History 615

Cartography in the 20th Century
October 27, 2010, 12:21 pm
Filed under: History 615

This week I made a significant effort to do ALL of the assigned readings.  And read it all I did (with the exception of a few pages that I skimmed through in the chapter “Consuming Maps” by Diane Dillon).  As I lay here starting to write at almost 2 AM, I’m struggling to tie all the readings together and come up with something insightful to say.  So in hopes that maybe it’ll help, here’s a sentence or two on each.

Dillon:  Focused on maps as consumer products throughout most of modern history, not just the 20th century.  From personalized atlases to board games, Dillon traces maps in consumer culture from their origins as luxury items all the way to present day “cartifact” novelty items.  In doing so, she also looks at the production and distribution of maps, and how that shaped map consumerism.  I thought the traveling atlas salesman’s pitch was especially interesting.  A map as described by him didn’t have to be a true representation of reality, but the reality that you wanted it to be.

Schulten:  Discussed Fortune magazine’s architect turned cartographer, Richard Edes Harrison and how his maps, published in the 1940’s, revolutionized cartography and the way the American map consuming public understood their location in relation to the rest of the world.  Throwing the Mercator projection out the window, his use of polar projections and the like, emphasized North America and the United States centrality among conflict elsewhere in the northern hemisphere.

Akerman:  Analyzes the role of road maps throughout the early and mid 20th century in shaping America’s automobile centric identity and “national motorized space”.

Cloud:  Talks about secret and classified programs during the Cold War and the role they played in geographic and cartographic advancements in America during that period.  Explained how such programs like CORONA were able to “conceal its secret roots as it reveals that secret’s fruits” as he puts it.  The three technologies he focuses on are the World Geodetic System (WGS 84 is the standard reference coordinate system today), photogrammetry, and GIS (originally MGIS).  Interesting, but really technical even for me.

Newberry Library:  Discusses Cold War maps as they appeared in popular magazine or other news publications as propaganda and how they were able to influence and direct popular opinion towards the “red menace”.  Features 7 such maps from Time and Life magazines and splits them up as representations of three general Cold War map propaganda categories; advertising maps, metaphor maps, and redeemable communist maps.

There’s probably lots of directions one could go in making sense of all this.  You could make connections across the readings and consider how much maps in the 20th century were driven by capitalist interests, such as  the case in the Akerman reading of gas stations and other local businesses producing road maps.  I think for me one of the most interesting things about maps in the 20th century is how much they were affected by incredible advancements made in travel and transportation.  Harrison’s decision to map the world in the way that he did was certainly influenced by the rising importance of aviation.

One of the things that really struck me in Akerman’s analysis of 20th century American road maps, was that in a way, the maps themselves not only preceded the American highway system, but essentially established it.  For me this is in a sense the complete opposite of the way I normally think of maps.  In my mind, maps are still primarily representations of of reality, of spatial phenomena across the surface of the earth.  OK, I get the concept that there are many maps out there, such as the propaganda maps which aren’t necessarily meant to be used as reference sources, and can be distorted to suit a map makers intentions, and therefore are not truly accurate representations (although I guess what map truly is an accurate representation).  Yet here with Akerman and the roads maps, is a case where the representation is creating that which it is supposed to be representing?

I don’t know.  I’m starting to lose myself here…and I’ve been trying to write something for long enough as it is.  I’ve got to go to work…


7 Comments so far
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I applaud your efforts to synthesize all of the readings. Just keep in mind that sometimes it’s possible, and sometimes it just isn’t.

I too was struck mostly by the Ackerman article. But I was hoping you’d give some more insight into the MGIS reading. If it was overly technical for you, I was completely out of my element. But it was interesting to compare those Cold War origins with that of the automobile.

Comment by rosendof

[…] far this week, I’ve commented on Kevin’s take of the Ackerman […]

Pingback by Comments « History and Cartography

Something which bothered me about the Newberry Library maps was that at least one of the maps was interpreted incorrectly. There is a map which is described as “showing the USSR as an octopus across Europe.” Theoretically, this visual would make sense as in political cartoons and maps the octopus is a common enemy (think Populism) – but if you click on the map, the image is not an octopus, its a meat grinder. It doesn’t have tentacles, it is not an animal, it has a stand, it has industrial parts. This is a major detail to miss and makes me question all of the analysis presented on the Newberry Library link.

Comment by Lindsey

That’s interesting, I didn’t think much of it when looking at it the first time but going back and looking at it again, your right. I see no indication of an octopus there. Only an Antwerp meat grinder and some arrows feeding the communist East with weapons. The accompanying text does mention that it is a dual metaphor of both a meat grinder and an octopus, but it sort of just glosses over explaining the octopus metaphor.

Comment by rkpalmerjr

I agree the John Cloud article on MGIS evolving into GIS was quite technical and a bit of tough read, but worth the effort as it illuminates how technology developed for military purposes can be adapted to other uses.

Comment by reskelsen

[…] very much with Lindsey’s Cartographic Education piece and Rodney’s assessment of John Cloud’s article on MGIS and […]

Pingback by HIST 615 Comments 10/28/2010 « Ruel J. Eskelsen's Digital History Blog

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