Friday 1 November 2013

BCS President’s Monthly Bulletin October 2013


The Panama Canal was finally completed in October 1913. The 48 mile long canal connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and is a key element for international maritime trade. There are locks at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake, 85 ft above sea level. Gatun Lake was created to reduce the amount of work required for the canal. The current locks are 110 ft wide. A third, wider lane of locks is currently under construction and is due to open in 2015. 

France began work on the canal in 1881, but had to stop because of engineering problems and high mortality amongst the engineers building the dam due to disease. The United States later took over the project and took a decade to finally complete the canal in 1913. The first traffic through the canal was not until the following year in 1914. The new route allowed ships to reduce their journey times considerably and also avoided the often treacherous passage around Cape Horn.

The project must have been a nightmare for geographers and mapmakers alike as during the construction period, the ownership of the territory that is now the Panama Canal was first Colombian, then French, and then American. When Panama became independent in 1903, the new government authorized French businessman Philippe Bunau-Varilla, to negotiate a treaty with the United States. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty allowed the U.S. to build the Panama Canal and provided for perpetual control of a zone five-miles wide on either side of the canal.

The division of Panama into two parts by the U.S. territory of the Canal Zone caused tension throughout the twentieth century. This tension flared in the 1960s, leading to anti-American riots. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty which agreed to return 60% of the Canal Zone to Panama in 1979, with the canal itself and remaining territory, known as the Canal Area, returned to Panama on December 31, 1999.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world. 

No prizes, but can you name the other six that were selected in 1994 to recognize the great engineering feats of the 20th century? Read on to the end of this bulletin to find out!

Senghenydd Mining Disaster
Britain’s worst ever mining disaster occurred on 14th October 1913 at the Universal Colliery at Senghenydd near Caerphilly in Glamorgan. A total of 439 miners and 1 rescuer died in an explosion and subsequent underground fire. The youngest victim was just 14 and thirty were aged under 18.

Nearly all of the families in the town were touched, in one way or another. And yet, despite the resulting enquiry finding numerous faults that could be laid at the door of the owners and managers, when compensation and fines were levied, they came to a derisive total of just £24.

The disaster first came to my attention in an article in GEOconnexion magazine in May this year, centered on the recent work by the local community to create and maintain a website to commemorate the disaster. Using a combination of modern and historic mapping they were able to show just how much of the community was directly affected by the disaster. Through a process of address matching based on OS Master Map, historic OS mapping and census records they were able to plot the properties that had lost someone in the tragedy. 
You can find more details at,

Sopwith Camel Aircrew
After two anniversaries from 100 years ago, there is one notable one from 50 years ago. Do you recognise this dapper young fellow? It is none other than our immediate Past President and Chair of Programme Committee, Peter Jolly.

Peter joined the Royal Air Force as an Officer Cadet on 8 Oct 1963 at RAF South Cerney. Peter has lasted longer than South Cerney, which closed as an RAF base in 1971, but is still an Army base housing 29 Postal Courier and Movement Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps. As he said in the text that accompanied the photo he sent me “the rest is history! Rather too much of it actually!”

Cartography in the News
A lot of the material for this bulletin comes from monitoring Twitter for a particularly interesting or novel comment or tweet on any manner of things cartographic. I usually make a short note on my ipad and then come back to it as the month goes on to incorporate the salient details. One of my notes this month was “cartoblography dark maps”. When I subsequently searched for this it came up with an article by Ordnance Survey’s Charley Glynn from June, so it’s one I must have missed first time round. He points out that we have become accustomed to viewing maps with a light or white background, most likely due to the fact that the medium being used for distribution would be white paper. It just doesn’t make economic sense to coat a piece of paper with dark ink. The examples of ‘dark maps’ on the website are certainly different and challenge some of our traditional views of maps and as Charley contends “There is something cool, aesthetically pleasing and eye-catching about dark maps.” Check out the website to see if you agree.

Restless Earth
Our schools programme looks like setting a record this year. We have already run two workshops, in Penarth and Godalming, with another 15 to come during the academic year. Over 60 schools have now attended a workshop and we are hopefully convincing the next generation of the importance of geography and cartography. Speaking to teachers it would appear that the numbers of students taking geography is on the increase again and our workshops are certainly at capacity at every school we go to.
We rely primarily on BCS members and RGS Ambassadors to deliver these workshops and whilst we have a good team assembled, it would be nice to involve more of our membership. With venues ranging from the Lake District to Devon, there must be one near you, so if you could come along and help out on the day we would love to see you there. Please email me at
We have also just updated our flyer to include a map of schools we have visited so please check it out to see where future opportunities may be. Latest Restless Earth Flyer.

You heard it here first!
Over the last month the Programme Committee has reviewed potential venues and has decided on a location for the BCS Symposium 2014. Our 50th Symposium will be held between 24th and 26th June at the Marwell Hotel, near Winchester – yes, it is on the same site as the Zoo! 
Easily accessible from the M3, Winchester Station and close to Southampton Airport, the venue comes highly recommended by BCS Members who have organised events there including Ordnance Survey and Esri. The programme theme and call for papers will be published shortly so please keep an eye on the website for further details.

Seven Wonders of the Modern World
In answer to the question I posed at the top of this bulletin, the other six are the Channel Tunnel, the CN Tower, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Itaipu Dam and the Netherlands North Sea Protection Works.

Pete Jones MBE, CGeog, FRGS
31st October 2013

Twitter: @geomapnut

Blog List