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:

A matter of scale: Mexico compared to Spain

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Mar 262012

Scale matters, especially when two countries or regions are going to be compared. A case in point is depicted on this Mexican airmail stamp from 1977 issued to celebrate the resumption of diplomatic relations between Mexico and Spain. Mexico had broken off relations with Spain in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War when Francisco Franco gained control. Following that war, more than 30,000 Spaniards sought refuge in Mexico, giving a significant boost to the country’s entrepreneurs. It took until 28 March 1977 for diplomatic relations between Mexico and Spain to be restored.

The outline maps on the stamp show Mexico and Spain as having approximately the same area. Presumably this was to ensure that the stamp would be seen as politically-correct, even if not spatially-correct, and would make the two countries look like equal partners. In real life, or on any equal-area map projection,  Mexico (almost 2 million square kilometers) is about four times as large as Spain (close to 50,000  square kilometers).

If the maps were drawn proportional to population, then Mexico would be more than twice as large, since its population of about 112 million (2010) is more than double that of Spain (48 million in the same year). This difference is widening with the years, since Spain’s population growth rate has fallen to about 0.6%/year, while Mexico’s (which has also fallen) remains significantly higher at about 1.1%/year.

Earliest landscapes on Mexican postage stamps

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Mar 192010

The earliest landscapes to be depicted on Mexican postage stamps were in 1899. The set included these magnificent images of The Juanacatlán Falls, popularly known as the “Niagara of Mexico”, on the 50 cent stamp, and of Popocatapetl volcano on the 1 peso stamp.

The Juanacatlán Falls are on the River Santiago, shortly after it leaves Lake Chapala on its way to carve the deep Oblatos Canyon on the northern edge of Mexico’s second city, Guadalajara. In 1899, these falls were considered to be the second largest waterfall in North America (in terms of volume of flow) after Niagara Falls. A bridge with 24 arches spans the falls and joins the villages of Juanacatlán and El Salto (The Waterfall).

There are two major volcanoes near Mexico City. The first is the still active Popocatepetl (“Popo”), which rises to 5500 meters (18,045 feet) and is shown on the 1899 1 peso stamp. Alongside it, the dormant volcanic peak of Iztaccihuatl is 5220 m (17,126 ft) high. Both are clearly visible from Mexico City on a smog-free day. The southern suburbs of Mexico City are overshadowed by a third, smaller volcano, Ajusco, which reaches 3930 m (12,894 ft).

These beautiful 1899 stamps, designed and printed in the UK, are considered to be among the gems of Mexican philately.

Mexico’s many volcanoes are discussed in chapter 2 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.  Water issues are examined in chapter 7, and environmental trends and issues are the subject of chapter 30.

First map of Mexico on postage stamp

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Mar 142010

It was not until 1915, in the middle of the Mexican Revolution, that a map of the Republic appeared for the first time as the central design on a Mexican postage stamp.

Most states were named, though abbreviations were necessary given the size of the stamp. In 1915, though, the state of Nayarit on the Pacific Coast, north-west of Colima did not yet exist. It came into being in1917, with the signing of Mexico’s Constitution (the one which is still currently in force). Baja California, shown as single entity on the map, was divided into northern and southern sections in 1931.

In addition to the states, the map shows the main railway lines and also the main shipping routes. In 1915, the easiest way to reach the Yucatán Peninsula was by boat. It would be another 35 years or so before a rail link was completed between Veracuz and Merida. International shipping routes were very important in 1915, since air travel was in its infancy.

The map take some artistic license with scale. In particular, the island of Cuba has been brought much closer to the north-eastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula than it really is.

The historical evolution of the boundaries of Mexico, and of its individual states, are analyzed in chapter 12, “The changing political map of Mexico” of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. The development of Mexico”s railway lines is discussed in detail in chapter 17.