The Mapmakers

While on the road, I read The Mapmakers, by John Noble Wilford, Pulitzer prize-winning science writer for the New York Times.
The book tells the stories of the scientists and explorers who pioneered the techniques and practice of mapmaking. The book explains early ingenious efforts to measure the size and shape of the earth, and the invention of techniques for surveying territory and projecting the sphere of the earth onto paper. Wilford is particularly good at telling tales of pre-20th century adventurers:
* the Frenchmen who travelled to Lapland and Peru to figure out how the sphere of the earth is out of true
* John Harrison, the watchmaker with working class origins, who built the first clock precise and reliable enough to measure longitude, and fought the aristocratic science establishment that refused to give him credit for the discovery
* James Cook and George Vancouver, who added the coasts of the South Pacific and Western North America on European maps, and subtracted the Northwest Passage and the lush, legendary Terra Australis.
* The members of the India Survey who infiltrated and mapped Chinese-controlled Tibet in the 1860s while posing as lamas, including Nain Singh, who used a prayer wheel to store slips of paper with compass and distance measurements instead of prayers, paced off distances with rosaries containing 100 beads instead of the traditional 108, and carried a sextant, compass, thermometer and mercury container in a false-bottomed box.
The book slows down somewhat with the advent of 20th century team science, but still tells interesting stories about the use of new technology to map previously inaccessible territory; side-looking radar under clouds in Amazon rain forest, radio echo sounding under the Antarctic ice sheet, seismic mapping under the earth, sonar under the ocean floor, satellites and spacecraft on the moon and Mars.
The Mapmakers purports to be world history, but it has a strong European focus. Wilford does include few pages about sophisticated early mapmaking practices in China. But he almost completely ignores Muslim and Indian geography. The book contains just one brief reference to ibn Khaldun, the medieval Muslim traveler and geographer, and nothing on Al Idrisi, who was commissioned by Roger II, the Christian king of Sicily, to update navigational records, and created the famous early atlas called “The Book of Roger.” The Mapmakers briefly mentions that one Francis Wilford, a member of India Survey, was a student of ancient Hindu geography. Given early Indian sophistication in astronomy, math, and government administration, one wonders what earlier sources of geographic knowledge he drew on. According to an Indian friend of mine, many early maps were destroyed to keep them out of the hands of British colonial rulers.
Wilford writes about the dire level of geographic ignorance of Medieval Europeans, whose maps routinely placed Paradise at the Eastern border of China, without noting that during the same period, there was a longstanding, ongoing system of travel and trade from Arabia through India and Southeast Asia to China (see books by Abu Lughod and KN Chaudhuri, among others), conducted by Arabs, Jews, Indians, and sometimes Chinese. I don’t know what sorts of maps were used by these travelling merchants, but they must have used something, because they got from place to place regularly and routinely.
Wilford tells the story of mapmaking as a process of technological development and scientific discovery. Readers are left on their own to infer the social contexts of mapmaking from the details of the tales of “exploration”: in the 16th-19th centuries, European colonial expansion; in the 20th century, the hunt for oil and gas resources, and the advances of military missiles, and submarines, and spy satellites. The sociopolitical history of mapmaking is a different book than the one Wilford wrote; that would also be and interesting story to read.

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