Mapping the world (and Manchester)

Maps and map-making have a fascination all their own. The need to know where we are touches an ancient nomadic nerve that anticipates later exploration and conquest. It’s a case of putting the cartography before the horse or car or ship, in which today’s GPS devices digitally transform parchment and compass.

There is a passage in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) that illustrates the importance of knowing where one is going. Alice is interrogating the Cheshire Cat:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Map-making is the practice of crafting representations of the Earth upon a flat surface. Like other technological developments, many national and international surveying projects were initially carried out by the military, such as the British Ordnance Survey (now a civilian government agency internationally renowned for its work). Road maps are perhaps the most widely used maps today, forming a subset of navigational maps that include aeronautical and nautical charts, maps of railway and subway networks, and hiking and bicycling maps. Such is their significance that the term “road map” has long been used in peace-making initiatives and corporate business opportunities.

A map’s orientation is the relationship between the directions on the map and the corresponding compass directions in reality. The word “orient” is derived from Latin oriens, meaning East. In the Middle Ages many maps were drawn with East (the direction of Jerusalem) at the top (meaning that the direction “up” on the map corresponds to East on the compass). Today, the most common – but far from universal – cartographic convention is that North is at the top, although several kinds of maps are traditionally not designed that way:

  • Maps from non-Western traditions are oriented a variety of ways. Old maps of Edo show the Japanese imperial palace as the “top”, but also at the centre, of the map.
  • Medieval European maps such as the Ebstorf Map (right) were centred on Jerusalem with East at the top.
  • Maps of cities bordering a sea are often conventionally oriented with the sea at the top.
  • Route and channel maps have traditionally been oriented to the road or waterway they describe.
  • Polar maps of the Arctic or Antarctic regions are conventionally centred on the pole: the direction North would be towards or away from the centre of the map, respectively. Typical maps of the Arctic have 0° meridian towards the bottom of the page; maps of the Antarctic have the 0° meridian towards the top of the page.
  • Reversed maps, also known as Upside-Down maps or South-Up maps, have South at the top.
  • The Dymaxion map or Fuller map (right) is a projection of a world map onto the surface of a polyhedron, which can be unfolded and flattened to two dimensions. The projection depicts the earth’s continents as nearly contiguous land masses. The map was created by the US scientist and inventor Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983).

The work of the British artist Jeremy Dickinson (b. 1963) has recently focused on map-making of a particular kind. He uses coloured blocks and buses to delineate cityscapes – the one illustrated being a “Manchester Suburban Wall Map” (left) recently exhibited in Tokyo. The joy of such representations is their alternative way of looking at things, adding a touch of humour to thinking outside the box. If only Manchester – the site of the world’s first railway station, and the place where scientists first split the atom – were as colourful!


2 comments on “Mapping the world (and Manchester)

  1. I have long been fascinated with maps, even those drawn on my Garmin. A map print that hangs in my home is the Madaba map of Jerusalem, located in St. George, Jordan. It is part of a larger ancient floor tile map of the Middle East. I’ve long wondered how the map makers of that era carried the details of far locations back to Madaba.

  2. Kristine Greenaway says:

    I didn’t know I was fascinated by maps till I read this blog entry. I also love the line “It’s a case of putting the cartography before the horse or car or ship…” Lovely writing!

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