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The Unlikely Story of the Map That Helped Create Our Nation

American statesman John Jay used this map in negotiating the Treaty of Paris, which established the United States as an independent country.
American statesman John Jay used this map in negotiating the Treaty of Paris, which established the United States as an independent country.
Collection of the New-York Historical Society

It’s arguably the most important map in our country’s history. After the Revolutionary War, British and American representatives met in Paris to negotiate the boundaries of a new nation: the United States of America. Both sides had a version of the same map, marked up to indicate where they thought the lines should be drawn.

“The diplomats literally debated the boundaries of the future United States while pointing at this map,” says Matthew Edney, a historian of cartography at the University of Southern Maine. Although the 1783 Treaty of Paris contains no maps or illustrations, its written descriptions of boundaries are based on the marked-up maps of the negotiators, Edney says.

The map used as a starting point by both sides was created by a Virginia-born doctor named John Mitchell and published for the first time in 1755. Mitchell’s map is well-known among historians and map librarians, but less so among the general public. That’s too bad because it has a fascinating story.

"Mr. Oswald's Line" marked in red on John Jay's copy of Mitchell's map is the boundary proposed by the British negotiator Richard Oswald.
“Mr. Oswald’s Line” written in red (at top right) on John Jay’s copy of Mitchell’s map indicates the boundary proposed by the British negotiator Richard Oswald.
Collection of the New-York Historical Society

If Mitchell had lived long enough to see how his map came to be used, he might have been appalled. Although the map played a role in loosening Britain’s imperial grip on North America, its original purpose was just the opposite.

John Mitchell was born in 1711 to a family of relatively wealthy tobacco farmers. He studied medicine abroad, at the University of Edinburgh, then returned to his native Virginia to practice. He and his wife lived near the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, which would have been a swampy, steamy, mosquito-ridden place in those days, Edney says. The couple fell into poor health, and in 1746 they retreated to the cooler climes of Britain to recuperate.

In London, Mitchell began mingling in high society, apparently aided by his knowledge of botany, a hot topic among learned men of his day. “He’s hobnobbing with aristocrats who were really into gardening,” Edney says. “And he comes into contact with a lot of politicians who were also demon gardeners.”

The red boundary line on John Jay's map claims the entirety of Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario for the United States.
The red boundary line on John Jay’s map (above) claims all of Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario for the United States.
Collection of the New-York Historical Society
This version of Mitchell's map, held by the Osher Map Library, is not the actual map used by British negotiator Richard Oswald at the treaty of Paris, but his red boundary lines have been copied onto it.
This version of Mitchell’s map wasn’t used in Paris, but Richard Oswald’s boundary lines have been copied onto it. Oswald’s line through the Great Lakes is similar to the modern US-Canada border.
Osher Map Library

One introduction led to another, and eventually the Earl of Halifax took notice of Mitchell. Halifax presided over the Board of Trade and Plantations, which oversaw colonial affairs. At the time Halifax was trying to rally the British government to defend the North American territories against incursions by the French. Halifax saw Mitchell as a native expert on North America and commissioned him to make a map to help his cause.

Mitchell had no formal training in cartography or geography, and there’s nothing to suggest he had any previous interest in those topics, Edney says. Yet he created what may well have been the best map of North America available in the late 18th century, drawing upon the Board’s archives in London, as well as surveys and maps Halifax ordered from the colonial governors.

Mitchell’s map took a decidedly British view of who owned what on the continent. His boundary lines, and small notes he scattered across the map, favored British claims over those made by the Spanish and French.

In Florida, for example, Mitchell drew a southern boundary line well inside the territory claimed by Spain. In Alabama, there’s a small note that reads “A Spanish fort built in 1719 & said to be soon after abandoned,” an apparent effort to diminish any Spanish claims to the land.

Mitchell’s annotations, including this note about the site of an abandoned Spanish fort, were designed to support British territorial claims.
Osher Map Library

Others began making derivatives of Mitchell’s map that were even more politically pointed. “In the 1750s there was a whole series of what’s called Anti-Gallican societies basically saying ‘We need to boycott the French,’” Edney says. The map below was made by one of these groups. It cedes even less land to the French than Mitchell’s map does, and it highlights French forts built too close for comfort around British territory.

The title of that map is rife with pompous indignation:

A New and accurate Map of the English Empire in North America Representing their Rightful claim as confirmed by Charters and the formal Surrender of their Indian Friends, Likewise the Encroachments of the French with several Forts they have unjustly erected therein.

The Anti-Gallican maps based on Mitchell’s map helped stir up anti-French sentiment in Britain, Edney says. “In that sense, Mitchell’s map was really crucial,” he says. “It’s one of the very first maps we can actually document as having a political impact.”

That impact was huge: By swaying public (and political) opinion toward standing up to the French instead of appeasing them, the map helped precipitate the French and Indian War. That war, in turn, created the conditions that led to the Declaration of Independence 240 years ago today. Fighting the French blew Britain’s budget, prompting King George III to squeeze the colonies even harder to pay his debts. Taxation without representation, tea in the harbor, you know the rest.

This 1755 map from an Anti-Gallican society shows French encroachments (highlighted in white) near British territories.
Osher Map Library

Many copies of Mitchell’s map have survived, but only three copies marked up at the Treaty of Paris are known to exist. John Jay’s map (several details from which appear above) is held by the New York Historical Society. Richard Oswald’s map was given to King George III and now belongs to the British Library. A French copy of Mitchell’s map was used by the Spanish ambassador at the treaty negotiations; that resides at the National Historical Archive in Madrid. Unfortunately, none of these maps is freely available online.

The influence of Mitchell’s map didn’t stop with the Treaty of Paris.  In the 1890s, it was used in negotiations between Canada and the United States over fishing rights in the Gulf of Maine, and it has come into play in legal disputes between eastern US states, as recently as 1932.

In a detailed historical essay (the source for much of this post), Edney calls Mitchell’s map “an irony of empire.” Instead of helping to solidify British control of North America as intended, the map helped set in motion the events that led to the Revolutionary War, and later helped determine the boundaries of an independent United States, a devastating blow to British imperial aspirations on the continent.

–Greg Miller

Many thanks to Ed Redmond at the Library of Congress for suggesting this topic.

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You Can Help Make Maps for Science (No Experience Needed!)

This animated map shows the Blue-winged Teal’s predicted distribution and relative abundance across all 52 weeks of the year. The brighter the color, the higher the expected count of the species on a standardized eBird count.
This animated map shows the Blue-winged Teal’s predicted distribution and relative abundance across all 52 weeks of the year. The brighter the color, the higher the expected count of the species on a standardized eBird count.

With no scientific training, and no clue about cartography, you can help map stuff for science. Lately the opportunities to lend a lay-hand with research seem to be everywhere, and more and more of them involve a mapping component.

This year the results of several citizen-aided science projects hit the news. In May, the researchers behind the Evolutionary Map of the Universe, a project to create a census of galaxies, announced that two Russian citizen scientists had discovered a new cluster of galaxies. In Spain, scientists released a preliminary oral-microbiome map based on participation of more than 4,000 Spanish teens.

The idea of asking the masses for help with science has been around a long time. For some research, humans are the best, or the only option, because computers, algorithms, and AI still can’t beat human brains or global coverage at many tasks. People have been identifying the birds in their backyards every year for almost two decades as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count. The strategy got a boost from a project started in 2006 called Stardust@home that asks people to help search images for the tiny tracks left behind by bits of interstellar dust picked up by a spacecraft. In 2007 the hugely popular Galaxy Zoo project, which involves classifying galaxies according to shape, showed the real promise of involving the public in big labor-intensive projects. Importantly, it revealed that people, lots of people, were excited to pitch in.

These days it’s hard to keep track of all the ways a person can get involved, and more and more of them have geographic or cartographic elements. From tracing neurons to spotting crabs, here are some of our favorite mappy science projects that need your help. (If you have favorites that we left out, please add them in the comments!)

This occurrence map shows the probability of encountering a white-throated sparrow (maximum 50% probability) on a 1-hour birding walk starting at 7:00 a.m. for 5 January, 3 May, and 7 June 2009.
This map shows the probability of encountering a white-throated sparrow on a 1-hour birding walk starting at 7:00 a.m. for 5 January, 3 May, and 7 June 2009.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Help Track More than 10,000 of the World’s Bird Species (Global)
In addition to the Great Backyard Bird Count, which occurs in February every year, another project called eBird tracks citizen bird sightings all year long, all over the world. This project, started in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, collects a huge amount of data. In May, for example, bird watchers recorded almost 11.8 million observations, and in June, the grand total surpassed a third of a billion records. The trove of sighting data is made available to any scientists or citizens that want to use it, and has resulted in over 100 publications. The graphic to the right is from a 2011 study based on eBird data that showed how climate change is affecting some birds’ migration routes in North America.

Even if you aren’t an avid bird watcher, or don’t want to record observations, you can enjoy a bunch of maps that have been made with the data, including animated occurrence maps for individual species (like the one at the top of the post), global species distribution maps, hotspot maps, or a real-time map of submissions around the globe.

Help With Earthquake Recovery (Global)
After a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Ecuador on April 16, citizens around the world began analyzing satellite imagery of the region to help with the recovery effort. Calling themselves the Planetary Response Network, a group of institutions led by the European Space Agency asked the public for help through the crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse. More than 2,800 people responded, poring over fresh satellite data provided by Planet Labs (like the image below), and helping to identify where relief on the ground was needed most, and how best to get it there. When the next disaster hits somewhere in the world, you can help too.

And if the earthquake is in your area, you can help the US Geological Survey map the shaking intensity by recording your experience.

Portoviejo, Ecuador captured by a RapidEye satellite on April 19, 2016
A RapidEye satellite captured this image of Portoviejo, Ecuador on April 19, 2016.
Planet Labs CC BY-SA

The Tea Bag Index (Global)
The rate at which leaves and other organic litter decays seems like a rather boring and esoteric thing to study, but it’s actually important for climate change modeling, because decaying leaves release carbon back into the atmosphere. But leaf decomposition isn’t easy to study because gathering enough comparable data is tough. So researchers at Utrecht University in The Netherlands developed the Tea Bag Index project. To participate, all you need to do is buy some tea bags, weight them, bury them for 90 days, weigh them again and send in the results.

The European Green Crab
The European Green Crab.

Join the Crab Team (Pacific Northwest)
The European green crab’s native habitat is the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea, but this little crab has spread to Australia, South Africa, South America, and both coasts of the United States. The crabs can cause considerable problems when they arrive, competing with native fish and shorebirds for food, and threatening the local bivalve populations they prey upon. In Maine, the crab contributed to the destruction of the local soft-shell clam industry, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, the native Manila clam populations have taken a huge hit.

Washington state is understandably concerned as the crab encroaches on its shores. In an attempt to protect the Puget Sound area, which hasn’t yet been invaded, the University of Washington is asking citizens to keep an eye out for any signs of the troublesome crabs, so they can fight back before the critters gain a foothold. If you live in the area, join the Crab Team.

Scientist Kate Brandis collecting feathers in Barmah Forest, Victoria, Australia.
Scientist Kate Brandis collecting feathers in Barmah Forest, Victoria, Australia.

The Feather Map (Australia)
Australia’s wetlands, critical habitat for its waterbirds, is increasingly under threat from a long list of pressures, including land reclamation, climate change, drought and flooding. Now scientists want the public’s help to track where the birds move and which of the remaining wetlands are being used by which species, so they can better plan how to protect the birds. By collecting feathers in wetland areas and sending them in for analysis, people can help build The Feather Map.

Play a Game to Map the Brain (Global)
The Eyewire game involves tracing neurons (see video below) through chunks of brain matter that have been scanned by microscopes in 3D. Apparently it’s much more fun that it sounds — more than 200,000 people from 145 countries have played the game. This incredible participation has given the game’s inventor, Princeton neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, hope that a map of the brain’s connections, known as the connectome, could be completed in two or three decades. As you trace neurons, you aren’t just creating data, you’re also helping to create AI that can map the connectome too.

–Betsy Mason

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Here’s Why National Parks Maps Are Some of the Best

A black title band, shaded relief, and uniform text help give National Park visitor maps a consistent look.
A black title band, shaded relief, and uniform text help give National Park visitor maps a consistent look.
National Park Service

I’ve always loved the visitor maps you get when you visit a national park. I’ve got little stashes of them tucked into the seat back pockets of my car and hidden away in closets. I can never bring myself to toss the maps when I get home from a trip. With their combination of photos, maps and text they bring back memories of where I’ve been and inspire me to think of adventures still waiting to be had.

Tom Patterson  is one of the people who makes those maps. He’s visited more than 100 national parks, including some of the most far-flung and least visited. As a senior cartographer for the National Park Service, it’s Patterson’s job to make sure the maps visitors see at U.S. national parks, monuments, battlefields, and other sites are up to date and easy to use, even for people who aren’t cartographically inclined.

National Park Service
The judicious use of shadow makes the Washington Monument stand out on this map of the National Mall.
National Park Service

“We design our maps for a broad cross section of humanity,” Patterson says. “We believe very strongly that to get park visitors to look at a map, the first thing it has to be is pretty.” He and his colleagues try to design maps that draw people in with their good looks and keep them looking long enough to absorb some of the information they need to need to make the most of their visit—the location of trails, viewpoints, lodging, and so on.

National Park visitor maps have a certain look that makes them easy to recognize. That’s very much by design (and we’ll get to how it’s done), but it wasn’t always so.

Before World War II, most visitors arrived by train, Patterson says. Most of the maps in those days were made not by the park service but by railroad companies hoping to inspire people to take the trip. The latter half of the 20th century saw the rise of the automobile, and road maps became increasingly common. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Park Service began to standardize park visitor maps and give them a more uniform appearance. “Up to that point, there was a whole hodgepodge of different styles,” Patterson says.

Kenai-Fjords
Natural colors on this map of Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska help orient visitors to what they see around them.
National Park Service

You can see a pictorial history of National Park visitor maps in the gallery at the bottom of this post—it’s a compilation of vintage park maps photographed by Nancy Haack, a (now retired) Park Service cartographer.

In 1977, the park service hired Massimo Vignelli, the graphic designer who created the iconic map and signage for the New York City subway system, and charged him with creating a more consistent style for the park system’s maps and other publications.

One design element Vignelli introduced is the bold black title band you can see on nearly all park service publications. “It’s become more or less part of the identity of the entire National Park Service,” Patterson says.

The usually invisible unigrid (blue lines) organizes the layout of all National Park maps.
The usually unseen unigrid (blue lines) organizes the layout of all National Park maps.
National Park Service

The band is part of the “unigrid,” another of Vignelli’s innovations, still in use today. This grid guides the layout of every map, but it’s invisible in the final product (you can see it overlaid on the map of Theodore Roosevelt National Park above). “The maps look very organic but there is this hidden grid dictating the placement of photographs, text and maps,” Patterson says.

Another feature that distinguishes park service maps is their use of shaded relief to give the maps a 3-dimensional look. This method—using shading to simulate the shadows cast by hills and other features of the terrain—is Patterson’s specialty. He’s invented several techniques for doing shaded relief and even writes a blog about it.

The Park Service prefers shaded relief to contour lines, another way to portray 3D features of the terrain on a flat map. Each line follows a certain elevation—200 feet above sea level, for example. But the lines add “graphical noise” to a map, Patterson says, and many people don’t know how to use them. “Frankly, they look technical and not inviting.” (That said, if you’re hiking off into the backcountry, you will definitely want a topographic map—the visitor maps are just for basic planning).

shaded-relief
Shaded relief makes this map of Canyonlands National Park look surprisingly three-dimensional.
National Park Service

Many other features of the visitor maps have been standardized as well, from the text (the house font of the National Park Service, and the only one to appear on its maps, is the clean-looking and highly legible Frutiger), to the symbols. There are currently 229 symbols used on Park Service maps to indicate everything from parking lots and campgrounds to various hazards that visitors might encounter.

A set of 229 easily recognizable symbols help park visitors find their way around.
Easily recognizable symbols help park visitors find their way around.
National Park Service

Most of the symbols are easily recognizable, even if some are a bit anachronistic. Like the boombox. And the tent. “I haven’t seen a tent that looks like that in quite some time,” Patterson says. “It looks like something from World War I.”

Sometimes a park will request a new symbol that tests the cartographers’ creativity, such as a symbol to indicate a zebra mussel decontamination station. Parks have these checkpoints to stop the spread of this invasive species. But Patterson says he couldn’t think of a good symbol for it, especially given the 3.5-millimeter size at which it would appear on a brochure. “Finally I just gave up and put a big Z in there,” he says.

Patterson is always experimenting with ways to make the maps more usable for people who aren’t very experienced at using maps. For some parks, he’s used natural colors from satellite photos so that the colors people see on the map match up with the terrain they see in front of them.

He and colleagues also use aerial photos to make detailed maps of historical sites. For the map of Fort Stanwix National Monument in upstate New York (see below) they hired a helicopter to photograph the site. It cost about $1,200 to hire the helicopter, Patterson says, but it probably saved $20,000 to $30,000 compared to the cost of drawing everything from scratch.

Photographs of Fort Stanwix National Monument shot from a helicopter became the basis for this visitor map.
Photographs shot from a helicopter became the basis for this visitor map of Fort Stanwix National Monument.
National Park Service

More detail isn’t always better, though. Certain things don’t appear on parks’ visitor maps, including employee housing and parking areas, sensitive habitats, and some archaeological sites. The act of Congress that created the National Park Service 100 years ago specified that the service conserve the natural and historical resources of the parks as well as provide for the enjoyment of them.

Making maps that help fulfill that mission is a never-ending process, especially given the diversity of the parks’ visitors—more than 300 million of them each year—and the diversity of the parks themselves. The Park Service administers 411 units from Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska to the National Park of American Samoa, south of the equator. Every map is custom made, Patterson says. “One-size-fits-all design doesn’t apply.”

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–Greg Miller

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The 19th Century Doctor Who Mapped His Hallucinations

Hubert Airy's 1870 diagram of his migraine aura looks familiar to many migraineurs today.
Hubert Airy’s 1870 diagram of his migraine aura looks familiar to many migraineurs today.
The Royal Society

Hubert Airy first became aware of his affliction in the fall of 1854, when he noticed a small blind spot interfering with his ability to read. “At first it looked just like the spot which you see after having looked at the sun or some bright object,” he later wrote. But the blind spot was growing, its edges taking on a zigzag shape that reminded Airy of the bastions of a fortified medieval town. Only, they were gorgeously colored. And they were moving.

“All the interior of the fortification, so to speak, was boiling and rolling about in a most wonderful manner as if it was some thick liquid all alive,” Airy wrote. What happened next was less wonderful: a splitting headache, what we now call a migraine.

Hubert Airy's drawing shows how his migraine aura grew over the course of about 20 minutes (click the image to expand).
Hubert Airy’s drawing, shown here in its entirety, illustrates how his migraine aura grew over the course of about 20 minutes (click the image to expand).
The Royal Society

Airy was a student when he suffered his first migraine, but he later became a physician. His description of his aura—the hallucinatory symptoms that can precede a migraine—was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1870, along with a drawing that showed how the hallucination grew to take over much of his visual field. “It’s an iconic illustration,” says Frederick Lepore, an ophthalmological neurologist at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey. “It’s so precise, like a series of time-lapse photographs.”

Lepore showed Airy’s drawing to 100 of his migraine patients who experience a visual aura (only a minority do). Forty-eight of them recognized it instantly, he wrote in a historical note in the Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology in 2014. He still shows the drawing to his patients today. “People are astonished,” he says. “They say, ‘Where did you get that?’”

What’s more remarkable, Lepore says, is that Airy’s drawing anticipates discoveries in neuroscience that were still decades in the future.

Airy correctly deduced that the source of his hallucinations was his brain, not his eyes. He wasn’t the first to do this, but it was still an open question at the time.

What’s most prescient about his drawing, though, is that it anticipates the discovery of an orderly map of the visual world in the primary visual cortex, a crucial brain region for processing what we see. When Airy published his paper, that discovery was still nearly half a century away.

This diagram by Gordon Holmes illustrates how different regions of the visual field (right) map onto different regions of the primary visual cortex (left).
This diagram by Gordon Holmes illustrates how different regions of the visual field (right) map onto different regions of the primary visual cortex (left).
The Royal Society

Most accounts credit the British neurologist Gordon Holmes with that later discovery. Holmes studied the visual deficits of hundreds of soldiers who’d suffered gunshot wounds to the back of the head in Word War I. “The British helmet was seated high on the head,” Lepore wrote, in a historical paper describing Holmes’s contributions. Unfortunately, this left the primary visual cortex largely unprotected, and provided Holmes many opportunities to study damage to this part of the brain.

By carefully mapping the soldiers’ blind spots and the locations of their wounds, Holmes discovered that damage to the most posterior part of visual cortex (that is, the part farthest back in the head) resulted in blindness at the center of the visual field, whereas wounds located closer to the front of the visual cortex resulted in blindness off to the side. Everything the eyes see maps neatly onto the visual cortex.

Holmes also discovered—and this is the part that relates to Airy’s drawing—that the visual map is magnified at its center. If the visual cortex is a road atlas, the part that represents the center of the visual field is like one of those inset city maps that show a smaller area in lots more detail.

This meshes nicely with Airy’s observation that the zigzags around his blind spot were packed tightly together in the center of his visual field and grew wider in the periphery. “Airy’s drawing fits beautifully with our modern conception of how the visual cortex is organized,” Lepore says.

Hubert Airy's father, George, also saw zigzag hallucinations, but they didn't precede a headache for the elder Airy.
Hubert Airy’s father, George, also saw zigzag hallucinations, but they didn’t precede a headache for the elder Airy.
The Royal Society

There’s still much we don’t know about migraines and migraine auras. One hypothesis is that a sort of electrical wave sweeps across the visual cortex, causing hallucinations that spread across the corresponding parts of the visual field. In a loosely descriptive way, Airy’s time series drawings—showing an ever expanding shape—jibe with this too.

Even less is known about the neural mechanisms that might produce the vivid colors Airy drew and described. There are areas of the visual cortex, including one called V4, that contain neurons that respond to specific colors, as well as other neurons that respond to lines of specific orientations. Perhaps an electrical wave passing through such areas could produce colored zigzags, Lepore says. But no one really knows.

Airy wasn’t the first to draw his migraine aura. In fact, his father, George, who happened to be the Royal Astronomer, had published a sketch of his own zigzag hallucinations five years earlier (see above). A German neurologist published a fairly crude, looping sketch back in 1845. And others did so afterwards. The drawings made by the French neurologist Joseph Babinski (see below) are especially colorful, if lacking in detail.

But Hubert Airy’s drawing has stood the test of time better than most. His paper in the Philosophical Transactions, published at age 31, was his only contribution to the field. It’s written in the somewhat pompous, somewhat conversational style of a 19th-century polymath relating his observations to other learned men. One lengthy section recounts the observations of a Swiss doctor in the original French. Naturally, the readers of such a prestigious journal could translate for themselves.

That Airy got so much right at a time when so little was known about the brain is a testament to his powers of observation, Lepore says. He documented what he saw meticulously, even though it was visible to himself alone.

This detail from Joseph Babinksi's 1890 drawing of his migraine aura shows a zigzag pattern not unlike the one Hubert Airy saw.
This detail from Joseph Babinksi’s 1890 drawing of his migraine aura shows a zigzag pattern not unlike the one Hubert Airy saw.
Wellcome Library

–Greg Miller

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How to Read a Pilot’s Map of the Sky

This is a detail from the San Francisco sectional aeronautical chart (click the map for a larger view).
This is a detail from the San Francisco sectional aeronautical chart (click the map for a larger view).
Federal Aviation Administration

The first time I saw an aeronautical chart, best I can recall, was at the little airport café in Half Moon Bay, California, while waiting for a table. The coastal mountains and cities scattered around San Francisco Bay were easily recognizable. But superimposed on that familiar landscape were cryptic numbers, strange symbols, and overlapping circles that hinted at an entirely different world in the skies above.

“It looks pretty complicated, doesn’t it?” says Brendan Quinn-Narkin, a commercial pilot and certified flight instructor in Northern California. Quinn-Narkin sells instructional videos for pilots online, and he recently volunteered to help me make sense of these maps, which pilots use for planning and navigation.

In the United States, aeronautical charts are published by the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration. The one above is similar to the one I saw in Half Moon Bay. It’s used for flying under visual flight rules (commonly referred to as VFR—if you’re going to be a pilot, you’d better get comfortable with acronyms). “Basically that means you have to be able to see outside,” Quinn-Narkin says. “You can’t be in a cloud or fog that would obstruct your view. You’re expected to be able to see other airplanes and avoid them.”

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Airline pilots and private pilots certified to fly by instruments alone use a different set of charts that look like they were drawn by and for robots (more on these later). The gallery above highlights a variety of aeronautical charts, including one showing the restricted airspace above the White House and the complicated runway map for Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.

VFR charts like the one at the top of this post are a kind of hybrid, representing both what a pilot would see outside the cockpit with his own eyes as well as more abstract layers of information that come from instrument readings and the rules of aviation. The FAA publishes a set of 54 of these “sectional charts” that cover the entire country.

Features on the ground are represented without much detail. The urban centers of the Bay Area are uniform yellow splotches. The hilly topography is shown in shaded relief, but with muted colors.

What stands out most on these maps, to me anyway, are all the colored circles and other shapes. These, Quinn-Narkin explains, indicate different types of airspace, mostly around airports, where pilots have to follow extra rules or procedures.

This part of the legend for the San Francisco sectional chart explains how different classes of airspace are represented.
This part of the legend for the San Francisco sectional chart explains how different classes of airspace are represented.
Federal Aviation Administration

For example, the nation’s busiest airports are surrounded by what’s called class B airspace. To enter it, pilots have to request clearance from air traffic control. On the map at the very top, the concentric blue circles around San Francisco airport represent class B airspace.

But, unlike the map, the airspace itself is three dimensional. It has the shape of an upside-down wedding cake (picture a giant, round, six-tiered cake with the skinny end sitting on SFO and the fat end sticking up 10,000 feet in the air—that’s the class B airspace). Planes coming in for a landing or gaining altitude as they take off will pass through this space, so, for safety reasons, it’s carefully controlled.

On the map, the tiers get flattened into a set of concentric circles. When you’re far out, the class B airspace only extends from 8,000 feet to 10,000 feet. That’s indicated by the 100/80 figure in the bottom right corner of the map. Most numbers on aeronautical charts are truncated to save space, so you have to add two zeros to get the right value: 80 = 8,000, 100 = 10,000, and so on. As you get closer to SFO, the floor of the restricted airspace gets progressively lower, until finally at the airport itself it goes all the way from the ground to 10,000 feet.

The Bay Area’s other two major airports, Oakland and San Jose, are surrounded by slightly less restrictive class C airspace, as indicated by the magenta circles (well, almost circles) and other shapes around them. “You need to be on the radio with air traffic control, but you don’t need to get permission to enter,” Quinn-Narkin says of the class C designation. “You also need to have a transponder in your aircraft that tells the controller what altitude you’re at and your location.” Smaller airports in more remote areas are surrounded by class E airspace, indicated by thick, shaded magenta lines.

A lot of the text in this part of the map has to do with information about the many airports in the region. The detail below, for example, zooms in on Reid Hillview airport near San Jose, which Quinn Narkin has often used. The little white lines inside the round blue symbol show the actual orientation of the two runways.

This section of the map shows San Jose's Mineta airport and the smaller Reid Hillview airport just to the southwest.
This section of the map shows San Jose’s Mineta airport and the smaller Reid Hillview airport just to the southeast.
Federal Aviation Administration

The fact that the symbol is blue, not magenta, means that there is a control tower here. The radio frequency for the control tower is given right under the airport’s name, where it says CT-119.8. The other numbers give radio frequencies for other communication and information channels, along with other details. 135 is the elevation above sea level. 31 is the length of the runway (you have to add two zeroes, so really it’s 3,100 feet).

The map also depicts potential obstructions and other things to steer clear of. The large blue 48 just to the east of Reid Hillview airport indicates the lowest safe flying altitude in that area (4,800 feet). San Francisco’s tall buildings and bridge towers are represented by blue symbols that resemble mountains in the map detail below, which comes from a more detailed “terminal area chart.”

Golden Gate Park, Alcatraz, and other San Francisco landmarks are visible in this more detailed chart of the area around San Francisco International Airport.
Golden Gate Park, Alcatraz, and other San Francisco landmarks are visible in this more detailed chart of the area around San Francisco International Airport.
Federal Aviation Administration

The FAA isn’t just looking out for pilots, though. Notes on the sectional chart warn pilots to watch out for endangered California Condors around Pinnacles National Monument and not to fly below 1,000 feet over Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.

If you look closely at the map at the very top of this post, you’ll see light blue lines crisscrossing it. These are routes used by commercial pilots and others certified to fly using instruments alone. The FAA produces an entirely different set of aeronautical maps for flights under instrument flight rules. These IFR charts (see the example below) are crisscrossed by lines indicating routes that are anchored by a network of navigational radio beacons on the ground. The VFR charts also include some of the prominent routes, which a pilot could use as a point of reference when talking to air traffic control or even decide to follow, Quinn-Narkin says.

The IFR charts are fascinating too, no doubt. They’re part of the reason planes can cross the country in the middle of the night and don’t get lost flying through clouds. But they’re somehow less inviting than the VFR charts. They look like something the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica would use. Virtually all traces of the terrain below and its human inhabitants have been erased.

This is an instrument flight rules chart for the area around Oakland, California.
This is an instrument flight rules chart for the area around Oakland, California.
Federal Aviation Administration

–Greg Miller

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This Gigantic Marble Map of New England Needs a New Home

Just inside the grand, arched entryway to The Boston Globe’s headquarters, there is a map like no other. It’s a two-story-tall, three-dimensional relief map of New England carved out of huge slabs of white marble. And it’s gorgeous.

It’s the sort of one-of-a-kind treasure that belongs in the signature building of a storied institution like The Globe. I first saw the map in October while attending a reception hosted by the paper, and I fell in love immediately.

But this amazing map’s future is uncertain.

Part of a huge marble map of New England that is currently in the entryway to The Boston Globe's headquarters, but will need a new home when the newspaper relocates in 2017.
A huge marble map of New England that is currently in the entryway to The Boston Globe’s headquarters will need a new home when the newspaper relocates in 2017.
Photograph by Betsy Mason

Like many newspapers across the country, The Globe is relocating to a smaller office space to save money. When I heard about this in December, my first thought was of the map. What would become of it?

“We certainly have no room for it in the new space,” Globe CEO Mike Sheehan told me. The map is 18 feet tall, 12 feet wide, weighs more than 4 tons, and pretty much demands an enormous room. “We’re in the process of looking for a new home for it.”

The good news is that Sheehan appreciates the unique value of the map. “It’s a beautiful piece, and a part of our heritage,” he said. “We certainly want it to be in a public place where people will see it.”

The map is the first thing people see when they enter The Boston Globe.
The map is the first thing people see when they enter The Boston Globe.
Photograph by Betsy Mason

If you’re associated with an institution in New England that has a huge blank wall, maybe you can help.

In the meantime, I wanted to know where this masterpiece came from. With the help of Globe reporter and fellow maphead Dan Adams and several archivists and librarians, I pieced together the map’s history.

The map’s original owner was the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. This explains the metal symbols, including ships, gears, and shoes, that are scattered across the map. A brochure about the map from the bank’s archives reads: “The symbols on the map represent the many forms of activity which provide income and employment for our six-state region.” There are symbols representing quarries in several states, a cranberry scoop on Cape Cod, and of course a lobster in Maine.

The map was commissioned for a 1953 addition to the Boston Fed’s headquarters on Pearl Street. It stood at the top of a flight of stairs and was the focal point of the foyer of this grand building, which also had 22-foot tall mahogany doors at its entrance and an 18-ton limestone eagle perched atop it.

The marble map in the entryway of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston where it stood from 1953 until 1978 when the building was torn down.
The marble map in the entryway of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston where it stood from 1953 until 1978 when the building was torn down.
Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Bank Archives.

The map’s creator was Austin Purves, a multitalented artist whose other work includes paintings, murals, sculptures and an 11-foot wide aluminum map of the world for the ocean liner SS America. The details of the map’s coastline and relief must have taken Purves years to execute. The contour lines are fairly general, but features like the Connecticut River Valley and the White Mountains stand out beautifully. Maine’s complicated coastline is highly detailed, and the huge swath of Atlantic Ocean on the map is carved into a wave pattern.

The marble for the map came from Vermont and was most likely provided by the Vermont Marble Company, once the largest marble manufacturer in the world. The company’s marble was used in monuments all over the world, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., as well as the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The company was bought in 1976 by Omya, a Swiss industrial mineral company.

The Boston Fed building was razed in 1978 after the bank moved. This is when the map came to The Globe’s headquarters, where it has greeted journalists on their way to the newsroom for the last 38 years.

The key to the map's symbols representing New England industry on a plaque mounted next to it.
The key to the map’s symbols representing New England industry on a plaque mounted next to it. (click the image for higher resolution)
Photograph by Betsy Mason

I couldn’t find a record of how they managed to move the giant map 3.5 miles to its current home, but it may have been shortened by about three feet in order to fit. The Boston Fed listed it as 21 feet tall, but a plaque next to the map at The Globe says 18 feet. Looking closely at the photo of the map hanging at the bank, it appears that a chunk of Canada has gone missing from the top of the map, and some of the Atlantic Ocean was trimmed from. The map gained a black frame made of Italian marble, but a few of the metal symbols have disappeared.

Sheehan, The Globe’s CEO, says he has no idea how it is attached to the wall, but it looks like it’s made of nine separate slabs that presumably come apart—good news for potential new owners.

Personally I’d love to see the map in a museum or public library (I’m looking at you, Boston Public Library), but I could also picture it in the lobby of a grand old Boston hotel, or perhaps a train station or other geographically-minded place. And it would seem fitting that its new home be somewhere within the map’s borders.

A destroyer at Portsmouth, New Hampshire representing the military presence there.
A destroyer at Portsmouth, New Hampshire representing the military presence there.
Photograph by Betsy Mason

Betsy Mason

Many thanks to Globe reporter Dan Adams, Globe librarian Lisa Tuite and Boston Federal Reserve Bank archivist Joyce Hannan for their help tracking down the map’s history.

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This 1916 Guide Shows What the First Road Trips Were Like

In the early 20th century, drivers had to be reassured that road trips were safe, and turn-by-turn directions involved the "blue book"—and some math skills.
In the early 20th century, the Official Automobile Blue Book reassured drivers that road trips were safe and gave them turn-by-turn directions.
Photograph by NatPar Collection, Alamy

A cross-country road trip is a quintessentially American experience. From Jack Kerouac to the Griswold family, millions have loaded up the car and hit the open road. It’s always an adventure, but in modern times it’s a relatively tame one: The roads are paved, signs point the way, and Siri always has your back.

But a hundred years ago, traveling cross-country by automobile was intimidating, if not a little bit dangerous. Cars were unreliable. Roads were rough, and with the Interstate Highway System still decades away, a bewildering array of potential routes connected any pair of distant points.

A crucial aid in those days was a series of guides called the Official Automobile Blue Book. Each thick volume covered hundreds of routes, giving detailed turn-by-turn directions that put Google to shame, pointing out landmarks like cemeteries, factories, and places where the road crossed trolley tracks.

The Blue Book guides and others like them were the predecessors to road maps and atlases, says John Bauer, a geographer at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, who published what may be the only academic study of the series. Bauer suspects the guides may have even influenced some of the routes chosen for the state and federal highway networks built in the subsequent decades.

The leather cover and gilt lettering were designed to give the Blue Book guides an authoritative look.
The leather cover and gilt lettering were designed to give the Blue Book guides an authoritative look.
Prelinger Library / Photo by Greg Miller

I recently spent some time flipping through a 1916 volume at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco. It covered a huge swath of the country, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. With a leather cover and gilt lettering, the guide had the look and heft of a Bible. It included 1,286 individual routes—actually more, because some routes had lettered side routes. Route 528, for example, takes you from Fort Morgan, Colorado to Denver, via Greely, while route 528A takes you from Greely up to Estes Park.

What struck me, in addition to the sheer number of routes and their complexity (the 115-mile route from Fort Morgan to Denver had 40 steps), was the volume’s boosterish tone. The ads, with photos of well-dressed, apparently well-heeled people, make driving look très sophisticated. If cars had cupholders back then, these folks would be rolling with crystal goblets, not Big Gulps.

A section on Transcontinental Touring extolls the “wonders of the western country,” and urges readers not to be daunted by the journey, reminding them that at least 5,000 cars had made the trip from the Mississippi to the Pacific in the last two years. Five whole thousand! “True, the unexpected happens in those less developed and more sparsely settled sections of the country—but those unforeseen occurrences, seldom dangerous or serious, are the very thing that give romance and variety to a Western trip.”

Ads like this one in the 1916 Blue Book reflected the aspirations of the middle class, for whom automobile ownership had only recently come within reach.
Ads like this one in the 1916 Blue Book reflected the aspirations of the middle class, for whom automobile ownership had only recently come within reach.
Prelinger Library / Photo by Greg Miller

The Blue Book guides (which aren’t related to the Kelly Blue Book guides to car values still published today) were intended to look authoritative and to drum up enthusiasm for automobile touring, Bauer writes in his paper, published in Cartographic Perspectives in 2009. The guides also met a pressing need for navigational aids at the time. “They were uniquely suited for navigating the primitive network of local roads that existed prior to the 1920s,” he writes.

In the early 20th century, a trip from, say, Chicago to Denver, would involve hundreds of turns on small local roads that wound their way through the countryside and zig-zagged through towns. Road signs were virtually nonexistent, Bauer says, because until cars came along there was no need for them. Long trips were made by train, and virtually all short trips were made by local people who already had a mental map of the roads in their area.

Cars changed everything. By 1916, they were well on their way to becoming more than just a toy for the wealthy (all the same, those fancy people in the Blue Book ads reflected the aspirations of the newly automobiled middle class). The number of cars registered in the U.S. had doubled in the last two years, reaching 3.4 million (compared to 188 million in 2014). Lots more people were driving. And lots of them were getting lost.

The instructions for using the Blue Book guides (see below) seem complicated now, but they made sense in the context of the times. “You don’t drive but one or two or three miles before you have to turn,” Bauer told me. “It’s impossible to show all those turns at the scale of a typical map.”

This diagram explains how to use the reference maps to look up detailed driving directions between two places.
This diagram explains how to use the reference maps to look up detailed driving directions between two places.
Prelinger Library / Photo by Greg Miller

The guides do contain maps, but most of them aren’t meant to be used directly in navigation. Rather, they serve as a visual index to the written turn-by-turn directions. Like railroad maps, these index maps depict straight-line connections between towns, even when the actual routes were far more convoluted.

And convoluted they were. Here are two steps in the directions from Fort Morgan to Denver:

3.4 1.7 End of road, turn right; curving left just beyond. Pass school on left 4.4. Turn right with road 5.0. Cross concrete bridge 5.2.
8.8 5.4 End of road; turn right with travel. Cross bridge over Platte River and RR. 9.2

The numbers refer to mileage. The first number for each step is the total distance traveled so far, the second is the intermediate distance you’d see on your odometer if you re-zeroed it at the beginning of each step. For example, at the start of the second step above, you’d be 8.8 miles into the entire trip, and you’d have just finished the 5.4 mile segment described in the previous step (you’d have passed the school at 4.4 miles, the concrete bridge at 5.2, and hit 5.4 at the end of the road, right where the second step begins). Easy, right?

Well, following all these twists and turns would have been easier back when cars rarely broke 30 miles per hour, Bauer says, and there was time for a driver (or better whoever was riding shotgun) to look back and forth between the book and the road ahead.

This section of the 1916 guide shows driving directions between Greely and Estes Park, Colorado.
This section of the 1916 guide shows driving directions between Greely and Estes Park, Colorado.
Prelinger Library / Photo by Greg Miller

Even so, following these directions would require two things: a good odometer and a degree of diligence. If you got off track all your numbers would be off. You’d have to find your way back to the nearest point of reference.

The Blue Book guides weren’t purely for navigation. They also include introductions to towns and cities and flag points of historical or modern interest. The Fort Morgan-Denver route description, for example, includes this gem: “The intrepid Hollen Godfrey maintained a stage station at a point located near Merino. He was often attacked by Indians, but was never caught napping…”

Not much is known about how the Blue Book guides were made, Bauer says, but the publisher apparently paid professional “pathfinders” to drive the main roads each summer so the guides could be updated to reflect the quickly-changing road conditions. Amateur pathfinders, often members of local automotive clubs, also contributed.

This index map shows the main roads leading in and out of Chicago.
This index map shows the main roads leading in and out of Chicago.
Prelinger Library / Photo by Greg Miller

In a way, the success of the guides may have contributed to their demise. As more people felt emboldened to hit the road, pressure mounted on the government to build better roads. The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 provided the first federal funding for building and improving roads. In 1926, the first network of numbered interstate highways was established. As signs went up along these routes, it became far easier to navigate without turn-by-turn directions.

Two years earlier, in 1924, Rand McNally had published its “Auto Chum,” the first edition of what would become its bestselling road atlas. Other companies soon jumped on the road-atlas band wagon. After 1927, the Blue Book guides with turn-by-turn directions were no longer published.

It’s ironic that nearly a century later, after decades of relying on road maps and atlases, so many drivers have gone back to turn-by-turn directions as their preferred navigational aid. If only Siri could flag the landmarks and throw out some trivia along the way.

–Greg Miller

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Bomb-Damage Maps Reveal London’s World War II Devastation

The German Luftwaffe dropped thousands of bombs on London from 1939 to 1945, killing almost 30,000 people. More than 70,000 buildings were completely demolished, and another 1.7 million were damaged. The extent of the damage to each and every one of these buildings was logged and mapped in near real-time by surveyors, architects, engineers, and construction workers.

The result is an incredible collection of maps, color-coded by hand, that reveal the extent of the destruction in painstaking detail. Today, the maps remain an invaluable resource for academics, family historians, and even builders trying to avoid touching off unexploded bombs.

Key to LCC Bomb Damage Maps.
Key to LCC Bomb Damage Maps.
© 2015 The City of London (London Metropolitan Archives)

Now these bomb census maps are available in a beautiful oversized book released earlier this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Blitz, a nine-month period during which London and other British cities were relentlessly attacked by the German air force. “The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-1945” contains large, high-quality reproductions of all 110 maps of the London region along with commentary from Laurence Ward, principal archivist at London Metropolitan Archives, which holds the original maps.

“There are just so many stories which these maps provide the starting point for,” Ward says. “They’re a great source in the sense that they make you want to go on and find out more.”

As soon as the bombs fell, data collection for the maps began. The London County Council, the central administrative authority of what was known as the County of London (roughly the area known today as Inner London), tasked its Architect’s Department with responding to bomb damage as it occurred. Surveyors, who before the war mostly worked on building sites to make sure regulations were followed and buildings were up to code, suddenly found themselves in charge of rescue operations. They worked with local rescue services made up of people from the construction fields, like engineers and bricklayers.

“Their primary aim was to pull people out of rubble and destroyed buildings and try to save lives,” Ward says. “They were set up as the rescue service because they had an understanding of how buildings worked, so if a building was about to collapse, making a judgment on how much time you had to get into the building and try and save people.” In all, the rescue services responded to 16,396 incidents and saved 22,238 people. Fifty-four of them died during these efforts.

Once a rescue operation was finished, the surveyors and rescue workers would work together to classify the damage, building by building, into six categories ranging from “blast damage—minor in nature” to “total destruction.” Their reports were sent to the London County Council, where they were recorded onto 1916 Ordnance Survey maps. Each damage category was given a color (shown in the key, above right), and the status of every affected building was colored by hand on the maps.

A diary entry included in the book, from architect Andrew Butler on April 20, 1941, gives an idea of what the work was like:

For the block I have started on—eight floors high with two flats on each floor—has had its whole face ripped off … I found it possible to stand on part of the roof. So, clutching a broken chimney, I surveyed the damage there. My notebook became very messy. What with the dust and soot, wet filth and the perspiration of fluster on my hands, it was difficult to read what I wrote. The notes served their purpose however when, after drying the book, I had to transcribe them into a report.

Visually, the maps are quite striking. The apparent randomness of the colors stands in contrast to the more orderly pattern of streets and buildings. In some places, whole swaths containing several blocks and dozens of buildings are colored black (total destruction) and purple (damaged beyond repair). In other places, the severity of damage varies widely, with areas colored yellow (minor blast damage) peppered with black, purple and red (seriously damaged).

Circles on the map denote strikes from V-1 and V-2 rockets, late additions to the German arsenal that caused tremendous damage. Beginning in June of 1944, Germany added the V-1 flying bomb to its attacks, which up to that point had mostly consisted of aircraft dropping incendiary bombs. The V-1 was a pilotless aircraft carrying a 1,870-pound warhead that could navigate by autopilot and crash into a target. More than 2,000 landed in the London region, killing 2,329 people. In September, a V-2 rocket, the world’s first ballistic missile, hit London. By the end of the war, 517 had detonated in London, killing 2,511 people.

The damage from World War II transformed London into the architecturally diverse city it is today. The maps help explain how rows of grand old flats can be interspersed with more modern buildings.

“Looking at a very, very small area, you can have buildings dating from maybe five different centuries sitting in quite close proximity to each other,” Ward says. “As you go further out you might be walking along a very fine Victorian street full of these beautiful terraced houses with lots of Victorian detailing on them, and then suddenly right in the middle of this road, there’ll be this kind of 1960’s low-rise housing block, very functional, very square. But it’s often that was the result of bomb damage.”

A view from the Golden Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral, looking east, which shows extensive bomb damage following the demolition of unsafe buildings in the summer of 1942. On the right, looking up Cannon Street, are Distaff Lane, Friday Street, Bread Street, Queen Victoria Street, and Cannon Street Railway Station. In the center foreground can be seen the tower of St. Augustine’s Church and Watling Street, which crosses Friday Street and Bread Street. To the left is St. Mary-le-Bow Church (Cross and Tibbs Collection, Collage 366 I S).
A view from the Golden Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral, looking east, which shows extensive bomb damage following the demolition of unsafe buildings in the summer of 1942. On the right, looking up Cannon Street, are Distaff Lane, Friday Street, Bread Street, Queen Victoria Street, and Cannon Street Railway Station. In the center foreground can be seen the tower of St. Augustine’s Church and Watling Street, which crosses Friday Street and Bread Street. To the left is St. Mary-le-Bow Church (Cross and Tibbs Collection, Collage 366 I S).
Photograph by Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs © 2015 The City of London (London Metropolitan Archives) and reproduced by kind permission of the Commissioner of the City of London Police

The book also contains a remarkable collection of photos of damage in the City of London, a square-mile section at the center of greater London, taken by two police officers who would photograph damaged areas in the wake of attacks. The combination of the maps showing how widespread the destruction was, and the photos, such as the one above, showing what the damage looked like up close, really brings home the scale of the devastation.

“I just find it staggering that they managed to just carry on. London just carried on working,” Ward says. “It must have been an extraordinary time.”

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Help Map the First Human Outpost on Mars

Mt. Sharp on Mars
Someday astronauts might navigate the Martian landscape (here, the Curiosity rover’s view of Mt. Sharp).
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

With the tantalizing possibility of a manned mission to Mars in the offing, NASA’s most recent call for astronaut hopefuls resulted in a record 18,300 applications. But if you missed the deadline (or have an aversion to spending seven to nine months in a cramped spacecraft with three other people), there’s another way to get involved: Make a map for astronauts to use on Mars.

Sure, NASA has plenty of scientists hard at work mapping the geology of potential Martian landing sites. But designing maps to help humans navigate, study, and survive in an alien landscape will require an entirely different set of skills—the kinds of skills that cartographers, graphic artists, and people who love maps might have.

So, the International Cartographic Association is holding a competition to come up with the best map design for astronauts who would spend about a year on the surface of Mars as part of a mission proposed for the 2030s.

One of the most interesting parts of this challenge is to design a map that will probably be displayed with technology that has yet to be invented. “The field maps will most likely be digital dynamic maps, shown on display, VR glasses, projected onto the helmet or made visible by a yet-to-discover technology,” according to the contest instructions.

“This project is on the boundary between scifi, game design, graphic arts and science, like cartography is,” NASA planetary scientist Henrik Hargitai told me in an email. Hargitai is also the chair of the ICA’s Commission on Planetary Cartography, which sounds awesome.

One of 47 possible exploration zones on Mars that could be visited by humans.
One of 47 possible exploration zones on Mars that could be visited by humans.
H. Hargitai/NASA/ARC

Competitors can use free mapping software with high-resolution surface images and information about geology and resources on Mars. They will choose one of 47 possible 200-kilometer-wide (about 125 miles) exploration zones—like the one to the left—and map everything that would be important to the astronauts, also known in NASA jargon as “proximal humans.” 

This includes things they need to live, like a habitat, power plant, and greenhouse; the places where they will conduct their research, such as geological outcrops and other spots that scientists have deemed worthy of inspection; areas that have resources they will need to survive, including water, loose rocks and dirt for building roads, and metals like iron and aluminum that could be mined; and landmarks for navigation.

Clearly this task will require some mapmaking skills. But more importantly, it’s going to take a lot of creativity to imagine what it would be like to live and work on the surface of another world. If you think you’re ready to do your part, here are a few ideas to help you put yourself in those astronauts’ Mars boots.

First, check out Curiosity’s view of the Red Planet. This rover has been cruising around Mars for almost four years, doing some of the kinds of things humans would also do out there—like drilling into rocks—and documenting it all with thousands of photographs, like as the one below. And the humans on Mars will also have some rovers with them, which makes Curiosity’s perspective even more relevant.

How Curiosity rover sees Mars.
How Curiosity rover sees Mars.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Next, you can study the experiences of the Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon. For example, this description from astronaut David Scott from the documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” is revealing: “One of the problems on the moon is that there’s nothing of familiar size—no trees, houses, roads—so it’s very difficult to tell a large rock at a great distance from a smaller boulder nearby.”

After that, take a look in at NASA’s animated conception of a Mars exploration zone (which doesn’t look all that different from the outpost depicted in “The Martian”) in the video below.

And finally, consider immersing yourself in the stories of some of the great science fiction authors that take you to Mars and other planets, both real and imaginary. After all, some of these writers have a knack for actually predicting real future technology.

Hargitai says there’s a good chance that concepts and design elements from the contest submissions will be incorporated into the final product that lands in the hands (and helmets) of astronauts heading to Mars. For example, they need well-designed symbols for things like the deep space habitat that will be the astronauts’ living quarters. “We do hope that our awardees’ map designs will have an echo in the final products made some 20 years from now,” he says. And the maps can be tested much sooner on Earth in simulated Martian environments such as the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

In addition to the chance to be involved in planning the first human mission to another planet, the contest offers prizes for the winners of three categories: middle and high school students, college students and young professionals aged 18-35, and “citizen scientists” of all ages. And, the winner’s maps will be sent to the scientists in charge of the exploration zone they mapped.

The ICA is currently in the process of making the competition an official collaboration with NASA through a NASA Space Act agreement. Hargitai hopes the project will follow in the crowdsourced footsteps of previous successful NASA citizen scientist projects like crater counting and Martian spider identification.

“The goal partly is to encourage young professionals and students, to inspire them, to work on science projects that may have a real impact,” Hargitai says. “They will be the future planetary scientists and astronauts.”

—Betsy Mason

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These 15th-Century Maps Show How the Apocalypse Will Go Down

In 15th-century Europe, the Apocalypse weighed heavily on the minds of the people. Plagues were rampant. The once-great capital of the Roman empire, Constantinople, had fallen to the Turks. Surely, the end was nigh.

Dozens of printed works described the coming reckoning in gory detail, but one long-forgotten manuscript depicts the Apocalypse in a very different way—through maps. “It has this sequence of maps that illustrate each stage of what will happen,” says Chet Van Duzer, a historian of cartography who has written a book about the previously unstudied manuscript.

The geography is sketchy by modern standards, but the maps make one thing perfectly clear: If you’re a sinner, you’ve got nowhere to hide. The Antichrist is coming, and his four horns will reach the corners of the earth. And it just gets worse from there.

The manuscript is also the first known collection of thematic maps, or maps that depict something that’s not a physical feature of the environment (like rivers, roads, and cities). Thematic maps are ubiquitous today—from rainbow-colored weather maps to the red-and-blue maps of election results—but most historians date their origins to the 17th century. The apocalypse manuscript, which now belongs to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, was written two centuries earlier, Van Duzer writes in his recently published book, Apocalyptic Cartography.

According to the manuscript, the four horns of the Antichrist will extend to the ends of the earth between 1600 and 1606. The horns represent the ways he will persuade people to follow him: deceit, cunning, cruelty, and imitation of the Deity.
According to the manuscript, the four horns of the Antichrist will extend to the ends of the earth between 1600 and 1606. The horns represent the ways he will persuade people to follow him: deceit, cunning, cruelty, and imitation of the Deity.
The Huntington Library

The manuscript was made in Lübeck, Germany, between 1486 and 1488. It’s written in Latin, so it wasn’t meant for the masses. But it’s not as scholarly as other contemporary manuscripts, and the penmanship is fairly poor, Van Duzer says. “It’s aimed at the cultural elite, but not the pinnacle of the cultural elite.”

The author is unknown. Van Duzer suspects it may have been a well-traveled doctor named Baptista. If so, he was in some ways very much a product of his time, yet in other ways centuries ahead of it.

The cartographic account of the Apocalypse begins with a map that shows the condition of the world between 639 and 1514. The earth is a circle, and Asia, Africa, and Europe are depicted as pie wedges surrounded by water. The text describes the rise of Islam, which the author sees as a growing threat to the Christian world. “There’s no way to escape it, this work is very anti-Islamic,” Van Duzer says. “It’s unfortunate,” he adds, but it was a widespread bias in that place and time.

Subsequent maps, which you can see in the gallery above, depict the “Sword of Islam” conquering Europe, followed by the rise of the Antichrist, a massive triangle that extends from pole to pole. Another map depicts the gates of Hell opening up on Judgment Day, which the author predicts will occur in 1651. A small, featureless globe depicts the world after that.

Unlike the Huntington manuscript, many works published around the same time, such as this hand-colored German book published in 1570, used pictures to depict the impending horrors of the Apocalypse. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Unlike the Huntington manuscript, many works published around the same time, such as this hand-colored German book published in 1470, used pictures to depict the impending horrors of the Apocalypse. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Library of Congress

All the maps in the manuscript are symbolic, but the post-apocalyptic map takes minimalism to the max. “There’s nothing on it, but it’s very clearly labeled as a map,” Van Duzer says. “It raises the question of what is a map, and it explores that boundary.”

The text is filled with idiosyncratic details. The author calculated the distance to Paradise: 777 German miles from Lübeck to Jerusalem, and thence another 1000 miles to the eastern end of the Earth (a German mile is an obsolete measurement with many variations, making it difficult to pin down the modern equivalent). He also calculated the circumferences of Earth and Hell (8,000 and 6,100 German miles, respectively, though his use of different numbers for pi suggests a shaky grasp of geometry).

In addition to the apocalyptic section, the manuscript includes a section on astrological medicine and a treatise on geography that’s remarkably ahead of its time. For example, the author writes about the need to adjust the size of text to prevent distortions on maps and make them easier to read, an issue cartographers still wrestle with today. (At the same time, he also chastises mapmakers for placing monsters on maps in places where they didn’t exist, an issue cartographers rarely wrestle with today.)

The geographical treatise ends with a short discussion of the purpose and function of world maps. It’s here, Van Duzer says, that the author outlines an essentially modern understanding of thematic maps as a means to illustrate characteristics of the people or political organization of different regions.

“For me this is one of the most amazing passages, to have someone from the 15th century telling you their ideas about what maps can do.”

—Greg Miller


 

Watch: Map of Hell

National Geographic Channel

Airing Sunday May 15 at 9 Eastern/Central

Seventy percent of Americans believe hell is a real place. Actor Danny Trejo has played plenty of bad guys in his time, so he’s on a mission to map out where the idea of hell came from. It’s a terrifying journey through 3,000 years of the afterlife. From ancient Greece to the birth of Christianity, to medieval Europe and modern America, visit real locations believed to be portals to the underworld and witness a hair-raising vision of hell come to life.
 
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If You Love Maps, This Blog Is for You

"A.D. 1498, The Discovery of America," a page from an 1830 historical atlas that showed the clouds of ignorance dissipating with time as geographic knowledge increased.
This page from an 1830 historical atlas is titled “A.D. 1498, The Discovery of America” and shows clouds of ignorance dissipating as geographic knowledge expanded over time.
STANFORD UNIVERSITY, DAVID RUMSEY MAP CENTER

Authors’ note: All Over the Map has been relocated within National Geographic to the news section: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/all-over-the-map/. You can also follow us on RSS, or at @mapdragons on Twitter and Instagram

There is something magical about maps. They transport you to a place you’ve never seen, from the ocean depths to the surface of another planet. Or a world that exists only in the imagination of a novelist.

Maps are time machines, too. They can take you into the past to see the world as people saw it centuries ago. Or they can show you a place you know intimately as it existed before you came along, or as it might look in the future. Always, they reveal something about the mind of the mapmaker. Every map has a story to tell.

All Over the Map is now our place to tell those stories. We are science journalists with a shared fascination with maps. Betsy loved using geologic maps in her previous career as a geologist. In graduate school, Greg studied how animals’ brains map their surroundings. But we’ve both been map geeks for far longer than that. As a kid, Betsy sketched maps of her backyard and the rooms of her house. Greg spent hours poring over maps in the backseat of the car on family vacations.

And like most kids, we loved the maps that arrived tucked into issues of National Geographic. So writing a map blog for National Geographic is pretty much our dream job. Here we will explore the history, meaning, and possibilities of maps. We’ll show you beautiful, interesting, and provocative maps and introduce you to the people who make them.

If you’re joining us from WIRED, where we co-wrote the Map Lab blog, welcome! We’ll be pursuing the same kinds of stories here, from secret Cold War military maps, to maps for self-driving cars, to maps of other worlds, to our annual gift guide for map lovers. Right now is a very exciting time in cartography, as new digital tools are opening up the world of mapmaking to more people than ever before. We’ll be covering some of those developments as well.

We’re not professional cartographers, and we are not employees of National Geographic. Our opinions and editorial decisions, including which maps to feature, are ours alone and don’t necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic. That said, we do hope to bring you some inside peeks into the incredible cartographic operation there.

We’re always on the lookout for interesting maps, and we’re eager to learn more about the past, present, and future of cartography. We hope you’ll join us for the ride. First stop: Greg’s post about an ancient manuscript filled with maps depicting the events of the Apocalypse.

—Betsy Mason and Greg Miller