More Mapmaking

In honor of Indigenous People’s Day (still called “Columbus Day” here in New York), I thought I’d present an image from a non-Western culture that communicates an in idea we would dessribe as fundamentally “scientific.” Having previously discussed mapmaking on this blog, the above image of a Marshallese stick chart seemed appropriate.

I recently ran across an image of a stick chart in the National Geographic volume Mapping the World, which includes maps from a variety of times and places. In the foreward, Allen Carroll, Chief Cartographer of the National Geographic Society, writes about the challenges of creating maps, then adds… “Reading maps is challenging, too: interpreting patterns, deriving locations and routes, understanding interrelationships, making the not insignificant mental leap from color, label, and symbol back to the original form—the surface of the Earth.”

To my mind, the stick chart represents a perfect example of the kind of embedded visual language that goes into creating images intended to communicate concepts, particularly scientific concepts. Like a graph of the cosmic microwave background, the stick chart uses a specific visual vocabulary to convey essential properties of interest about its subject. Interconnecting sticks represent ocean currents and swells, although this rebbilib chart is more concerned with island positions in a broad view of the archipelago. The motivation is to communicate essential elements, much as a “map” of data into abstract cartesian space.

You can learn more about Marshallese stick chart navigation on a website put together by the Marshall Islands Chamber of Commerce. I wouldn’t recommend setting sail without a little additional guidance, however.


A slow Monday. So I’ll highlight a reference I came across while reading the book Weighing the World, by Edwin Danson. (Danson’s book describes the processes of surveying in illuminating but excruciating detail; what struck me as most interesting was both the variety of individuals involved and the dramatic sweep of the effort, risking life and limb to determine once and for all that, in fact, Earth is not perfectly spherical, for example.)

Anyway, the reference is Antique Maps, by Carl Moreland, but you can read it online at its very own website. Now, the goal of this tome is to introduce prospective buyers to the essentials of map- and print-making, but the information passed along makes it well worth the occasional digressions. For example, Chapter Two, “The Printing of Old Maps,” gives a succinct and worthwhile survey of techniques that formed the foundation of all diagrams and printing techniques from the 16th to the 19th Centuries.

This historical stuff fascinates me, as my previous post about dodo lithographs may suggest. Printing maps made maps worthwhile in a way that drawing maps was not: a printed map could be amended and improved upon, and it could effectively incorporate input from myriad voyagers, surveyors, and sailors. In my opinion, that conceptual transformation has few parallels in the history of human thought.

More on that in posts to come…