Previously I credited Humboldt with kicking off the discipline of the comparative. This is true, but the first cartographers to run with the idea were Thomson and Lizars.
Their A Comparative View of the Heights of the Principal Mountains and Other Elevations in the World is just that: a gorgeous view of a mountain landscape. I use view in this context to mean a picturesque scene (think Hudson River School) rather than the more ‘technical‘ presentation that emerged later.
That all the features to be compared are shown in a single panel is important. Whereas these were western cartographers, the European mountain ranges are diminutive compared to those of Asia. In subsequent comparatives the mountains of each of the eastern and western hemispheres are shown in separate panels, even separate pages, and in the technical presentation; some of the later comparatives even show them in distinct panels by continent. Grouping the peaks in a single view invites intercontinental comparison that separate panels or pages discourage. Moreover, a single view prevents the cartographer from using differing scales that might ‘puff up’ the appearance of the European or New World ranges. This is again treated here, as well. In this sense, while it is completely false to show the world’s major peaks (save those, like Everest, which hadn’t been measured) within thousands of feet of each other, use of a uniform scale allows Thomson and Lizars to stake a claim to one of the most accurate comparatives.
Thomson and Lizars also establish the standard among comparatives of including man’s accomplishments as points of reference in addition to those of the natural world. The first feat of man, in the chronological order in which they occurred, to be shown in this view are cities themselves. Uruk, one of the earliest cities, was formed about 4500 BCE. The capacity to build cities being one of the defining criteria of a civilization, that these are shown is both a statement that man is different from the rest of the natural world, and that we are able to conquer the extreme elements of life at altitude.
The Great Pyramids follow as the next landmark, in both geographic and engineering senses. They show a mastery of tools and materials, written language, burial of the dead, and religion. All traits that separate humans from other animals (or are perceived to separate us, as evidence has emerged that other species use tools and bury their dead).
Humboldt’s South American expedition is the next accomplishment featured. In 1799 he set off from Spain on a 5 year exploration of Latin America. A scientist, his travels generated much knowledge, and his presentation of his geological and biological findings in Geography of Plants set the stage for this comparative, where he is shown climbing Chimborazo, the subject of the aforementioned. Humboldt’s ascent is evidence of the recent shift to a scientific mindset during the Enlightenment. In this way, man conquered his own naivety.
Gay-Lussac’s historic balloon flight of 1804 is recognized at the center of the view, and as higher than the flight of the condor. I won’t say more about this, other than it’s remarkable that he pulled it off, as I will cover it in a subsequent post.
Thomson and Lizars’ comparative is a masterpiece both for its beauty, accuracy, and the arguments about human accomplishments it presents.
©Peter Roehrich, 2015