Maps: Fighting Disease and Skewing Borders
A while back, we blogged about a site called Strange Maps, which features all sorts of strange, fascinating, and even influential maps. (Maps in general have since come up on this blog quite a few times.)
Frank Jacobs, a London-based journalist and the creator of Strange Maps, has now published a book, Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities.
He has agreed to answer a few of our questions about maps and why he finds them so compelling.
A recent Economist article reported that maps are one of the most powerful tools that interest groups use to promote their causes. Are maps really as influential as the article claims?
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. To rephrase that cartographically: a map is worth a thousand statistics. One of the best examples of cartography with a cause are Dr. John Snow‘s mid-19th-century cholera maps. His cartographic juxtaposition of cholera outbreaks and water sources showed the link between a contaminated water supply and the prevalence of the disease. By eliminating certain pumps, cholera cases were reduced dramatically. Dr Snow’s research helped create the discipline of epidemiology. So yes, maps and the particular way in which they present information can be very influential indeed.
Another stark example is Dr. Minard‘s map of Napoleon‘s ill-advised Russian campaign, also discussed in my book. It is a marvel of data presentation, combining six different sets of information. One of those is the size of Napoleon’s army, represented by 1 millimeter for every 10,000 soldiers. The tiny trickle leaking out of Russia compared to the massive arrow going in is as horrifying an indictment as any of the madness and human cost of war.
What, in your opinion, was the most influential map in history?
I don’t think you can point to any single map and say: this is the most important map ever. But there definitely are a few that have determined the course of history. Saint Isidore‘s T-O map, for example, devised in the 6th century, formed the basis for Europe’s world view for most of the next millennium. The O represented the presumed circularity of the then-known world, surrounded by the Ocean, and the T stood for the three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe) conjoined in a single point, the center of the world: Jerusalem.
The “next generation” of maps, for the first time clearly showing that the world was wider than the T-O model, are obviously equally influential. One particular example that springs to mind is the 1507 Waldseemueller map, the first one to show the New World as a separate continent and the first to label it with its present name, “America.” One of the rare surviving copies was sold to the Library of Congress for a whopping $10 million in 2003.
A recent example of a map with a big impact, although the effect was sarcastic rather than serious, was the Jesusland map (also in the book), which became an internet meme overnight after George W. Bush‘s 2004 election victory. It portrays the Kerry-voting states joining Canada rather than suffering another four years of George W. Bush. At a glance, it reflects the despair, division, and bitterness of that particular time.
What has the advent of thousands of online maps done to cartography? Have online maps affected the credibility of maps in general?
Like anything touched by the internet, cartography has become more widespread, more fluid, and less reliable. I’ve recently been sent an interesting example of this: Google’s portrayal of the Sino-Indian border. Parts of that border are disputed, and obviously national maps in India and China will reflect that. So what’s a global organization like Google to do? Turns out they have made one map for Chinese consumption, including the disputed area of Arunchal Pradesh in China; another one for use in India showing it nicely as part of that country; and an international version, showing the area as disputed!
What one organization has or had the most influence on geographical maps?
Again, difficult to pin down a single organization. Throughout history and up to the present, I’d have to say it would be the Catholic Church and NASA — a decidedly odd couple, you’ll agree.
Any strange facts about maps that most people might not know?
I don’t know how obscure this fact is, but the London A-Z contains a
fictional street on each of its pages, in order to catch out copycats. I’d love to write up a story on some of these so-called “trap streets,” but finding them is like playing “Where’s Waldo?” without knowing what Waldo looks like!”
The London A-Z has a delightful origin, by the way. It was conceived by Phyllis Pearsall in 1935, when she got lost due to the inadequate street maps of the time. Ms. Pearsall mapped Central London all by herself, walking the 3,000 miles of the city’s 23,000 streets in 18-hour working days. The pocket version is one of my favorite books, and indispensable for me and any other Londoner who’s not a taxi driver (and thus already possessing the knowledge contained in the A-Z).