9781843489054_10_cAt The Knowledge Newsletter, Cabbieblog‘s author “Gibson Square” has an excellent history of the A to Z Street Atlas, a publication with which visitors to London must be familiar. Apparently the idea for it came to Phyllis Pearsall in 1935 when she found herself unable to get to a party because she couldn’t find the street on any map. Reflecting on her problem she decided to tramp the 3,000 miles of London’s streets, identifying them all, and then founded a company to publish the resulting atlas. Armed with an A to Z you can now find your way to any London address.

But hasn’t its time almost expired? I find that young people today appear not to know how to read a map. They’ve never needed to. If you want to find your way somewhere nowadays you use SatNav if in a car, or your iPhone if on foot. This may not be so convenient if you are hiking the Appalachian Trail, but Ms Pearsall, trying to reach her party, would nowadays have no difficulty. When I was at school map-reading was a skill we were taught, as part of geography probably, but also during that farcical military training we were forced through. Just looking at a piece of paper we could identify dead ground (which has the tendency to make troops on the other side of it appear to be nearer than they really are. With your Ordnance Survey map in hand you can work out the range perfectly*.)

One wonders if London taxi drivers are going to be let off their famous training: “The Knowledge”. Basically aspiring cabbies ride around town, usually on a scooter with a clipboard on the handlebars, repeating Ms Pearsall’s quest, but with the aim of internalizing the whole thing, so that when you get in a taxi and say where you want to go, you don’t then need to ask whether the driver knows the way. He does. Better than anyone. But are there any moves to allow SatNav to become a substitute for the Knowledge? I’ve no doubt there are arguments to be made against permitting that, but with the recent rise of internet-based freelance “taxi” services, this must be something that is being debated.

IMG_0145One of the interesting things in the Newsletter is the noting of publishers’ tendency to introduce deliberate errors into their maps as a means of checking up on unauthorized reuse. I have an old Colorprint™ Atlas of New York City Five Boroughs which has one of these intentional(?) errors just nearby. The bit of Chittenden Avenue which I’ve highlighted in yellow doesn’t exist, and as far as I can tell from examining the terrain, never did exist. The maps say they are © American Map Co., Inc., N.Y. with no date showing anywhere in the book which sold for 50¢.

I do still consult this book and the Atlas I own, and even from time to time a globe. This is really not necessary: but old habits die hard. With Apple Maps, Google Maps, Google Earth and so on no one need be lost ever again — unless you can’t get cellphone service, or your battery has died, which I guess happens from time to time. Does this mean Atlases are on the way out as a category of printed book? No doubt.


*  This is of course why organization which created the series of maps is called Ordnance Survey. Ordnance is artillery, and the maps were created specifically so that you could land cannonballs accurately on the heads of your enemies. The agency was established after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 so the Scots were their earliest enemies in this context. Should this be an issue in this week’s election?