Tag Archive | maps

Horsing around with scale bars

Apropos a previous post on the different measurement systems used in early modern cartography, I just came across this example that is unique (to me at least).

Carte d'une partie de Piemont

Carte d’une partie de Piemont

I’m not positive, but it looks like the top bar indicates the distance one can travel in an hour on horseback, i.e. 2 heur[es] de ch[eval]. Of course it’s annoying that they don’t left justify the two bars, so you can directly compare the 1 hour to the number of Piemont milles.

Other interpretations?

Notice how the French text beneath the bars also lets the reader know that four Piemont milles (“miles” or “thousands”) equal two French lieus (leagues), each of 2500 toises. It ain’t easy being an early modern.


Animating Maps

I spent several hours today playing around with animated GIFs. For those who aren’t among the technocenti (circa 1995), an animated GIF is a type of graphic file that allows you to animate its contents. You’ll see a fair number of them online, particularly if you read many blogs with animated cat icons. It’s a poor cousin to the more powerful animations and interactive websites available in Flash, which Steve Jobs declared war against about the time the iPad came out.

I’d dabbled with Flash before, and will again, but I wanted to keep my experimentation simple at first. So here’s my first attempt. I have lots of ideas for the medium-term future, but this will give you a sense of what they look like at their most basic.

Animated map of Allied holdings in Iberia, War of the Spanish Succession

(The blog may require you to click on the image in order to run the animation. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

I was able to easily export my Adobe Illustrator file into Photoshop and then use its Animation feature. It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, because you need to rethink how you represent your content when you shift from static to animated, and essentially rethink your layering strategy.


  1. Do you find animations like the above effective?
  2. How would you improve it?
  3. Is animating a map like the above worth the effort, or is it better to just do a static map, such as:

    Static Version of Allied-held Territory in Iberia

The Geography of War

You’ve probably heard the saying (often attributed to Mark Twain) that “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” That may be true, or not, since too many college students still don’t know where Iraq and Afghanistan are on a map. But the idea goes back much further.

As the preface to The Art of War in Four Parts (1707) explained:

“It would be altogether needless to go about to extol the usefulness of this Work, at a time when all Europe is involv’d in bloody Wars. The Continuance of them has made Thousands aspire to some little Knowledge in Geography, who would scare ever have look’d into a Map. The Marches of Armies, the Over-running of Provinces, and the Sieges of Towns, have rais’d a Curiosity to be inform’d of their Distances and Situation. If these, which are but the Consequences of War, do so far prompt us to desire Information that we may be in some Sort capable of comprehending them, how much more ought we to endeavour to gain some little Insight into that which produces those great Events we daily hearken after, and which is the Art of War?”

The inclusion of a preface or note to the reader was a common device used by publishers to justify the purchase of their work, and you frequently find in military reference works arguments to the effect that since everybody is reading and talking about the war, you’d better be familiar with the terminology too or you’ll end up looking like an idiot: “those who are fond of, or satisfy’d with their Ignorance, when they hear the Language of the Army, either answer absurdly, or stand gazing, without knowing what to say, as if they were spoken to in a strange and unknown Tongue.” Now we just prefer to be interviewed by Jay Leno (Jaywalking) so we can look like an idiot.

Of course it’s a little odd that this particular work doesn’t even deal with geography or include any maps. But oh well.

Map of southern Germany

Regarding a previous discussion we had on mapping the military past, Wienand Drenth of British Army Lineages kindly mentioned his access to software that provides topographical maps of Europe. He has one posted on his blog showing William III’s march from Torbay in 1688, and he created this one for those who are interested in the often-indescript geography of Germany, indescript without the rivers and terrain, that is.

So feel free to use the map for your personal non-profit purposes, crediting Wienand of course.

Rhine area (Wienand Drenth)

More old maps

I don’t think I knew about this before (perhaps somebody mentioned it in the comments?), but there is a new website that serves as a portal for old maps in various libraries. It sends you to the host library interface, where most allow you to zoom in and pan around. Depending on the library, you may not be able to download the maps, but it does allow you to search for place names, and it looks like even small villages shown on maps are indexed, so that’s pretty powerful.

It’s OldMapsOnline, at http://project.oldmapsonline.org/collections.


Mapping the Military Past: A Personal Journey

Remember when I said that historians do a lot of work that rarely makes it to publication? What follows is a visually-illustrated history of my experience with mapping history. EMEMH that is.

Way back in the late 1990s, I took a course as a History grad student in Cartography. Even though the professor was horrible, it was one of the best courses I took because he taught us how to use a relatively new technology called a scanner – technically it was a digitizing tablet, because software back then couldn’t handle large raster images. You taped a paper copy of a map to the digitizing tablet, and used the digitizer ‘puck’ (calibrated with a wire grid marked out on the tablet) to digitize points and lines on the map. The resulting line and point positions would be imported into a CAD program (Computer-Aided Design, used by architects and engineers the world over), and you could then add other features to put whatever you wanted on the map. I think one of the assignments was to create a graduated circle map of Australia’s population.

While I had little interest in Australia per se, that cartography course opened up the possibility to make maps all by myself. I recall a friend of mine talking about making his maps by cutting out place names from a printed sheet of paper and pasting them onto a hand-traced map before photocopying the whole thing – remember tracing paper? That sounded like too much work for me (little did I know…), and I’m not artistically inclined enough to draw my own map like something you see in a fantasy novel, so the more I can have the computer do the work, the better. I purchased AutoCAD (thank you, educational discount) and over the remaining years of my graduate career slowly learned how to create my own maps. Here is the tale of my journey from cartographic novice to cartographic dilettante, may you glean some wisdom from it and share your own. Read More…