Friday 20 December 2013

BCS President’s Monthly Bulletin December 2013

So we come to the final bulletin of our 50th Anniversary Year and December was obviously a quiet month in 1963! There are very few really ‘mappable’ events from 50 years ago, but one that does lend itself is Kenya’s independence.

As the BBC reported it at the time:

Jomo Kenyatta is certain to become prime minister after his party, Kenya African Nation Union, won the country's first general election.
Thousands of Kenyans ran through the rain-drenched streets of Nairobi tonight cheering at news of the results.”

At a time when the celebrations for the life of Nelson Mandela have just taken place, there are some poignant echoes from Kenyatta’s speech in which he said that although his government aimed to free itself from British colonialism, it would not try to avenge past injustices.

"We are not to look to the past - racial bitterness, the denial of fundamental rights, the suppression of our culture... Let there be forgiveness," 

Kenya is now the biggest and most advanced economy in east and central Africa but it is still a poor developing country. The important agricultural sector is one of the least developed, employing 75 percent of the workforce. 

Despite western donors' early disillusionment with the government, the economy has seen much expansion, evidenced by strong performance in tourism, higher education and telecommunications.

For an eighteen day period, from 19 Dec 1963 – 5 Jan 1964, the Berlin Wall was opened for the first time, allowing West Berliners to visit family living in East Berlin during the Christmas season. One-day permits were required. In what was a foretaste of things to come, this could be considered a brave move on the part of the authorities at the height of the Cold War.

Under an agreement reached between East and West Berlin, over 170,000 passes were eventually issued to West Berlin citizens. Loudspeakers in East Berlin greeted visitors with the news that they were now in "the capital of the German Democratic Republic," a political division that most West Germans refused to accept. Each visitor was also given a brochure that explained that the wall was built to "protect our borders against the hostile attacks of the imperialists." On the West Berlin side, many newspapers berated the visitors, charging that they were pawns of East German propaganda.

Cartography in the news
Just one article this month. The healthy debate on Sat Navs v Atlases will be going on for some time yet and I came across a well-balanced, short article that manages to come to a nice compromise:

Posted by Louisa Keyworth at BCS Corporate Member, Lovell Johns, it does contain the rather worrying quote, “With geography in schools containing less teaching on map reading, two thirds of under 25s would literally be lost if you asked them to read a map, research has claimed.”
Obviously we need to refocus Restless Earth on UK Road Atlas skills!

Mary Baker Eddy Library Mapparium

I came across this stunning piece of cartographic art via a twitter post and have been amazed by the sheer scale of the Mapparium. This glass globe is located in the Mary BakerEddy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. It is constructed of 608 glass panels based on the 1934 Rand McNally world map. The Rambusch Glass Company artists traced these maps onto 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick glass panels and painted them with a coloured powdered glass mixture. Each panel was then fired in a kiln to fuse the colour to the panel. Construction on the Mapparium began in April 1934 and by January 1935 the glass panels were being produced at a rate of about 50 per week, with production accelerated to complete the entire project for June 1st 1935. Once the panels were completed, they were fitted into the spherical bronze frame forming a 10° by 10° graticule that holds the entire structure together. Finally, 300 light bulbs were installed to illuminate the globe from the outside. The total cost for the project was about $35,000 (about $600K in current terms).

Designed by Boston architect Chester Lindsay Churchill, he called his installation the “Mapparium”. It was an immediate and overwhelming success. Within the first four months, more than 50,000 people had come to experience "being at the centre of the earth".

Despite being on a concave surface, which is the complete opposite of how we normally view a globe, it just looks right. Distances, areas and relative locations are all perfectly maintained and as the eye is always the same distance from the object, it doesn’t encounter the distortions that looking at a normal globe introduce.

The Mapparium was renovated in 1998 when a new light and sound system was installed and the panels were cleaned and repaired. On three occasions in 1939, 1958, and again in 1966, different committees discussed updating the map to reflect the geopolitical changes that had taken place since 1934. In 1966, the estimated cost was $175,000 to create and install new glass panels. It was decided that the Mapparium held much more value as an art object, and the idea of updating it was finally dropped.

It remains the only one of its kind, a truly unique cartographic item. I did muse in my twitter feed that it would be nice to have one on this side of the Atlantic as well. We learnt a lot about the UK glass industry during the Black Country Experience weekend, so if anyone knows of a donor with about £400,000 that they are looking to invest and a building with a space large enough to house it please do let me know!
(images provided by kind permission of the Mary Baker Eddy Library)

Better Mapping
We will be looking at a new format for the Better Mapping Seminars in 2014, based on what we have done before but revamped and refocused on web cartography and designing for multiple media. There will still be an opportunity to look at examples of what works and what doesn’t work and I came across a good example recently of a map that at first glance looks good, but then you start to see problems. I am not going to ‘name and shame', you will have to come along to the seminars to find out. Suffice to say that it was produced by a design company, not a cartographic firm and from their website you do get the impression of a certain lack of understanding.


Maps are a perfect example of the importance of good information design. They are functional items and not like conventional packaging or written instructions. Packaging has to be attractive, in the true sense of the word, and information design must be attractive too, in order to capture the readers’ attention in the first place. However, the primary function of any map is to help the user to plan or find his way.

Producing one that achieves this is no mean feat and it is routinely under-estimated how complex a task it actually is – when done well. Maps can fail in two basic ways: they can of course simply be inaccurate and the outcome becomes obvious, but often only when used; they can also fail when the factual content is sound, but presented poorly. Everything on a map is symbolic and all facts are conveyed by implication alone. Maps are not like written instructions and a high cognitive load is being put on the user.

Different situations require different mapping solutions. A geographical map may be ideal in one context and a straight line diagram better in another. Scale is usually very important and simply making a map bigger or smaller is not what scale is about. Scale is about proportion and content.”

Restless Earth
I am very pleased to confirm that the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation (GBSF) have approved a grant of £2,500 to support the BCS RestlessEarth programme. This is the second consecutive year that the GBSF have supported us with a financial grant and it enables us to continue to offer the workshops to schools totally free of charge. We are very grateful for their continued support. To find out more about GBSF, please visit their website at

And Finally…
As we come to the end of our 50th Anniversary Year, I hope that you will agree that it has been an incredibly successful celebration of The Society. We crammed an incredible amount into the last 12 months, have had some very high-profile speakers, run an excellent Symposium, published our 50th Anniversary Book and participated in a wide range of cartographic and geographic events. We have recruited over 100 new members this year and our total membership is now around 700. I would like to thank everyone who has helped to make this year such a resounding success.

Do you read this far? I recently asked on Twitter if anyone new of a good explanation of what differentiates a chart from a map. It was sparked by a book that I am currently reading, from which the following is an extract:

“The stock-in-trade of this old gentleman comprised chronometers, barometers, telescopes, compasses, charts, maps, sextants, quadrants, and specimens of every kind of instrument used in the working of a ship's course, or the keeping of a ship's reckoning, or the prosecuting of a ship's discoveries.”

So my Christmas quiz question is, “What is the name of the ‘old gentleman’ referred to in the extract? First correct answer e-mailed to the address below wins a £10 voucher of their choice (Book, ITunes, M&S, etc).

Best Wishes for a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year – let’s hope that 2014 proves to be as exciting and inspiring as this year has been.

Pete Jones MBE, CGeog, FRGS
20th December 2013

Twitter: @geomapnut

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