Feb 122017
 

One of the more beautiful, unusual and useful map projections ever devised was created by cartographer Bernard Cahill. The butterfly projection was first published in the Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1909. Cahill (1866-1944) later applied for a US patent to protect his creation.


I first came across Cahill’s projection on a stamp issued in Mexico in 1964. The design of the stamp (see image) shows his world map, an octahedral whose eight faces have been flattened into a shape resembling a butterfly. Ever since then I have wondered why such an unusual map would be chosen for a Mexican stamp that commemorated the 10th Conference of the International Bar Association (IBA), held that year in Mexico City. Coming some 20 years after the cartographer’s death, it seems an unlikely choice. So far, all my efforts to find a link between Cahill, the IBA and Mexico have drawn a blank. (Note to readers: Help needed!)

Cahill’s butterfly map, like Buckminster Fuller’s later Dymaxion Maps (1943 and 1954) enabled all the continents to appear linked, and with reasonable fidelity to a globe. Cahill demonstrated this principle by also inventing a rubber ball globe which could be placed under a pane of glass and flattened into the “Butterfly” form. When removed, the map/globe reverted to its original shape.

The original Cahill projection (1909). Credit: Gene Keyes

The original Cahill projection (1909). Credit: Gene Keyes

Largely in honor of his cartographic innovation, Cahill was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1913 he started the Cahill World Map Company, but this company was not successful and his map has since been largely forgotten by most people.

But not by cartographer Gene Keyes! Except for Cahill himself, no follower of Cahill’s projection has ever been as dedicated as Gene Keyes, a former student of Buckminster Fuller. Keyes’ website is a mine of information about Cahill and his map projection, and is well worth reading.

Born in the UK, Bernard Joseph Stanislaus Cahill (18661944) was an architect, town planner and cartographer who moved to San Francisco, California, in 1888. He was an early proponent of the San Francisco Civic Center and designed that city’s Neptune Society Columbarium.

Cahill encountered some stiff obstacles in the many years it took him to develop his butterfly projection. For example, he lost all his initial drawings and papers in the disastrous San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. At least one major publisher signed a contract to publish the butterfly map as a wall map and in an atlas, but then failed to follow through.

Cahill’s world map used for world tours

Soon after its creation, Cahill’s butterfly map was used to illustrate a flying trip around the world, or circumaviation, proposed for the Panama Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. The map was exhibited at this exposition and won a gold medal for cartography. Some time later, the map was used by both the State of California and the City of Charleston to illustrate shipping routes.

In 1924, the American Express Company chose the map for use during a world tour aboard the Cunard ocean liner Laconia. According to Keyes, the map was prominently displayed on the Palm Deck of the ship and seen by Robert Ripley, a participant on the world tour, who later featured it in his Believe it or Not series.

Perhaps the closest Cahill came to seeing his map in more general use came in 1937, when the International Meteorological Committee apparently came within a single vote of adopting a version of his projection for all world weather charting.

No wonder, then, that in Keyes’ words, “Cahill should be seen in company with other pioneers such as Charles Babbage or Gregor Mendel, who died long before their efforts gained wider appreciation. As well, he antedates Buckminster Fuller, prophet of Spaceship Earth.”

Keyes goes on to note that, “Cahill was not merely an astute architect and cartographer, but, that like Fuller, his map expressed an underlying whole-earth philosophy much like themes which emerged 60 years later. Cahill used the term “geosophy” in that regard….” (And used it as early as 1912, well before the geographer J.K. Wright, commonly credited for having coined the term in 1947).

Will Cahill’s map ever catch on? The latest sign of renewed interest in Cahill’s projection comes from its adaptation by the New York Times as the basis for a series of 10 maps published in December 2011 illustrating the changing world of computing, communications and technology.

Keyes closes his account of Cahill’s map by quoting Ambrose Bierce, who in a letter to Cahill, wrote that, “The Butterfly Map is indubitably the right one, but it will be a long time before it gets into general use….”

Sadly, that has proved to be all too true, despite its inclusion in the design of a Mexican postage stamp.

Related posts using Mexican stamps for illustration:

Nov 012016
 

One of the earliest known maps engraved in colonial New Spain (Mexico) was that drawn by Antonio Ysarti in 1682. It shows the Franciscan Province of  San Diego of Mexico, with its 14 friaries, from Oaxaca in the southeast to Aguascalientes in the northwest. It covers the archdiocese of Mexico City, as well as the dioceses of  Puebla and Oaxaca to the east, and Michoacán and Guadalajara to the west.

Ysarti's 1682 map of New Spain

Ysarti’s 1682 map of New Spain; click map for an enlarged version of Mexico City to Acapulco

The beautifully-drawn map was originally published to illustrate Baltasar de Medina’s 1682 Chronica de la Santa Provincia de San Diego de Mexico, printed by Juan de Ribero. In the words of the sellers of this map’s original copper plate to the Library of Congress, “This artifact is tangible evidence of an emerging scientific and artistic community in a growing colonial empire.”

Sadly, very little is known about Antonio Ysarti, the map’s talented cartographer; not even his nationality is known for certain.

The map measures 29 x 19 cm approx (11.25 x 7.25 inches) and names more than 50 places. Each friary is depicted as an architecturally distinct building, not by the use of a common symbol.

Q. How well do you know central Mexico? Click on the map above (to reveal the section between Mexico City and Acapulco) and then see how many places you can identify and match to present-day place names.

Online version of this map, offering the ability to zoom in to specific parts

The changing political frontiers of Mexico are the subject of chapter 12 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, a handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography. If you have enjoyed this post, please consider gifting a copy of Geo-Mexico to someone in the coming holiday season.

Sep 292016
 

Alexander von Humboldt‘s visit to Mexico began in Acapulco on March 22, 1803, and lasted for almost a year. (He left Mexico via Veracruz for the USA on March 7, 1804.) In his year in Mexico, Humboldt had been incredibly busy. He had measured, recorded, observed and written about anything and everything, with remarkable industry and accuracy. He had climbed mountains, burned his boots on active volcanoes, descended into mines, recorded geographical coordinates, and collected numerous specimens and antiquities. Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain was the first systematic scientific description of the New World. It appeared in 1811, and marked the birth of modern geography in Mexico. His figures and ideas were used and quoted by writers for many many years.

Humboldt had also drawn a large number of maps, drawings and sketches and it can rightly be claimed that the modern era of Mexican map-making began with Alexander von Humboldt, and was then developed further later in the 19th century by cartographers such as Antonio García Cubas.

Humboldt's route in Mexico

Humboldt’s route in Mexico. Click to enlarge

Alexander von Humboldt (Self-portrait c1814)

Alexander von Humboldt (Self-portrait c1814)

The map above shows the route followed by Humboldt during his time in Mexico. The map comes from the book La obra de Alexander von Humboldt en México by Rayfred Lionel Stevens-Middleton  (Mexico D.F.: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historía, 1956). This hard-to-find work is a comprehensive account of Humboldt’s time in Mexico and of his significance for the development of what the author refers to as “modern geography”.

The map of Humboldt’s route in Mexico includes his various side trips such as those to Jorullo Volcano and Santa María Regla.

Humboldt was keen to see Jorullo Volcano, since it was a rare example of a brand new volcano, one of only a handful of volcanoes that have emerged on land anywhere in the world in historic times. Jorullo first erupted on 29 September 1759 and activity continued for 15 years until 1774. Two centuries later, and about 80 km (50 miles) away, Paricutín Volcano burst into action for the first time, in a farmer’s field in 1943.

Santa María Regla, in the state of Hidalgo, about an hour’s drive north of Mexico City, is the best known location in Mexico for basalt columns. The columns, up to 40 meters tall,  are attractively located on the side of a canyon, with a waterfall tumbling over some of them:

Despite only seeing a relatively small part of the country (New Spain as it then was), Humboldt was able to make some generalizations about geography in general, and Mexican geography in particular, that have stood the test of time remarkably well. For example, he was the first to describe the vertical differentiation of climatic and vegetation zones in Mexico. Writing in 1811, he proposed the terms tierra caliente, tierra templada, and tierra fría, terms still widely used by non-specialists today:

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Note: this post was first published on May 7, 2012.

Sep 082016
 

Several famous writers wrote about Mexico despite having no direct geographic experience of the country.

One of the most famous was  Jules Verne. Verne (1828-1905) popularized geography and was one of the pioneers of travel stories and science fiction.

Many his works have undeniably strong connections to geography, including:

  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a submarine voyage with Captain Nemo as the enigmatic hero
  • A Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which Prof Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel descend into an extinct volcano in Iceland and discover an underground world
  • From the Earth to the Moon, a vivid forerunner of future space travel
  • Around the World in Eighty Days, where eccentric Englishman Phileas Fogg races round the world to try and win a bet
  • Five Weeks in a Balloon, in which the heroes drift across unexplored areas in Central Asia and The Mysterious Island

Curiously, one of Verne’s first published stories, was set in Mexico, despite the fact that he had never visited the country. The original title Verne gave the story was North America. Historical studies. The first ships of the Mexican Navy. Meticulous as he was in regards to his geography, Verne was understandably aggrieved when the publisher changed North America to South America without even asking him! The story was first published in 1851, and later reworked as A Drama in Mexico.

The Asia; oil on canvas

The Asia; oil on canvas by Angel Cortellini Sánchez, dated 1896

The plot is set in 1825, shortly after Mexican Independence from Spain (1821). Mexico needed a strong navy to protect its extensive territory, which then stretched as far south as present-day Costa Rica. Antonio de Medina, the first Secretary of War & Navy, had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He persuaded the Mexican Congress to give high priority to the formation of a navy. Foreign interventions later in the century showed how prescient de Medina had been.

Verne’s story tells how the Mexican Navy obtained its first two warships, the former Spanish vessels Asia (later renamed the Congreso Mexicano) and Constanzia, following a mutiny by their crews.

The locales used in the story include:

  • four Pacific coast ports: Acapulco, San Blas, Zacatula and Tehuantepec
  • the villages or towns of Cigualan [Cihuatlán], Chilpanzingo [Chilpancingo], Tasco [Taxco] and Cuernavaca,
  • the caverns of Cacahuimilchan [Cacahuamilpa]
  • the pre-Hispanic site of Xochicalco
  • Popocatepelt [Popocatepetl] Volcano

Read the original: Complete 1876 text in French as a webpage or Alternative complete text in French

If he had never visited Mexico, how did Verne acquire the range of geographic knowledge displayed in this story? Like many other geographers before and after, he relied on qualitative fieldwork—gaining his knowledge by talking to seafarers in his native port of Nantes, and through conversations with Jacques Arago, a Parisian friend who had fought in Mexico’s War of Independence.

Verne’s failure to visit Mexico certainly did not mean that his works had no significance to the people there. Indeed, as social historian William H. Beezley reminds us:

“His novel Around the World in 80 Days, published in 1873, had great popularity in Mexico, where many writers made comparisons between the characters in the novel and the nation’s first international scientific expedition in 1874 that also circumnavigated the globe…”   Mexican National Identity: memory, innuendo and popular culture).

The main purpose of Mexico’s first international scientific expedition in 1874 was to observe, from Japan, the transit of Venus across the Sun.

Verne became the most widely read French author of all time, and one of the most translated authors anywhere in the world.

And what became of the Mexican Navy?

Today, the Mexican Navy (Secretaría de Marina) has over 55,500 personnel, 300 ships and 70 aircraft. Its main tasks are to protect oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, assist in the fight against drug traffickers, and aid in hurricane relief efforts.

Original article as it appeared on MexConnect

Acclaimed biography of Alexander von Humboldt completely ignores his time in Mexico

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Feb 292016
 

The English language press has lavished dollops of praise on The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, the biography of Humboldt written by Andrea Wulf, a design historian at the Royal College of Art in London.

wulf-humboldt

Cover of U.S. edition

According to a review in the New Scientist, “Historian Andrea Wulf calls Humboldt the lost hero of science. It is extraordinary that a man once so revered is now largely forgotten.” This claim is gross exaggeration. It has limited validity in the English-speaking world and even less validity in the German-, French- and Spanish-speaking worlds.

There have been several previous English-language biographies of Humboldt, some better than others. The earliest that immediately comes to mind, and one of the best illustrated, is Douglas Botting’s Humboldt and the Cosmos (1973). More recent works include Humboldt’s Cosmos by Gerard Helferich (2004); The Humboldt Current (2006), by Aaron Sachs (2006); and The Passage to Cosmos, by Laura Dassow Walls (2011). Generations of geographers have grown up learning about Humboldt’s explorations and his revolutionary ideas.

There is no question that Humboldt’s life and work are worthy of numerous biographies. There is no question, either, that Wulf’s biography is an interesting read, and contains lots of valuable ideas. The author clearly went to great lengths to visit many of the important locales in Humboldt’s writing, and to read dozens of his books in their original German, and much of his voluminous correspondence, as well as examining Darwin’s copies of Humboldt’s works, etc., etc.

However, Wulf misses the mark in this biography in two main regards. First, too much of the book is taken up with accounts of the sometimes tenuous links between Humboldt and later thinkers about environmental and other matters.

The second concern, and the one that most concerns Geo-Mexico, is that Wulf completely ignores Humboldt’s time in Mexico, despite providing detailed accounts of his explorations elsewhere. It is arguably his year-long visit to Mexico that gave Humboldt not only the opportunity to collect yet more data and information, but also to reflect on the significance of his discoveries in South America.

Surely, Humboldt’s views about volcanoes, for example, were shaped by the opportunity he had in Mexico to study Jorullo, the volcano (in present-day Michoacán) that had erupted a few years previously? Equally, Humboldt’s observations in the “Mexican Andes” (Sierra Madre Occidental and Volcanic Axis) undoubtedly helped Humboldt arrive at the conclusion that vegetation zonation with altitude had general applicability and was not confined to South America. Furthermore, it was Humboldt who first remarked on the fact that Mexican volcanoes lie in an East-west belt (Volcanic Axis) and were not arranged parallel to the main mountain ranges, as in South America. (The alignment of the Volcanic Axis is still something of a geological puzzle, since it does not appear to fit the general model of plate tectonics).

The omission of Mexico and the large number of pages devoted to later thinkers detract from the quality of Wulf’s biography, making it an interesting and readable, but unbalanced, and ultimately unsatisfying, portrait of one of the world’s greatest ever thinkers.

For a definitive account of Humboldt’s time in Mexico, see, La Obra de Alexander Von Humboldt en Mexico, Fundamento de la Geografía Moderna. by Rayfred Lionel Stevens-Middleton (Instituto Panamericano de Geografía y Historia, 1956).

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Mexico’s sixteenth century Geographic Accounts: the example of Jiquilpan, Michoacán

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Dec 272012
 

In a previous post, we introduced the Geographic Accounts, a rich source of information about Mexico’s sixteenth century geography. The style and substance of a typical Geographic Account can be judged by extracts from the response (dated 1579) relating to Jiquilpan (then written as Xiquilpan), in what is today the western part of the state of Michoacán in western Mexico. In the following (translated) extracts, square brackets enclose editorial comments, not found in the original.

Xiquilpan is in temperate land… A river, which never dries up, passes the village; it carries very little water in summer. In winter, it often rises so much that it can not be crossed. Less than one league from this village towards the north is a lake called Chapala, which is forty leagues around. A lot of white fish and catfish, and another kind of small fish, are caught in it. A large, very full, river, called Chicnahuatengo, enters this lake. [One league is about the distance that could be walked in an hour, from 4.18 kilometers to 6.687 kilometers, depending on the terrain.]

The village is settled on flat and very level ground, without hills…. It is very fertile land. It produces a lot of corn, chile, beans and other seeds that the natives sow. The native fruits are guamúchiles, avocados and guavas. There are lots of figs, pomegranates, quince trees and grapes. It is land where anything that is sown grows….

Xilquilpan has very few Indians: there could be in it about one hundred tributary Indians. They say that before the land was won, there were one thousand two hundred people. After the lands had been won, their number has been diminishing as a result of the many diseases that have occurred. In particular, in [15]76, there was a great plague in this village, common throughout New Spain, from which a large number of people died….

There is a wild plant in this village which cures those who are crippled. It has leaves like a lettuce and is so hot that the part where the root is put burns naturally, like a fire. There is another [plant], which has a root similar to camote: it is a preventative for everything. They cure with these herbs and with others that the natives know….

This village was subject, when it was heathen, to Cazonzi, king of Mechuacan, who ruled over and was in charge of it; on his behalf, he put an Indian chief called Noxti in this village in order to govern and look after them. At that time, they gave corn and chile as tribute to the said Cazonci, which was received by Noxti and sent to Pátzcuaro. At that time, they idolized the Devil, so that he would help them when they went to fight other Indians from neighboring villages. They say that when they caught an Indian, they carried him to a hill next to the village, and there they sacrificed him and offered him to the Devil, and they cut him open and removed his heart and those who had made the sacrifice ate it…

They wore some shawls of joined together sisal, like jackets, without anything else, and cotton breeches, different to what they now wear. Their food was tortillas, tamales, beans, and other wild herbs that they called quiletes [meaning edible herbs or greens in general] and they drank white maguey wine called tlachiquil [unfermented pulque]. They say that they used to live longer than now, and that the reason for this could not be ascertained…

In this village and its surrounding areas, grow pears, figs, pomegranates, grapes, peaches, quinces, nuts, apples, all Castillian [Spanish] fruits. Native [plants] are avocados, sweet canes, guavas, capulines (which are local cherries), squash, chile, tomatoes and a lot of corn. It is land where it does not snow, formerly or now. They raise many birds, both native and from Spain. They grow cabbages, lettuce, onions, radishes, blites, and every kind of vegetable from Spain. Wheat and barley grow in this village.

The animals that there are in the village are wolves, which breed in the swamps that surround some reed beds, a quarter of a league from the village. More than eighty thousand sheep come from other parts to pasture seasonally on the edge of this village each year; it is very good land for them and they fatten very well, since there are some saltpeter deposits in the marsh.

There are no salt beds in this village; the natives supply themselves with salt from Colima, twenty leagues from this village, and from the province called Avalos fifteen leagues away…

Xiquilpan has a monastery of monks of the Order of San Francisco; it has two clerics, one is the guardian. The founder was Brother Juan de San Miguel, and it was founded about forty years ago for all the clerics that were in this province of Mechuacan. The village has a hospital, where the sick are treated, which was begun thirty years ago and founded by a cleric called Brother Alonso de Pineda of the Order of San Francisco. It receives no rents: it is sustained only by the poor, from the alms they beg from the natives.

As can be seen, the Geographic Accounts are of immense value in reconstructing the past history of Mexico. The detail in them is often quite astonishing. However, as René Acuña emphasizes, while the Accounts provide invaluable information about local cultures, including that of the indigenous peoples, they should never be considered completely reliable. They were not eye-witness accounts and often relied on hearsay and on the possibly dubious interpretations made by a relatively limited number of respondents.

Source:

Several transcriptions of the Relaciones geográficas have been published in Spanish. The version used in preparing this article (translations by the author) is Acuña, R (ed) 1987 Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI: Michoacán. Edición de René Acuña. Volume 9 of Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Note: This post is based on an article first published on MexConnect.com

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The “Geographic Accounts”: Mexico’s sixteenth century “Domesday Book”

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Dec 132012
 

Mexico’s equivalent of the Domesday Book was compiled in the sixteenth century.

Conquerors often have very little idea of precisely what they have acquired until their victory is assured. In many cases, one of their first post-conquest steps, therefore, is to undertake a comprehensive survey of everything of value, or potential value.

For instance, in 1086, William the Conqueror ordered a survey of his newly acquired England, the results of which were compiled into the Domesday Book. The decision to send out his assessors to every corner of the land was made at his Christmas Court in 1085. As a belated Christmas present to himself, William wanted to know “what or how much each landholder had, in land or livestock, and how much money it was worth”, so that he could tax it accordingly.

Though less comprehensive, a pictorial record of the wealth of Mexico already existed prior to the Spanish conquest. The Mexica people had gradually established an empire (the Aztec Empire) stretching from the Gulf coast to the Pacific. In order to administer the tributes due from each part of the empire, they recorded the requisite payments of feathers, animals, minerals and food, on bark paper codices. Some of these documents still survive, though most were destroyed by the Spanish. The image below is taken from the Codex Mendoza, which was created shortly after the conquest as a record of Aztec life, including the tributes payable by various villages and towns.

Tribute page from the Codex Mendoza

Tribute page from the Codex Mendoza

In this case, the tribute includes:

  • 2 strings of beads of jadeite, a green semi-precious stone
  • a total of 4000 handfuls of colored feathers
  • 160 skins of the bird with a blue plumage
  • 2 labrets (lip piercings) of amber encased in gold
  • 40 skins of jaguar
  • 200 loads of cacao beans, the main ingredient of chocolate
  • 800 tecomates (cups for drinking chocolate)
  • 2 slabs of clear amber, each approximately the size of a brick

Such tribute lists were of little interest to the Spanish when they arrived. Some of the items held in high esteem by the Aztecs were deemed worthless by the conquerors. Other items, such as silver, of little or no consequence to the Aztecs, were highly prized by the Spaniards.

Back in Spain, the Spanish Court was determined to acquire accurate information about everything being encountered in New Spain. This led to a series of censuses and accounts, including the Relaciones geográficas (Geographic Accounts), the earliest version of which dates back to the late sixteenth century.

In 1569, shortly after Juan de Ovando y Godoy was named Visitor of the Council of the Indies, he sent a questionnaire containing 37 questions to the New World. Another questionnaire, with about 200 questions, was sent in 1570. A few years later, perhaps in an effort to elicit more responses from the provinces, Ovando y Godoy’s former secretary and successor Juan López de Velasco reduced the number of questions to 50. These 50 questions, sent to New Spain in 1577, became the basis for the Geographic Accounts.

The authorities in each administrative center were instructed to call a meeting of the “Spaniards and other natives in the district”, to find out everything they could about the area’s geography, people and history.

Of the 191 known responses to the 1577 questionnaire, 167 have survived in archives to the present day. Most of the original responses are housed in Spain, in either the Archivo General de las Indias (Seville) or the Real Academia de la Historia (Madrid). A further 43 of them form part of the Benson Latin American Collection in the University of Texas library in Austin. The library’s webpage about the Relaciones geográficas has several links to images of sample pages and maps.

A future post will look at the content of a typical example of a “Geographic Account”.

Source:

Several transcriptions of the Relaciones geográficas have been published in Spanish. The version used in preparing this article is Acuña, R (ed) 1987 Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI: Michoacán. Edición de René Acuña. Volume 9 of Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Note: This post is based on an article first published on MexConnect.com

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Jul 232012
 

Grateful thanks to Annie Hansen for alerting us to the fact that 23 July was first proposed as “Día del Geógrafo de México” (“Mexican Geographers’ Day”) in a short paper published in 1999. Héctor Mendoza Vargas proposed that day because it marked the opening, in 1939, of the first National Congress of Geography ever held in Mexico. His suggestion was the winner in a competition to choose a suitable day on which to celebrate the work of geographers. Ever since then, 23 July has been a special day for all geographers in Mexico.

The first National Congress in 1939 ran from 23 July to 31 July, with sessions taking place in the Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes) in downtown Mexico City.

The full text of Mendoza Vargas’ short paper proposing 23 July as “Día del Geógrafo de México” can be seen here. It includes some interesting background history.

A Happy Geographers’ Day to all our readers!

The history and scope of geography

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Mar 012011
 

Dr Jerome Dobson, who led the Bowman Expedition to Mexico, gave the 2010 Jefferson Science Lecture to the US Department of State on “Geography: Use It Or Lose It“:

This lecture ranges widely across the history and scope of geography (primarily in the USA) and  is a very interesting read, as is Dobson’s earlier 2-part article in ArcNews:

(Thanks go to Dr. Joseph Kerski, Esri’s Education Manager, for suggesting the links to Dobson’s lectures.)

The route taken by Mexico’s first international scientific expedition, 1874-5

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Sep 232010
 

Mexico’s first international scientific expedition in 1874 left Mexico City with only a few months to travel half way around the world to Japan to set up their instruments in time for the transit of Venus on 9 December.

Mexico’s international scientific expedition to observe the 1874 transit of Venus

Looking at a map, the quickest route would appear to be via Acapulco and then by boat across the Pacific. However, in 1874, the “road” to Acapulco was often in appalling condition, especially after the rainy season, and boats crossing the Pacific from Acapulco were few and far between.

The Commission of Mexican Astronomers opted to travel via San Francisco, from where more vessels left regularly for the Far East. Getting from Mexico City to San Francisco in 1874 was nowhere as simple as it is today. For the first part of the trip, the intrepid group was able to take advantage of the Mexico City-Veracruz railway line, inaugurated only the previous year.

Rail bridge on Mexico City-Veracruz line

Infiernillo Bridge on the Mexicano Railroad (from Viaje de la Comisión Astronómica Mexicana al Japón)

This was an arduous and long trip in those days. Fortunately, the railway from Mexico City to Veracruz had just been completed. The expedition’s memoirs include a charming sketch of the Infiernillo railway bridge (see image).

Boats from Veracruz did not operate on a strict timetable either, and the group decided to wait in Orizaba for news of a suitable vessel rather than risk exposing themselves to the tropical diseases prevalent in the port itself. They had left Mexico City on 18 September and eventually set sail from Veracruz six days later—to Havana, Cuba. This was because vessels were much more frequent to the USA from Cuba than from Mexico.

Landing in Philadelphia on 30 September, the group was placed in temporary quarantine until diplomatic efforts succeeded in getting them released. A few days later, they caught a train to New York, and then the following day, to Chicago and on to San Francisco. Within a week, they had berths on board the Vasco de Gama to Japan.

Route taken by Mexico's first international scientific expedition, 1874-5

Route taken by Mexico’s first international scientific expedition, 1874-5. All rights reserved

Their route back home was via Hong Kong, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Suez Canal, Italy and France (see map). By the time they arrived back in Mexico, they had completed a world tour, though it had taken somewhat longer than that of Jules Verne’s fictional tale Around the World in Eighty Days.

Source: Odisea 1874 o el primer viaje internacional de cientificos mexicanos by Marco Arturo Moreno Corral (Fonda de Cultural Economica,  1986)