Thursday, September 28, 2006

Map making pioneer

Britain is celebrating the 100th birthday of a map maker this week.  Phyllis Pearsall was an ordinary woman in 1935 London when she stepped out into the night trying to use Britain’s Ordnance Survey map to find her way to a party in the Belgravia district.  She got lost.

She turned that into a determination to create an up to date and accurate atlas of streets in the London area.  She walked the streets of London by day, and with her colleague James Duncan, a draughtsman, she created what is know as the A-Z Atlas.

      Creating the first A-Z was a tough job. Before satellite imaging or extensive aerial photography, Pearsall worked 18-hour days and walked 3,000 miles to map the 23,000 streets of 1930s London.

Phyllis was an artist by trade, and continued painting until she died, but mostly for herself.  She was involved in the company she created her entire life, and in 1966 turned it into a trust so that the company would never be bought up, ensuring that her beloved employees would have long term security.

Phyllis Gross Pearsall died in 1996 just before her 90th birthday.
The Geographers’ A-Z Mapping Company still exists, had many more atlases than just London, road maps of England, and has expanded into the PC and mobile device markets.  Computers were involved in the map drawing process in the early 90s, until today all map production is handled digitally.

In addition to the London atlas, they have other road atlases by county and country and flat/fold-out maps of other localities.  

I noted and agreed with a comment someone left on a blog (posting about Phyllis) who lamented that most cities should, but don’t, have street maps in atlas form.  Fold-out maps are awkward to handle when traveling about the city, whether in a car, walking (in the wind and rain) or biking.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a pamphlet sized road map of your city instead?

Well, to a certain extent you can.  Thomas Brothers (now a division of Rand McNally) has been producing an atlas called the Thomas Guide for a while now.  Here you can get an atlas of Portland streets for $25.  Amazon says that it is 11 x 9 inches in size, which isn’t pamphlet size, but standard paper size, which is good enough to stick in your backpack. 

Hat tip to the Map Room for the story on Phyllis.

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