Before Google Maps and other digital services took over the field of personal navigation, skilled cartographers drew and maintained paper roadmaps by hand.

National Geographic released this video from 1940 explaining how maps in pre-WWII-era America were created. The labor was split between two main roles. First, tireless road scouts would traverse the country in pairs, recording road changes in a to-scale graph book. While on the road, these data collectors checked their new findings against existing United States Geological Survey topographical sheets, recording mountains, canyons, rivers, and mileage between locations.

Upon their return, scouts turned the data over to draftsmen: the talented artists responsible for drawing lines and symbols that represented current road conditions. This was done on transparent sheets laid over an original master map (not unlike a layer or filter over a digital base map). Once the overlay sheet was complete, it would be removed and photographed onto a glass negative. That negative would be transferred to a zinc plate, which, after being washed, would be ready for the printing press.

Most modern mapping services have abandoned paper as a medium and transitioned entirely to web-based platforms. Though they’re largely considered passé, paper maps are still being created in small corners of the mapmaking community. Niche customer bases sometimes need traditional maps to find their way in the absence of a network connection, or need specialized maps with case-specific information such as hiking trail junctions.

The Atlantic published a Q&A with one such cartographer named Tom Harrison who’s been independently making and selling paper maps since the 1970s. Like road scouts in the ‘30s, Harrison used to begin his mapmaking process by hiking a park’s entire trail system, recording routes and boundaries by hand with a measuring wheel and a GPS. That’s become a rare practice. Harrison now uses an Adobe Illustrator software plugin to read and make use of GIS data from park and forest agencies, improving map accuracy and cutting down time spent on data collection. Cartography is still a delicate and painstaking art, though; Harrison often works on individual maps for years before deciding they’re ready for sale. His meticulous work preserves the history and the tradition of this ancient, specialized art.

Photo Credit: National Geographic

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Posted by Andrew Foerch