Author Archives: debbie

The shortest distance between two points

We came across this map, on a very unusual projection, while processing a previously uncatalogued set of nineteenth century French sea charts produced by the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la marine. Most are standard nautical charts, but this one – part of a set of three – is extraordinary.  The world appears to have been turned inside out; the chart is centred on the central Atlantic, and the land masses are progressively larger and more distorted the further they are from this point. The other two charts represent the Pacific and Indian Oceans in the same way.

The title makes the chart’s purpose clear: ‘Carte pour la navigation par l’arc de grand circle’. A great circle is, technically, the point at which the surface of a sphere intersects with a plane passing through its centre. In practical terms, a great circle drawn on the surface of the Earth between 2 points will be the shortest distance between those points (the Earth is not, of course, a perfect sphere, but it is close enough for this to be of use).

Navigational charts are traditionally drawn on the Mercator projection. This has the great advantage of showing a line of constant bearing (rhumb line) on the Earth’s surface as a straight line on the map. This is the simplest course to navigate, as mariners have known for many hundreds of years, but it is not the shortest. The shortest route is a great circle, and this requires constant adjustment of direction to stay on course. Sailing ships were limited by the challenges of winds and currents, and early steam ships by the need to refuel, but from the 1870s this principle began to have more practical applications. A straight line drawn on this orthodromic chart is a great circle course between the two points it connects, enabling navigators to plan their great circle journeys relatively easily. These charts were published in 1879. 

Charts of this sort do not appear to have passed into common use, and there could be several reasons for this. For one thing, the difficulties of plotting a great circle course are sufficient to outweigh the advantages for all but the longest ocean crossing journeys. Mariners continued to use rhumb line navigation well into the late twentieth century, by which time GPS systems had come into use. When a great circle course was followed, for sea or air travel, it was calculated in advance, sometimes using a chart of this sort. The course would then be plotted onto a Mercator projection chart where it was easier to follow. 

The usefulness of great circles can be seen most clearly on a modern map of long distance air travel. This is why aeroplane routes from, say, London to San Francisco always appear oddly curved when viewed on a map, with the route going much much north than you would expect. This is a great circle course, and the shortest way to connect two distant cities. A demonstration can be seen on this useful site

The charts were created by Gustave Hilleret, a naval lieutenant and teacher at the École supérieure de guerre navale, who also published books on navigation. The projection is the Gnomonic projection with Equatorial aspect; the charts’ Bodleian shelfmark is B1 a.61/1 [39-41].

The Great Game

This map of the north west frontier of India reveals some fascinating political manoeuvres. Produced in 1889 and titled simply ‘Afghanistan’, it shows the boundaries between British India and Afghanistan. It was made during the period sometimes described as the Great Game, when the imperial ambitions of Russia and Great Britain were fought out in the border regions of Afghanistan. 
The map is accompanied by a letter, dated 1890, from W.J. Cuningham of the Foreign Office in Simla, which makes clear that the map was intended to publicise the British view of the boundaries, but unofficially and in a rather underhand way.
The letter begins by explaining that a new official map of Afghanistan is to be produced, which shows the established boundaries, ‘… to the publication of which exception cannot be taken by other countries.’
The accompanying map – ‘unofficially prepared, for confidential use’ shows the actual situation on the ground, and the territories controlled by Afghanistan, Russia and British India. The map is a Survey of India unpublished proof, and boundaries, some of them complex, are marked by hand in colour.
The third part of the letter is most interesting. Having explained the need for an uncontroversial ‘official’ map, and a more controversial, secret, unofficial one, there follows the clear instruction to give an unofficial briefing to commercial cartographers. They should be given access to this unofficial map, as ‘it may be advisable to communicate to them the approximate boundaries, which … we should prefer to have marked in their maps.’ Commercial publishers were to be encouraged to produce maps showing the situation on the ground; in particular, they were ‘to indicate, as certainly not within Afghanistan, the belt of frontier tribes which intervenes between India and Afghanistan.’
The situation the map shows is a complex and confusing one. There is no key, but Afghanistan is outlined in blue, India in red and Russian territory in green. Between the red and blue lines there are territories enclosed by neither and marked ‘Frontier tribes’ – the Survey’s finely hachured relief making clear that the area is mountainous and inaccessible. The border between Afghanisatan and Pakistan now runs through the region; it was divided by the Durand Line in 1896 and is still disputed today.

A lady’s cruise

The Map Room recently acquired an intriguing map entitled ‘A lady’s cruise in a French Man-of-War.’ It shows a route beginning on the Malay Peninsula, which goes southeast through what is now part of Indonesia, to the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, and across the Pacific Ocean calling at many islands including Tonga and Hawaii, eventually ending up in California. The map was produced to accompany a book of the same title, in which Constance Gordon-Cumming gives an account of her travels in 1877 accompanying the Bishop of Samoa across his extensive diocese.

Constance Gordon-Cumming travelled widely throughout her adult life and published many works about her journeys, illustrated with reproductions of her accomplished watercolours. Titles include ‘At home in Fiji,’ ”Two happy years in Ceylon,’ and ‘Granite crags of California.’ She spent time with various bishops, the first governor of Fiji, and with General Ulysses Grant and his wife. Wealthy, well-connected, unmarried and independent, she appears to have had an unusually good time for a woman of her generation.

This particular work includes many observations on the societies she visited; their activities, traditions, homes and beliefs. When describing the animal worship of the Pacific islanders she shows a surprising degree of empathy, drawing parallels with the animal worship of the Anglo-Saxons still revealed in ancient English place names and in features such as the White Horse of Wantage. She criticises the massive international trading company Godeffroy of Hamburg: in Samoa their employees were encouraged to cohabit with female companions from the local community who they were strictly forbidden to marry, and were also advised to obstruct and exclude all missionaries. Throughout the book Gordon-Cumming describes the landscapes, the individuals she meets, the pleasures and privations; the book is really a succession of anecdotes, but an informative and good-humoured one. 

Maps and accounts like this, describing the route of a traveller, are not uncommon; the fact that the traveller in question was female makes this book more unusual. Although the title of the map and book refer clearly to ‘A lady’ as the subject (uniquely amongst her works), Gordon-Cumming’s name appears only as ‘C.F. Gordon-Cumming’ on the cover and title page, without a title or full name which would make her sex obvious; without looking closely one would conclude that the writer was a man. Possibly this was deliberate to make her books marketable;  J.K. Rowling had a similar experience far more recently, a fact which is worth remembering this International Women’s Day.

A silk escape map

The story of silk escape maps in the second World War is now deservedly well known. The maps, printed on silk as a resilient alternative to paper, were carried by Allied air crews to help them find their way home if they came down in enemy territory. Similar maps continued to be produced after the war, and the Bodleian has a small collection of maps produced in the 1940s and ‘50s. However, the recent arrival of a silk map in the Bodleian Map Room caused a certain amount of interest.  

For one thing, this map appears actually to be on silk. So called ‘silk maps’ were initially printed on silk that had been judged to be below the standard required for parachutes in the early 1940s. But once silk supplies ran out they were made of acrylic material that just isn’t as nice. This one is soft and silky and would make a lovely scarf.

The style of the map is reminiscent of the British silk escape maps of WWII. It has a utilitarian look – it was designed to be functional rather than marketable – with different islands on insets identified by letter codes. The lettering style, layout, and presence of print codes but absence of standard publication information are all typical of WWII era silk maps. It is however in only 2 colours (brown for the hill-shading, black for everything else) –  British silk maps from the same period were more often printed in 3 or more colours.

The map shows ‘Celebes’ – part of Indonesia and known as Sulawesi officially since 1945 – and surrounding islands. The map was made by the RAAF (the Royal Australian Air Force); copies are held in map libraries in Australia and the US, tentatively dated to 1943. It is the first Australian silk map to be acquired by the Bodleian. Its condition shows the resilience of this apparently fragile material – apart from a few loose threads at the edges, it looks as good as new.

Want to know more about the story of silk map production?

This website gives general background on silk military maps
This article (beginning p.30) explains the role played by MI9
The article ‘Wall tiles and Free Parking’ tells some of the story behind the silk maps’ production in Britain and their use in a POW camp.

For a more detailed account, the book ‘Great escapes’ by Barbara Bond (Glasgow: Times Books, 2015; ISBN 9780008141301) is a fascinating read.

Oxford Bus & Cycle Map

Bus & Cycle map cover

Many Bodleian Library staff commute by bicycle and a number are keen cyclists, so the arrival of a new edition of the Oxford Bus & Cycle Map was greeted with enthusiasm in the Map Room, especially the side of it showing cycle routes. The map was produced by Richard Mann of Transport Paradise, whose site offers advice on improving urban transport with examples from Oxford and elsewhere. The cycle map is an innovative product in that it attempts to show two complete cycle networks. A quieter one (suitable for family and leisure cycling) is shown in blue, with routes through quiet streets or away from the roads altogether, through parks and beside the river. Meanwhile the main cycle commuter routes are shown in red; a complete, joined up network, with dotted lines to identify those parts of it where cycle provision is poorer, rather than a patchy network of good cycle routes – a pragmatic approach, since the cyclist will have to find a way even when it is less than ideal. An extract showing the city centre is shown below.

cycle map city centre inset

The clever design of the bus map on the reverse does a good job of unscrambling Oxford’s sometimes confusing bus route network. Four colours – red, blue, green and yellow – are used to group the main routes, to make it easier to follow them visually through the concentration of routes in the city centre. The frequency of services is indicated by solid, dashed or dotted lines.

Oxford’s centre is constantly busy, thronged with crowds of students, tourists and locals. Travelling into it by car is slow and parking is expensive. Use this map instead!

Oxford bus & cycle map. Oxford: Transport Paradise, 2015. C17:70 Oxford (249)