German Comparative Innovation

Comparatives were popular through most of the 19th century, published across western Europe, the United States, and later in Japan. Comparative views evolved constantly as new information became available, as publishers sought new ways to differentiate their atlases, and as new ideas in data visualization emerged. Whereas the works of European and American cartographers’ drove the changes in the genre, Humboldt, Bertuch, and Perthes were standouts as innovative German publishers of comparative views.

Black and white print c1840s of Chimborazo, inspired by Humboldt.
Physical Geography, c1840s partial reprint of Humboldt’s 1805 view of Mount Chimborazo. (Own work.)

Alexander von Humboldt shook up scientific data presentation when, in 1805, he published Geographic der Pflanzen in den Tropenlandern, ein Naturgemalde der Anden documenting his findings from his exploration of Mount Chimborazo in present day Ecuador. It was unique in that it displayed information corresponding to altitudes in relative position on a cross-section of a map. In the margins of the graphic he further annotated observations of physical phenomena and their corresponding altitudes. Where this style of visualization seems commonplace to 21st century information consumers, it was hardly such at the time; in the early 1800s visual display of data was in its infancy.

Possibly the first comparative view of the early style, showing mountains of the old and new worlds.(Own work)
Hohen der Alten by Bertuch, c1810. Possibly the first comparative view of the early style, showing mountains of the old and new worlds. (Own work)

Learning of Humboldt’s chart and inspired by Goethe, Friedrich Bertuch prepared his Hohen der Alten in about 1810, publishing it in his Bilderbuch, a children’s encyclopedic volume. That he published it at all, what he displayed, and that it appeared in a children’s book, are important facts. That he published it signifies the embrace of the Humboldt’s cross sectional style as a means of describing occurrences at various heights. His view took a landscape form, with mountains arranged as though viewed from afar, generally with the larger mountains to the sides and background of the image, but didn’t end there. Stick figures show Humboldt and de Suassure on Mounts Chimborazo and Blanc, respectively, a crocodile at sea level, and Gay-Lussac aloft on his record setting balloon flight. By going beyond just mountain heights to show human accomplishments, Bertuch both ties human scale and geologic scale, as well as uses the comparative as a device to showcase human accomplishment. Plants and animals appearing on the comparative pull forward the thread that Humboldt wove whereby mountains are re-imagined as not just inert monoliths, but as parts of dynamic, living systems. By including his view in a children’s book, he recognized that this genre makes complex information accessible in a simple and easy to understand format.

Print of mountain ranges arranged by height.
Perthes’s Known Heights Above Sea Level, c1855. Mountain ranges are shown one atop the next. (Own work.)

Die Benkannteren Hoehen uber der Meeres Flache in Transparenten Profilen by Perthes is unlike the other comparatives. Mountains comparatives typically show their subjects side by side in descending order or in an overlaid descending sort. Perthes, on the other hand, shows the mountains overlaid in transparency so that one can see the contours of the mountains instead of them being obstructed by the mountains in the foreground, or reduced to conic figures. This innovation is noteworthy in that it signifies an interest in the entire mountain, rather than the peak in isolation. It also represented an innovation built on the line graph, placing geographic location on the x-axis. Interestingly, and perhaps because Perthes published this as the comparative genre was at its apex, this style of comparative never took hold.

To be sure, these German cartographers (or scientist in Humboldt’s case) made great contributions to the comparative view as a style between inspiring, giving rise to, and redefining the charts. They by no means were the only innovators: Darton in 1823 produced the first compound comparative, showing both mountains and rivers in the same panel; the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge published a unique circular rivers comparative; and Mitchell was possibly the first to add comparative elements to globular projections. All told however, their pieces are testimony to the good work coming out of German cartography.

© Peter Roehrich, 2016

Bertuch’s Old and New World Heights

In a previous post I credited Thompson and Lizars with creating the first comparative, and theirs was the first to appear in an atlas. My research has since turned up another mountains chart, Die Höhen der alten und neuen Welt (translated as: The Heights of the Old and New World) c1810 by Bertuch, predating Thompson and Lizars by a handful of years.

Possibly the first comparative view of the early style, showing mountains of the old and new worlds.(Own work)
Hohen der Alten by Bertuch, c1810. Possibly the first comparative view of the early style, showing mountains of the old and new worlds.(Own work)

With one foot firmly in art, it’s whimsical in its depictions of climbers on Chimborazo and Mont Blanc, and a crocodile in the water at the bottom of the chart (making it suitable for children and indeed it appeared in a children’s book). Further, its old color, still vivid makes it all the more charming. Its other foot is firmly in the world of early comparatives; heights appear on the sides of the chart, towns appear amid the mountains, and faint horizontal lines show snow lines.

Humboldt seeded the comparative genre by publishing Geography of Plants which illustrated a mountain in profile annotated with information describing points along the slope. The next step in the progression is a bit murky. There was a nexus between Humboldt (scientist and explorer), Goethe (scientist, among other things), and Bertuch (publisher) all working in early 19th century Germany. After reading Humboldt’s writings, Goethe prepared a manuscript with an exhibit inspired by Humboldt’s work comparing the vegetation at altitudes of the old and new world mountains. Goethe sent his manuscript to Humboldt, who apparently snubbing him, did not respond. Subsequently, whether Goethe sent his manuscript or Bertuch learned of it through other channels, Bertuch became aware of Goethe’s illustration and chose to include it in his Bilderbuch, a children’s book. Interestingly, for unknown reasons, Bertuch did not receive the illustration itself and was compelled to recreate it based on text descriptions.

That this comparative appeared in a children’s book, but subsequent comparatives appeared in atlases is remarkable and hints at one of the exquisite qualities of these pieces. To be sure, this view is a simple, fictionalized landscape, making it suitable for a children’s book but, it is also packs a mighty data punch. While the elevation annotations on the sides of the view may have been of little interest to the children looking at the book, it was an excellent way to bring to life what could otherwise be dry statistics, and make them approachable to the emerging middle class atlas buyers (who may have been of lower reading levels). This powerful combination gave the atlas publishers cause to include them in their works.

© Peter Roehrich, 2016

Comparatives with Balloons

Comparatives often feature objects that were well known to their readers to give a sense of scale. This is especially true of mountains comparatives. Showing a large man-made object on the comparative serves as an intermediary between the human scale and the geologic scale. Pyramids, monuments, and cathedrals often play this role.

The Great Pyramids and Paris as shown on Thomson & Lizars' A Comparative View.
The Great Pyramids and Paris as shown on Thomson & Lizars’ A Comparative View.

Where structures aid readers in understanding how large something is, they do not tell the reader what it’s like to be at that altitude. Cities of various elevations are also commonplace on mountains comparatives, giving the reader points of reference–understanding the climate, vegetation, animal husbandry, etc. at an altitude is achieved by studying one of the case cities.

That said, the natural features can reciprocally serve as points of reference for human accomplishments. Nowhere is this more apparent that in depictions of high altitude balloon flights.

Gay-Lussac's 1804 balloon flight as shown on Thomson and Lizars' A Comparative View.
Gay-Lussac’s 1804 balloon flight as shown on Thomson and Lizars’ A Comparative View. Own work.

In 1804, Frenchman Gay-Lussac flew a hydrogen balloon to 23,000 feet setting a record that would stand for nearly 50 years. This is no small accomplishment as the first balloon flight had been only 20 or so years before. To show humans aloft, above the birds, would drive home the capabilities of technology. In reviewing the comparatives in David Rumsey’s collection, 16 show balloon flights. While all are spectacular, a couple stand out.

Smith’s 1816 Comparative View of the Heights of the Principal Mountains of the World is the oldest comparative among the holdings and shows Gay-Lussac in his balloon about to break through the border of the image. Its appearance on such an early comparative tells us that the cartographer intended for the concept of the comparative to be reciprocal. The comparative writ large was both to inform the reader about nature’s massive scale, but also to emphasize that having entered the age of science, man could literally soar above it. If the first appearance of a balloon flight were on a later comparative, say of the mid 19th century, we would be forced rather to conclude that it had simply been added to distinguish one cartographer’s product, rather than being able to conclude something fundamental about comparatives.

We continue to see Gay-Lussac’s balloon on comparatives through the first half of the 1800s. By 1851 the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and it was time for the Great Exhibition in London, a World’s Fair to highlight, among other things, technology. For this, the publisher Tallis prepared a book of engravings, mostly maps, that included truly stunning comparatives for both hemispheres. Not wanting to fall short on depictions of achievements, Tallis included Green’s 1840 record setting flight, showing it centered over Dhawalagiri (now Dhaulagiri) in Nepal. It is noteworthy that while his comparative is up to date vis-a-vis Green’s balloon flight, he neglected to show Kangchenjunga, even taller, surveyed in 1838. Perhaps he didn’t have access to that information. Perhaps he elected not to show it so that Green in his balloon would appear on top of the world, sure to delight the exhibit goers.

Tallis' gorgeous 1851 comparative view of waterfalls, islands, lakes, mountains, and rivers of the Eastern Hemisphere. (Photo credit: Ruderman).
Tallis’ gorgeous 1851 comparative view of waterfalls, islands, lakes, mountains, and rivers of the Eastern Hemisphere. Note Green’s & Gay-Lussac’s balloon flights over the mountains. (Photo credit: Ruderman).

The last example I will mention is an enigma. While the examined comparatives so Gay-Lussac’s balloon reaching differing altitudes, most if they specify, either 22,900 feet or 23,100 feet which brackets the 23,018 feet computed from the French accounts of 7,016 m, Weiland’s comparative isn’t even close. He pegs the altitude attained at 21,386 ft. Adding to the mystery, where this comparative has grouped the peaks by continent, he chose to show the balloon over Quito, Ecuador, nowhere near Paris. What could this discrepancy be attributed to? It hardly seems likely that he made a conversion error from meters to feet; as a cartographer he would no doubt be adept at this. As other cartographers of the day accurately stated Gay-Lussac’s altitude, and 16 years had elapsed, it further is difficult to believe that the correct information was not available. We can turn attention to whether this is due to any differing definitions of foot; he stated other heights in feet that approximate modern measurements, but are not exact.

Weiland's comparative. Note Gay-Lussac's balloon on the far left of the upper panel (shown as though it was flown over South America).
Weiland’s comparative. Note Gay-Lussac’s balloon on the far left of the upper panel (shown as though it was flown over South America).

There may be some traction here, as the German states used differing definitions of the foot. This can be tested by plotting the heights reported on Weiland’s view against those used on another, and Thomson’s 1817 is an ideal benchmark. If the plotted points form a cloud, then the difference between the measurements shown on the charts cannot be attributed to some difference in the definition of foot. On the other hand, if the points form a line we can infer that there is a difference in factors is at work. A selection of points in common to both comparatives was plotted and the relationship qualified. They fell nicely on a line.

Plot of the Heights shown by Thomson & Weiland.
Plot of the Heights shown by Thomson & Weiland.

Hard to believe this could be the result of chance; the relationship has incredibly strong statistical significance at less than one in a trillion. (Statistical significance is a measure of how confident one can be that the finding isn’t due to chance; less than a 1 in 20 likelihood of a chance occurrence is the gold standard in scientific research.) Moreover, the slope of the line explains 99.9% of Weiland’s number. The slope of the line is 0.924, meaning that Weiland’s foot was slightly different than that used by the other cartographers. This equates roughly to the foot used in Geneva at the time, 325 mm. It is interesting and surprising, however, that he would use the Geneva for as Weimar, the place of publication, was using its own foot, 282 mm.

© Peter Roehrich, 2015

And So It Began

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.

Thomson and Lizars A Comparative View. Published in 1817, is among the first of the comparatives. A lovely mountainscape. Photo credit: Ruderman
Thomson and Lizars A Comparative View. Published in 1817, is the first of the comparatives. A lovely mountainscape. Photo credit: Ruderman.

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 and Paris as shown on Thomson & Lizars' A Comparative View.
The Great Pyramids and Paris as shown on Thomson & Lizars’ A Comparative View. Own work.

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.

Humboldt's ascent of Chimborazo as shown on Thomson & Lizars' A Comparative View. Own work.
Humboldt’s ascent of Chimborazo as shown on Thomson & Lizars’ A Comparative View. Own work.

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.

Gay-Lussac's 1804 balloon flight as shown on Thomson and Lizars' A Comparative View.
Gay-Lussac’s 1804 balloon flight as shown on Thomson and Lizars’ A Comparative View. Own work.

Thomson and Lizars’ comparative is a masterpiece both for its beauty, accuracy, and the arguments about human accomplishments it presents.

©Peter Roehrich, 2015

Interpreting Mountains’ Scaling

In a previous post I examined the scale of waterfalls and in yet another post I discussed Johnson’s mountains and rivers comparative. This post draws on both.

The importance of scale is a matter of a map’s purpose. Scale is incredibly important in a plan (plat), where each line must be represented on equal scale so as to ensure accurate delineation of land ownership (think Mason-Dixon Line),

Plan of Mason-Dixon Line, 1768 (Library of Congress).
Plan of Mason-Dixon Line, 1768 (Library of Congress). In such a map, an inaccuracy in location of a line could have substantial legal and political consequences, even military in the case of the Civil War. (Library of Congress).

but less important on a subway (topological) map, where the rider is concerned with the order of the stops more so than the distance between stops (WMATA Map).In the context of a comparative, scale is critical–the whole point of the view is to demonstrate the relative size of geographic features.

With this in mind, Johnson’s choices in scaling are noteworthy.

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

Johnson composed his comparative of 5 panels, one for each of Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. As an aside, while it’s obvious why Antarctic mountains were omitted, it’s curious that Australian mountains were excluded given that it is one of the 6 inhabited continents, and the largest of the British possessions. The compounding of 5 panels is a logical means of grouping the mountains, facilitating showing more mountains than would be manageable in a single panel. That he chose to use different scales for each panel grabs my attention; by modern data visualization standards it is a mistake at best, if not dishonest, giving the casual reader the impression that the highest peaks of each continent are of about the same altitudes.

Johnson comparative scale analysis.
Scale analysis of the heights of mountains in Johnson’s comparative. Note Everest, second from left, is the index at 1. Mt. Blanc is the most exaggerated at 1.7x, followed by St. Alias at 1.6x (values rounded to one decimal). (Own work).

At issue here is that this choice erodes the comparison between mountains of different continents. One has to wonder whether this was purely an oversight, intentional but innocent for purposes symmetry, or to mislead the reader. The first possibility is self explanatory, requiring no further treatment. On the other hand, the remaining possibilities have the same effect, to confuse the readers’ perceptions of mountain height, but have drastically different implications. An aesthetically motivated scaling decision is questionable–a visualization expert, Johnson no doubt knew that scaling the panels differently would cause readers (those who do not read the heights of mountains) to misperceive the height differences across continents. The plausibility of this explanation hinges on the purpose of the comparative. If it is to show that the heights of mountains vary within continents without regard to intercontinental variance, then perhaps the scaling decision is more likely (and more excusable), but if the purpose is to show the might of mountains across the continents, it is dubious. To that end, if showing the spread in heights across the continents, the map falls short, unless of course, Johnson’s intent was to bamboozle the reader into believing that the mountains of the industrialized world rivaled those of Asia. Whether this was his goal, we do not know.

© Peter Roehrich, 2015.

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