today; a digital version will follow online. Runs until 19 August 2023. A curatorial introduction will take place next Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a permanent exhibition, Becoming Boston: Eight Moments in the Geography of a Changing City, also opens today at the Leventhal: “In the eight cases of this exhibition, we follow the changing spatial forms of the place we now call Boston—from before the landscape carried that name all the way through the struggles, clashes, and dreams that continue to reshape the city today.”

See the Leventhal’s exhibitions page and their preview of 2023 events for more details.

New Fantasy Novel: The Map and the Territory

Book cover: The Map and the Territory by A. M. Tuomala I’m always interested in fantasy novels in which maps play a role beyond the endpapers—where maps or mapmakers are a key element of the story. So I’m noting for future reference The Map and the Territory by A. M. Tuomala (Candlemark and Gleam, Dec. 2022), which has a wizard and a cartographer as its protagonists. Nerds of a Feather has a review.

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