#LoveMaps – Huw Thomas

#LoveMaps / Collections / News and Events - Posted 15-02-2018

Huw Thomas, Map Curator at The National Library of Wales takes part in our #LoveMaps Campaign.

The most boring map in the World

When tasked with choosing four maps from the National Library’s map collection to write about I was left with something of a dilemma, the easy option would be to go for some of the famous treasures, however, previous #LoveMaps contributors have already used many of these and those that are left may well excite the interest of future contributors.

So, what to choose? Well, I decided to go for some items which were slightly different and also to try to stick to a theme and what better theme than the Welsh Government’s chosen theme for the year 2018 The Sea.

The National Map Collection holds a large number of fascinating nautical charts, but my first choice is not a nautical chart it is an aeronautical chart. A map for navigating by air and this gives a clue as to why someone would produce a map with absolutely no features on it at all.

This featureless stretch of the Earth’s surface is part of the Pacific Ocean, there are no islands or other features to show where we are, and we are reliant on the titling and coordinate system to provide our location. This is, of course, the whole purpose of this map; it is designed to allow pilots and navigators to plot their course and position accurately on the map, when there are no features on the ground below to allow them to get their bearings. To be able to do this is vital if one is to reach dry land safely when crossing such a vast distance as the Pacific Ocean. Dead reckoning over such a long distance would almost inevitably lead to missing land (which could be a tiny atoll in the midst of the ocean) and then running out of fuel and ditching in the sea, with virtually no chance of being rescued.

Accurate locational information would have been vital during the Second World War when this chart was made. Aircraft flying from the US carrier fleets would need to be able to find their way to the enemy ships and home again without getting lost. Long-range scout planes would need to be able to plot the position of enemy ships in order to relay this information to the carrier groups.
During the Falklands War in 1982 the Royal Air Force was tasked with bombing the airfield outside Port Stanley, in order to do this they needed to fly their Vulcan bombers from Ascension Island to the Falklands a round trip of over 12,000 Kilometres. As nobody had ever expected to need to do this there were no aeronautical charts available of the South Atlantic, so the navigators had to use charts of the Northern hemisphere turned upside down in order to plot their course, with the Azores standing in for the Falklands.

In today’s world most air navigation relies on radio navigation aids and satellite positioning systems, but when such systems fail being able to work out where you are on a map, especially in the middle of an ocean, is still a valuable skill to possess.

So even this most featureless and boring of maps was a useful tool at the time it was produced and as such perhaps it is not as boring as at first it may seem.

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

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