On the Map by Simon Garfield (Book Review)


(This book was first reviewed here by Jeffrey Barke in April 15, 2013.  This is a second review).

To satisfy our curiosity and wanderlust humans need two things, new modes of transportation and maps. Our proclivity to chart and map the world around us can be traced back to Babylonians, who divided a circle into 360 degrees, which is still used to locate places and calculate distances. They also looked up into the night sky and created a Zodiac Map of the stars and constellations. Following them Greek scholars like Herodotus, Eratosthenes, Strabo, and Ptolemy laid down the foundations of cartography as the discipline we know

Simon Garfield in his fun to read book On the Map gives us the long history of map making starting from the Facebook Map and traveling back in time to Ptolemy’s Geographia, the worlds’ first known Atlas. His book covers all sorts of map trivia recounting different reiterations of maps produced over the past two thousand years.  The book is more of an account of the history of maps than a serious study of how maps and the science of map-making are critical to our understanding of the world.  The author gives more space (pages 352-365) to a map collector and a map thief in the United States then to Claudius Ptolemy’s Georaphia (pages 34-41), the most influential work of Geography in last two millennia.  Also the author failed to develop discernible links between some of the most important maps in history and how they were instrumental in changing our perception of the world. Lastly, Simon completely ignored the contribution of the Arabs or for that matter any non-Europeans to the field of map making.

“This is not a map of the world, this is a map of the facebook user’s addresses.”

According to the author Garfield, an intern at facebook took the coordinates of each member's address and their connections across the globe and mapped them producing this beautiful map. This blue map shows not only the locations of the facebook users but also the density internet connections and the intensity of their use.

At facebook an intern took the coordinates of each member’s address and their connections across the globe and mapped them producing this beautiful map. This blue map shows not only the locations of the facebook users but also the density of internet users and connections in different countries.

To give you a brief look at the contents of the book I will follow Simon’s lead he took in his book, which consists of short chapters in semi chronological order covering the all-inclusive history of map making from important maps to famous map makers. I have chosen some of the things I found fascinating in his book.

Celestial and terrestrial maps are intrinsically linked to each other. The Babylonians put together the first celestial map, and the Greek astronomers and mathematicians used the position of the sun and stars to calculate the circumference of the earth. With the advent of ever sophisticated telescopes we were able to draw maps of the surfaces of the Moon, Mars, and Jupiter. The Hubble Telescope in an orbit around the earth increased our reach by measuring stellar distances with greater accuracy, thus allowing us to plot and chart millions of new galaxies, gas nebulas and distant star clusters.  Furthermore, Global Positioning satellites help us navigate our way to destinations and locate things on this planet.  In the movie Star Trek-The Next Generation the term “Stellar Cartography” was used to describe a subsection of the on board science department responsible for charting the previously uncharted regions of the universe.

Eratosthenes (b 276 BC) is believed to have coined the word “geography” from the Greek words Geo (earth) and graphien (writing). His world map drawn in 194 BC was shaped like a dinosaur skull identifying three continents as Europa, Africa (identified as Libya) and Asia. This was one of the earliest maps to employ a grid of parallels and meridians to locate distances on the map.  Eratosthenes viewed the world as a sphere and measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy.

Claudius Ptolemy was an astrologer and a geographer of immense genius. He lived in Alexandria between 90 and 170 AD.  His Geographia, a work of astounding detail but great simplicity set the foundations for the science of cartography for ages to come. Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography consisted of two parts, one was a detailed written account of everything he knew about the earth, its shape, size, rivers, gulfs, cities and people, and the other part was a list of more than 8,000 places and cities, each one with an assigned coordinate.  There are no extinct copies of his Geogrpahia but it is believed that it contained no maps.  The Greek historians and mathematicians prior to Ptolemy knew that the earth was spherical in shape and were able to measure its circumference.  They had already developed a system of placing a grid on a map to assign coordinates to places.  Ptolemy’s coordinates were not true coordinates the way we have them now but were used to show distances between places.  The fact that the present day Geographic Information System (GIS) is an updated computerized version of his Geographia Atlas is a testament to his genius. The GIS database contains millions of pieces of information with assigned coordinates like Ptolemy’s Atlas of places and cities that can be plotted on a map.

Gerardus Mercator:  Mercator created the first modern world map, which is without doubt the most famous and the most used map in the world. It was produced in 1569 and is still used in schools to teach geography. The original map was an audacious undertaking at the time; it consisted of 18 engraved copper plates of 6 feet by 4 feet in size. The map was elaborately decorated with mythical figures and provided written text and comments about the cities, rivers and distant islands. The map was primarily developed as a navigational tool with longitude and latitudinal lines all parallel to each other which are not the case in reality since all of these lines are essentially circles around the globe. Many cartographers have pointed out that the Mercator’s map is Eurocentric because the projection of the spherical surface of the globe on a flat surface created distortions. These distortions enlarged the size of Europe and Greenland while the land mass of Africa is reduced in size. There have been attempts to correct that distortion, one notable effort was by Gall-Peters Map but that created a different sort of distortion.

Manna-hata (Manhattan): In 1610 a piece of land jutting out into the water between the Hudson and East rivers in New York was known to native Indians as Manna-hata. The island was covered in vegetation and rock outcroppings. The Dutch settlers started a colony at the southern tip of the Island, known as New York City. The modern-day Broadway traversing north south through Manhattan used to be Wickquasgeck Indian Trail which was carved through the island by Lenape tribe.  In 1807, three commissioners of New York City created a new map of the city that would determine how city would develop for centuries to come.  They laid a grid of east-west streets, and north-south avenues over the entire island irrespective of Manhattan’s topography.  The massive girding of the island received criticism from many quarters, especially from Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator and designer of the Central Park. If you look closely at the map below you will see that the 845 acre Central Park in the middle of Manhattan was not carved out yet.

1807 -  Commissioner's Map New Yourk City

1807 – Commissioner’s Map New York City

Fictitious Maps:

Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island was published in 1881 originally written for a children’s magazine. The book contained a map of an island in the south Atlantic, which was marked by an X denoting the location of a buried treasure. Stevenson’s book and the accompanied map captivated the imagination of many to the point that some thought it was a real map and set out to the Caribbean to find the buried treasure.  The Treasure Island map is the most basic and primitive map and it has not lost its grip on our imaginations. Over the past hundred years at least 19 movie adaptations of the book were made, some in other languages.

At Hogwarts, Harry Potter received  Marauder’s Map from the Weasley brothers.  When the map was opened it contained nothing until one of the Weasley brothers tapped it with his magic wand proclaiming “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”  With that tap of the magic wand the map comes alive depicting the location and movements of every student, teacher and ghost on the school grounds.  At the end of each session the phrase “mischief managed” returned the map to blank parchment. If the map is opened by a stranger it only revealed insults in brown ink.  Marauder’s Map was a real-time map of the Hogwarts School. The US Department of Defense (DOF) seems to employ a similar idea behind their Dominant Battleground Awareness (DBA) maps, which shows the location and movement of all military assets on a battle field in real-time.

Grand Auto Theft (GAT), Sim City, and Sky Rim are some of the most popular computer games and they are essentially 3D-Maps. GAT is a computer game that has sold more than hundred million copies, in which a player steals a car and tries to escape the chasing cops. The cars in the game have GPS systems to direct a player through the streets of the make-believe cities which look like Manhattan or LA.  These computer games start out with a two-dimensional map of the city and create a three-dimensional fantasy on our screens, without maps there would not be a GAT, Sim City or even some board games.

Informational Maps:  in 1854, John Snow’s Map stopped the spread of cholera in SoHo, London. In the first week of the outbreak 500 residents of the area died. John Snow a doctor to Queen Victoria, used to live nearby and started to explore the causes of epidemic, and he rightfully suspected that the bacteria for the cholera was spread through the water supply which was compromised by raw sewage. To prove his suspicion Snow mapped the number of deaths among the users of a city water pump located at the intersection of Cambridge and Broad streets. His map showed that the number of deaths decreased significantly among people who did not use the water from that pump. Despite overwhelming evidence of deaths occurring near one particular water pump, and efficiently shown on his map the London authorities did not accept his theory of water-borne bacteria for cholera. Now looking back at that map one can see how right John Snow was.  John Snow’s map was the first one used to trace the spread of a disease which is now a common practice employed by national health foundations and ministries around the world. Now we use geographical maps to convey all sorts of information effectively whether it is rate of child mortality in a city or the incidences of violent crime.  The maps have become indispensable tools to impart information and give it a context and scale.

John Snow's Map marking the number of Cholera victims around one public water tap on Broad Street.

John Snow’s Map marking the number of Cholera victims around one public water pump on Broad Street.

Global Positioning System (GPS): The GPS system was first designed by the US Department of Defense to guide ICBM missiles. Now it is used in everyday life from tracking wild-life to guiding travelers to their destinations. There are 18 to 32 satellites belonging to different nations, orbiting the earth, beaming down radio signals which are captured by our GPS devices. The GPS system in our cars captures the radio signal from more than one of the satellites and with trilateration, calculates the position of the car. As the car moves its position is recalculated and is shown on a digital map stored in the GPS device. When we enter our destination in a GPS device, which already knows the present location of the car, it calculates the optimum course to our destination through the street maps stored in the device.  GPS devices have become so common-place now that we use them without thinking how they work, to us it is a giant map in a tiny box with a pleasant but reassuring voice of the Roman goddess of outward journeys Abeona.

Geographic Information System (GIS): Modern day city planners cannot perform their jobs without the help of a GIS platform. A GIS is essentially a database mapping system.  The system can store all kinds af data imaginable, ranging from land uses with addresses, building heights, to locations of street trees, and fire hydrants. Each piece of data is assigned a coordinate, where it can be plotted on a map and also spatially analyzed in relation to other data features.  That is how city planners create all those multicolored land use maps.  GIS is essentially a computerized version of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographia Atlas.

There is no constancy to maps, they need to be updated as soon as they are published. New information comes to the fore and better ways are devised to map that information. Today’s maps are multi-dimensional and multi purpose.  The new technologies have enabled us to display all kinds of data on maps, ranging from health statistics, demographic trends, real estate values and the consumption of cheese by countries.  Linking data to geographic coordinates by GIS software has become an indispensable planning tool for cities, major utilities, state authorities, and business entities.
For further reading see A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton;

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