The Development of Analytical Cartography: A Personal Note

By Tobler, Waldo | Cartography and Geographic Information Science, July 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Development of Analytical Cartography: A Personal Note

Tobler, Waldo, Cartography and Geographic Information Science

In the late 1960s, I initiated a course with the title "Analytical Cartography" at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. At the behest of Dr. H. Moellering of Ohio State University (who was at one time a student in the course), a short personal historical perspective of the development of the course was presented at the recent Hawaii meeting of the Association of American Geographers. That review tried to put the subject and the development of the course in the context of the time. This is a written synopsis of the Hawaii presentation.

Some Background

My arrival in Michigan in 1961 followed that of John Nystuen, both of us having come from the University of Washington where our training included the use of computers and the application of quantitative methods to the field of geography. My studies included course work with John Sherman and William Garrison, and with J. Ross MacKay who came to Seattle as a visitor from British Columbia. Charles Davis, then chairman at Michigan, hired me to teach and do research in the field of cartography.

As I began teaching cartography I tried to include some of the subjects I had learned as a graduate student but that were not in the contemporary textbooks. At the time, the choice of such books was restricted to those of E. Raisz and of A. Robinson. Both were excellent books, but not what I was after. Within this context, my course was an attempt to formalize the notion that cartographic methods are used frequently by geographers in their analytical investigations--hence the name "Analytical Cartography," although the course began as "Computer Cartography." What I had in mind could be contrasted with the major treatment in contemporary cartographic teaching and literature as a pure display technique closely related to visual design as practiced in the field of advertising, or in medical illustration. Manual drafting, in ink, or the use of plastic scribing and Zip-A-Tone, were common techniques being taught. But these techniques are not what geographic cartography is all about. We need only to think of the undertakings of Alexander von Humboldt, Alfred Wegener, or Walter Christaller to recognize that significant discoveries are made using maps.

Cartography, in my view, is one of the techniques used by geographers in analytical investigations, along with verbal, statistical, and modeling methods. The purpose of geographical and analytical cartography is the development of geographical theory, not the inventorying of geographical phenomena such as topography or land use, although this may be valuable for practical or applied, non-academic, uses. Such extra-academic uses are not, and never were, of great interest to me. A similar comment would apply to photo interpretation (Tobler 1967; 1968). My emphasis has also always been on the cartography of human geography, and not in the applied physics known as physical geography, and in contrast to what seems to be the topographic map inventorying interest of the majority of cartographers and certainly of government agencies.

The emerging widespread distribution of, and easy access to, digital computers enabled many of the graphical methods used on maps to be recast as mathematical operations. Early on the Swedish meteorological system was producing weather maps by computer. Information theory and Huffman coding also led to a view that geographic information could be measured, transmitted, stored, and analyzed by computers. A lecture describing the "Analytical Cartography" course at the University of Michigan was presented at the University of Vienna in May 1975 while I was on sabbatical leave at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. An English language version of this lecture was subsequently published in the American Cartographer (Tobler 1976). These events occurred before the intrusion of deconstructionism into the field.

It is rather obvious that the way in which academics contemplate maps differs from the way in which the general public views maps.

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