On Bertuch-Time to Revise and Resubmit

Do you ever find yourself having to walk back a previous statement? I previously credited Thomson and Lizars with the first comparative map, only to discover an earlier work by Bertuch. Well, it’s happened again; I discovered that Bertuch’s works contain an even earlier comparative. But that’s how research goes and it’d be boring without surprise findings!

The Moon from Bertuch's Bilderbuch. Note the comparative features at the bottom, showing mountains of Earth, the moon, and Venus. (Photo: own work)
The Moon from Bertuch’s Bilderbuch. Note the comparative features at the bottom, showing mountains of Earth, the moon, and Venus. (Photo: own work)

In about 1810 Bertuch published his Bilderbuch, kids’ books heavily illustrated with pictures of the world, nature, geography, and so forth. He included one of the first vista style comparatives, and a gorgeous one in color at that. Even earlier he published a graph style comparative, making that both the first comparative view known and meaning that the graph style of comparative emerged decades earlier than previously thought! Why, having established the graph style, did Bertuch switch to the vista style?

The Style
The graph style of mountain comparative, that is where small mountain glyphs corresponding in size on the page to the relative height of the peak represented, took off in the 1820s. Previously thought to have been developed then, that idea is torpedoed by the discovery of this piece by Bertuch as it is c1800. The merit of the graph style is in its forcing the reader to draw comparisons between the peaks. With the vista style, where peaks are arranged in a fictional landscape, the reader can mistake it for just a lovely scene; not so with in the graph format.

Why then would Bertuch abandon this format and adopt the vista style in his subsequent comparative? It’s likely due to Goethe’s influence, who in turn was influenced by Humboldt. Humboldt had published his “proto comparative” in 1805 documenting his exploration of Mt Chimborazo, spurring Goethe to draft a vista style comparative. (Goethe showed his comparative to Humboldt, who snubbed him on it.)

The Mountains
Bertuch showed eight terrestrial mountains, and eight on both the Moon and Venus. Chimborazo, tallest mountain as measured from the center of the earth, is a good benchmark against which to evaluate the mountains of the Moon and Venus (both with tallest peaks reported to be higher than Chimborazo). The peaks protruding from the Venusian atmosphere are erroneous. Venus is fairly flat; those perceived mountains were artifacts of the observing technology of the day and they’re nonexistent had been confirmed by recent radar surveys of Venus.

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© Peter Roehrich, 2016

Humboldt’s Map

Humboldt's 1805 map of plants encountered on Chimborazo in the Andes. (Buttimer)
Humboldt’s 1805 map of plants encountered on Chimborazo in the Andes. (Buttimer)

Humboldt, an early 19th century biologist (near and dear to my heart), is credited with sparking the discipline of comparative mapping. His map of the distribution of the flora on a South American mountain is handsome, and may have inspired the early comparative publishers, but it is not a comparative, rather it is a profile or elevation.

Whereas a map is, broadly speaking, a simplification of physical features to promote understanding, it no doubt qualifies as a map; it shows the distribution of plant life across the face of the mountain. Insofar as a comparative map is the rearrangement of physical features by some trait, usually size, to further promote understanding of geography, it is not a comparative.

This map is certainly an great example of early thematic mapping. Thematic mapping is the plotting of non-topographical features on a map and differs from general mapping which shows terrain, boundaries, etc. Moreover, it is an innovation in thematic mapping, being the first to my knowledge to apply thematic principles to a profile, plotting plant life as the occur on the mountain side.

The features on this map, a single mountain and the plants on it are arranged as they are actually encountered on the earth, violating the first criterion for comparative mapping; the features on a comparative map must be arranged so as to highlight the differences in a particular trait, usually size. On the other hand, this map hints at the importance of comparisons, and may well have encouraged subsequent development in the genre by showing the heights of other mountains in the margins. To be sure, the heights of other mountains are not shown pictorially, again violating a tenant of comparative mapping, but the idea is there.

Importantly, his map made waves beyond mapping styles. It changed the way scientific data was displayed.

© Peter Roehrich 2015

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