Interesting Points of Reference

Comparative views often feature points of reference for scale: a monument, building, person, etc. Often these are well known to the reader, that way because they are local to the publisher or the audience. Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of Africa … Asia … Europe …South America … North America includes points of reference, making it no different from other comparatives in that regard, but it is noteworthy for the choice of reference points: the Bunker Hill monument, two European observatories, and two Pyramids.

Comparative Heights of Mountains and Lengths of Rivers
Comparative Heights of Mountains and Lengths of Rivers (Johnson, from David Rumsey).

Inclusion of each of these sheds some light on the message the map conveyed, intentional or not.

Starting with the US, the Bunker Hill monument, built in 1842 and dedicated the following year, is a logical point of reference as it was the tallest stone structure in the country when completed. As comparatives regularly juxtapose man’s accomplishments with nature, the highest balloon flight or longest canal system, using a manmade stone spire as a point of reference for natural peaks isn’t surprising. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the Bunker Hill monument appears frequently on comparatives; perhaps it’s simply for its size or prominence. That said, it also serves a political purpose: to remind the British of their defeat by the Americans less than one hundred years earlier. On the other hand, the early 1860s, time of publication, hardly seems like a time for Yankees to thumb their collective nose at the British as this is the exact time the British were coming around to supporting the Union during the Civil War. Other obvious points of reference in the US, the US Capitol and the Washington Monument, were under construction at the time of publication, Christ Church in Boston is shorter than the monument by nearly one hundred feet, and early skyscrapers had yet to be built, with Otis having just developed the pivotal elevator safety device.

The Royal Observatory Greenwich is important for multiple reasons. It’s well known, making it an ideal point of reference for Britans, highlights scientific achievement, is cartographically important, plays an important role in commerce. The mid 1800s is exactly when Standard Time was introduced and first adopted in the UK. This development was important for commerce; all clocks within a specific band of longitudes would be set to the same time, adjusted for the distance of that band’s lower bound from Greenwich. The implication for trade being an increase in railroad capacity as trains needed less headway as they no longer had to adjust for the fuzziness of noon from one town to the next. Although the US would not adopt Standard Time for quite a few years, it’s without doubt a convention American cartographers of the era were aware of. The other cartographically significant role of Greenwich was that it defined the Prime Meridian. As an astronomical facility, with the discovery of Neptune only a few years before, it no doubt was recognized as an icon of science.

Turning our focus to Africa, we again must visit the idea of man’s achievement, we see man made stone structures mimicking the shape of mountains. In addition to the Pyramids’ stunning size, the Pyramid of Chephrenes (now Khefre) shown at 456 ft and the Pyramid of Cheops (now Khufu, or the Great Pyramid of Giza) shown at 479 ft, they are made all the more awe inspiring for their having been built circa 2500 BCE, some 4,300 years before Jame Watt launched the Industrial Revolution with his refinement of the steam engine. The Great Pyramids hardly serve as a local reference object; I believe with certainty, because of publication by an American in Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas Of The World (Rumsey), consumption was largely in the United States and secondarily in Europe. Instead they played to the scientific (archaeological) trend of the day: Egyptology. Egyptology represented yet another way in which humans were understanding the world, in this case through the disciplines of anthropology & archaeology. Hieroglyphics were decoded not too long before the original publication of this comparative, with aid of the Rosetta Stone.

I’m happy to have just added this map to my collection from PDMP.

© Peter Roehrich, 2015

4 thoughts on “Interesting Points of Reference

  1. I am just paying attention to the fact that the mountains are essentially schematic, with no real effort being made to model their profiles, but simply the height of their peak. You’d think I would have picked up on that oddity sooner.


    1. Good point! That’s a change I’ve observed in mountain comparatives, bit seems to be confined to those. The lakes and islands comparatives necessarily show shape, rivers comparatives show curves, lakes, deltas, and waterfall comparatives show shape as well. It seems that the first mountain charts did show shape, and the trend toward a schematic form evolved over the subsequent decades. Check out the comparative in this post:

      Liked by 1 person

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