General Topics

Want to learn more about the general history of Topography and the Earth Sciences? Here’s a list of books and publications I can personally recommend.

The Story of Maps by Lloyd A. Brown. One of the earliest (1949) popular publications dealing with the history of maps and cartography. Brown was a noted map historian and wrote an engaging treatise on maps, the making of maps and just why maps are important. This book is an acknowledged classic and belongs on every Topographer’s bookshelf.

Mapping by David Greenhood.  Perhaps the single best one-volume treatise on amateur map making ever published.  Originally released in 1944 and updated through 1964, this wonderful little book remains a timeless classic because the author focuses on the art of making a map, not the science. Part instruction manual, part discussion about why maps are important.  It belongs in everybody’s library.

Longitude by Dava Sobel. This is the book that re-introduced the genre of science as popular literature, and it became an overnight classic.  Ms. Sobel doesn’t so much discuss the process of determining geographic longitude (that process was well understood long before the story in her book opens), she discusses why determining longitude was so important to the competing interests in the book and she details the decades long struggle of John Harrison to get his achievement, the design and construction of an accurate chronometer, recognized by the British Board of Longitude. I highly recommend the larger illustrated version that includes a series of extremely well done photographs of the clocks and chronometers discussed in the book.

The Riddle of the Compass by Amir D. Aczel. The magnetic compass is the most fundamental of navigation tools. In this book Dr. Aczel attempts to clear up the riddle of just who ‘invented’ the compass and its impact on sea-going navigation and early exploration. Unfortunately the author takes a somewhat scattered approach to the topic of the history of the compass (perhaps because it is virtually impossible to pin down – it’s like trying to figure out who invented the wheel) and ends up all over the map, literally and figuratively. Still, it’s a good read and there is important information on the impact the introduction of the compass had on European navigation and exploration.

Measuring America by Andro Linklater.  It took a Scott to clearly explain why land, and the idea of private land ownership, was critical to the founding and development of the United States. This book is a fascinating mix of history, politics, science and human drama and it provides the single best discussion as to the why and how of private land ownership in America. A classic and one of my favorites.

The Fabric of America by Andro Linklater. Boy, talk about a book with a split personality. Mr. Linklater decided to follow up his success with ‘Measuring America’ by writing a book about how the internal boundaries of the United States were first defined by the character of the people and in turn came to influence politics and policy. I say ‘split personality’ because Linklater opens strong, with one of the best single references on the history and activities of the most important American nobody has ever heard of – Andrew Ellicott. He then spends the second half of the book wallowing in endless discussion of how the evil Americans leveraged the borders of lands gained by conquest and purchase to alternately expand and restrict the institution of slavery. The discussions at times get pedantic and heavy handed, as though Linklater felt the need to verbally bludgeon his American readers for their disreputable history. Apparently he’s never heard of the little dust-up called the Civil War and how hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers died to restore the nation and eliminate slavery. So here’s my recommendation: read the first half of the book (which is really very good), particularly for an understanding of the contributions Andrew Ellicott made to the science and practice of land survey in the new United States. At the first mention of ‘slave state’ put the book down because at that point you’ve read read everything useful the book has to offer.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. This book generates a lot of discussion among GIS types because it is the first known example of geospatial analysis applied against a real world problem. In the mid-1800’s diseases like cholera were devastating London. The bright minds of the day came up with a lot of theories about what was causing the disease outbreaks, most centering on the ‘miasma’ or noxious vapors rising from all the raw sewage that was being accumulated in the crowded living spaces. One sharp observer began to note that disease outbreaks seemed to be clustered around small neighborhoods that drew their water from specific community water pumps (this was long before indoor plumbing, and to get water you had to make a trip to a neighborhood water pump). The researcher began plotting the outbreaks against the neighborhood pump locations and ended up proving that the cholera outbreaks were directly tied to the water source. For the first time in history researchers understood that disease could be carried by water. This realization triggered the largest public sanitation initiative of its time, and one that inspired other large cities in Europe and the US to follow suit. I actually found the book somewhat difficult to read – the author seems to have difficulty clearly parsing out the key elements of the story and like a lot of current writers of historical science he likes to wander around a bit, but the topic is important and Mr. Johnson’s book is the best coverage to date of this key discovery.

The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford. When this book came out in the early 1980s it caused a minor sensation and launched the genre of science as popular literature (the same genre that Dava Sobel’s Longitude re-energized two decades later).  Mr. Wilford’s book is the single best volume on the duties and activities of the Topographer that has ever been written.  Some of the technical discussions are a bit dated, but the body of the book remains a solid classic. It is a standard work that should be on the bookshelf of every Topographer.

Drawing The Line by Edwin Danson. Say the words ‘Mason-Dixon line’ and what comes to mind? The divide between North and South? Slave vs. free states? The truth is that the Mason – Dixon line is merely a survey baseline and the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland.  But when the Mason-Dixon line was surveyed in the decade before the Revolutionary War the process was one of the great scientific challenges of the day and pushed the boundaries of contemporary science and technology. Mr. Danson has written a wonderful story of Colonial politics, religious friction, competing interests and scientific challenge that resulted in the most famous geographic border in America.

The Story of Georgia’s Boundaries by William J. Morton, M.D, J.D. Being a Georgia resident I just had to get my hands on this book to develop a better understanding of just how Georgia developed as a state. Dr. Morton’s book doesn’t disappoint. It is a fascinating mix of history, politics and international intrigue. Georgia is one of those states that was carved out of competing claims, both from other states and from other nations (particularly Spain). The story of its borders, particularly it’s northern and southern borders, is fascinating. It’s also a story of how imprecise descriptions and sloppy surveying can have impacts on a state that can last for almost two centuries. ‘The Story of Georgia’s Boundaries‘ isn’t just for Georgians, it’s for anyone interested in the sausage making process that is the settling of a state’s boundaries. I also find it interesting that Georgia is one of the few places you can still see and touch a survey witness mark set by the remarkable Andrew Ellicott.

The Nation Builders, A Sesquicentennial History of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, Frank N. Schubert, Editor. Published by the US Army Corps of Engineers. This is a surprising little publication for two reasons. First, it’s quite well done and is the single best general reference on the history of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Second, given the Corps of Engineers general disdain for its topographic mission at the time this pamphlet was published (1988) it is surprising that it ever saw the light of day. It is a great little book that tells the long neglected tale of a key group of Army officers that conducted pioneering exploratory and mapping surveys and laid the groundwork for civil works improvements to our rivers and harbors prior to the Civil War. While the Army Corps of Engineers was stumbling around trying to figure out just what they wanted to be, the Corps of Topographical Engineers was out building coastal fortifications, dredging harbors and waterways, surveying borders, mapping new land acquisitions and generally helping the new nation grow and prosper.

The Wilderness Route Finder by Calvin Rutstrum. One of the earliest comprehensive backcountry navigation books written. While a lot of contemporary publications like ‘Be Expert With Map and Compass’ taught orienteering and land navigation using just a map and compass, Mr. Rutstrum focused on a broad range of techniques and equipment, particularly for use in high latitudes where the magnetic compass is unreliable. This is the first publication I ever read that discusses the use of a sextant for land navigation. Written long before things like GPS were even a glimmer in the developer’s eye, and while much of the equipment he references has long passed into the realm of collectible, most of the advice and techniques he discusses are still sound. A great little reference work that provides an interesting introduction to the difficulties of land navigation in the vast northern wildernesses of the US and Canada.

2 thoughts on “General Topics

  1. Another great book is The Arc of the Medicine Line by Tony Rees. It covers the survey of the 49th Parallel from Lake of the Woods to the Rockies.

    • Hello – Lt Col (Retd) John Fennell – Royal Engineers and proud to have been a 36 year served Geo man in UK – whom some of you may recall from my frequent visits to TEC / DMA / NGA in the 1980’s – 2000’s!! I visited the 649th in Germany and US Topo at Bragg and Ft Leonard Wood in the mid 1990’s as my colonels bag carrier!! I also had US TERA teams under my wing (101st / 82nd / 10th Mountain) when I was Theatre Chief Geo for AFG 2007 – 2010 – including CW Todd Pollard. I’m also, I now discover, the cousin (1st – 4 times removed) of Capt Donald Roderick Cameron who was the British Commissioner on the Joint USA / UK / CDN 49th Parallel survey and demarkation between 1872 – 75 described in the above book. I am currently (June 2020) trying to pin together the current UK 42 Regt GEOINT Brits, Canadian mappers, International Boundary commission and the current day successors of the US surveyors for some form of celebration in 2022 – 23. I wondered if any old souls out there remember me and if any folks would like to know more about a possible event?

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