The Mapmakers

I just finished reading The Mapmakers (Amazon US, UK) by John Noble Wilford which was wonderful. The two aspects that fascinated me most: The simple acts of triangulating and measuring the world in order to capture it on paper, from objects to geometry to images. And the increasing knowledge cartographers gathered over the centuries, making the process of mapping more accurate and far more complicated. It’s a great read, only suffering from a severe lack of relevant illustrations. I’d love to read more about cartography, but most of the books on Amazon seem to be either more historical works or complicated sounding academic tomes. I think I’m looking for something in between; more technical than The Mapmakers but not so technical I can’t understand it.

Reading about mapmakers charting regions of the world for the first time made me realise what fundamental knowledge maps represent. It’s easy to take for granted that there are many maps available of where you live, but accurate maps are vital for so many basic societal functions. I kept finding myself becoming increasingly annoyed that the Ordnance Survey’s mapping data of the UK isn’t free for anyone to use (as Jo Walsh discusses). Keeping descriptions of the land we live in proprietary seems insanely wrong. It makes me want to dedicate years to generating an open source map of London on my own.


  • I came across an Ordinance Survey employee about two months ago, he had what looked like a sophisticated, (it was new to me) hand held tablet type PDA/PC into which he was either recording data or annnotating existing data, I’m not sure which. He looked tremendously impressive and completely focused on his device and his immediate surroundings. A few weeks later the road I’d seen him on, had large building demolished. You know what its like with demolitions, you can never remember what was there in the first place. I wondered how long it would take before the next OS person came along to record the changes.

    Richard Long the Bristol based artist has done a lot of work ‘walking the line’. In one work through Scotland he records names of all the places he walks thorough in a straight line. Its amazing in these countries of ours how many place names there are. I once tried to compile a list of town and village names in County Durham, it was breathtaking in its size. Richard Long has done some really long straight line walks and then made exhibits of them. Exhibit is not good word, they are more like maps. They capture his experience wonderfully well, a sort of minimalist Wainwright if you like, though I am not sure Wainwright would have had much time for his artworks. I think they would both agree though that the important thing is to do your own walks, make your own maps, try and make sense of your own experience of a place.

    The aborignees have song lines which some still traverse and on which there are sounds which have to be made as they pass. Its a facinating subject

    Lonely Planet have always had a kind of ‘right on’ reputation, I enjoy reading their travel books myself, but there is a school of thought that says better to travel without guides and maps. Still a guide book is not a map, its one step beyond. There is nothing I like better than finding new things in my home area with the help of my local OS map.

  • I loooooooooove maps. I never even saw a map of Witham—a small town I thought I knew well—until four years after I left and then I realized how little I had traveled! Place names hold much more promise and mystery in the UK than here in the States, or maybe that’s just me.
    Are there any maps that measure roads in terms of height (as seen from the side, as if a slice of cake), and not just from above? Santa Barbara’s streets are designed around a grid system, but one block make be several hundred feet higher than the next!

  • Every time I go to San Francisco I wish urban maps had gradient lines. It’d give a much better idea of how best to get from A to B. I guess that if the maps are geared towards cars this kind of thing isn’t seen as important.

  • Yes, but what tell us what he said after you came across him? ;-)