When I imagine the early geological map-makers, I think of men on grand tours, taking geological hammers to prise fragments of rock from exposed strata. Late at night they’d examine their findings by candlelight, take notes and draw sketch maps, later to be incorporated into the great cartographic works they published and left to us today.
For some reason I also think of them carrying very large chests full of specimens provoking grumblings from the porters and stevedores charged with handling their luggage. However, there was another approach to map-making that didn’t upset the staff, an approach used by George Bellas Greenough
Greenough, first President of the Geological Society, was an interesting chap. He resigned his commision in the Light Horse Volunteers of London and Westminster in protest at the Peterloo Massacre. His grandfather’s wealth came from the production of a pectoral lozange from Balsam of Tolu – the resin from a South American tree that can cause contact dermatitis. He enrolled on course in Law in Gottingen under the impression that it was being taught in Latin. When he found out it was German, a language he couldn’t speak, he taught himself to speak it by attending lectures on natural history given in German instead…
In 1854, one year before his death, George Bellas Greenough published his ‘General Sketch of the Physical and Geological Features of British India’ – a map I am in the process of preserving by scanning and digital restoration. This was a map in nine sheets covering all of the Indian subcontinent including Ceylon and parts of Burma. At this time, the East India Company was starting to build the railways in India (started 1850), the first telegraph system in India had opened (1851) and the Ganges canal was being dug (completed 1854). The need for sound geological information in India was vital.
Rather than embarking on a grand tour of India, Greenough instead made his map in the same way he’d gone about creating his famous map of England and Wales in 1820. He used his extensive library and contacts to create his map. Using observations gathered by many fellow geologists, as well as previous mapping, he drew up the first geological map of India. It was published by the Geological Society in 1854 and distributed to geological societies around the world. We still have a couple of copies in the basement that weren’t distributed at the time. I really should get round to that at some point
Greenough’s cartographic methods relied on networking made possible by new postal services, trains and telegraphy in order to push the boundaries of what was to become the British Empire throughout India.
Since Greenough, many maps have been produced in this way. Advances in communication from the telephone through scientific publishing to Twitter mean that networking data is much easier and much faster. Like India in the 1850s, mapping of areas that are hard to get to because of geography, politics or warfare can be achieved using previously collected and published geological data. GIS systems gather data from many sources to make maps for specific purposes and with great speed. The maps you see in the media are produced in this way as are scientific maps.
Data is still collected by geologists out in the field wielding hammers (with grumpy helpers), but geological cartography can now be done sitting at your desk on a PC with a hot mug of tea – a trend started by G.B. Greenough.