qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

An Adventure in Space and Time

Book Review: Map of a Nation - A Biography of the Ordnance Survey, by Rachel Hewitt
This was a very interesting and engaging read, describing the beginnings of the organisation now known as the Ordnance Survey from the mid-eighteenth century through to the completion of the First Series maps of England and Wales in 1870. Hewitt begins her story in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, when the British Army had only poor knowledge of the geography of the Scottish highlands. This period coincided with much activity in Enlightenment and scientific circles, such as the Royal Society, and also with significant technological advances in surveying techniques. Subsequent chapters describe first co-operation with the French in an attempt to establish the proper relation between the English and French coastlines, then surveying of southern England in an attempt to prepare and guard against invasion. As well as a survey of places, this book is a survey of many characters, and of bureaucracy. There's a striking similarity between the over-optimistic estimates given to the Treasury for such an advanced exercise as a national triangulation and survey, and today's large public-sector IT projects. Another parallel is the way the original scope of the project is continuously redrawn, particularly in being distracted to conduct a survey of Ireland in the early nineteenth century. Although local populations might be wary of the purpose of surveyors (suspicions often arose about tax or boundary issues), the maps proved to be popular from their first publication (even when they were littered with place-name and other errors). The endnotes consume a full quarter of the book - a sign that this material is based on a PhD thesis and more, confirmed in the book's acknowledgements. Whatever recasting has taken place has resulted in a book that is clearly enjoyable by the interested layperson.
Tags: books
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