Stanford cartographic technology specialist Deardra Fuzzell examines a celestial map at the new center.

Stanford cartographic technology specialist Deardra Fuzzell examines a celestial map at the new center.

Wayne Vanderkuil, Stanford Libraries

New Stanford center offers insight into the evolution of scientific cartography

The new David Rumsey Map Center, which opened last week at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, showcases what was once one of the world’s great private map collections—more than 150,000 maps, globes, and cartographic artifacts. The collection is especially rich with 18th and 19th century maps that illustrate the birth of scientific cartography.

The new center, located within Stanford Libraries, aims to break down the paper-digital divide. Anyone with a scholarly interest in the maps can request an original paper map and use a variety of digital displays—including a 3.6-by-2–meter touchscreen—to blow up the details or layer on other historical maps or modern satellite imagery.

The maps are the life’s passion of David Rumsey, a San Francisco, California, collector with an unusual backstory and a fierce commitment to open access. In his 20s, Rumsey co-founded a tech-savvy performance art group that lived on a commune and rejected the commodification of art. In midlife, he made a fortune as a real estate developer. Now 71, Rumsey says he’s always collected maps with the intention of giving them away. Since the early days of the Internet in the mid-1990s, he’s been scanning maps and making them freely available online, even developing some of the technology himself.

For most of his career as a collector, Rumsey focused on maps made after 1700. “You have to set limits, or you go broke and crazy at the same time,” he says. “I was interested in scientific cartography and how that becomes GIS [geographic information system] and all the digital mapping we're doing today.”

In focusing on this era, and by taking meticulous notes on the maps he collected, Rumsey created a valuable resource for studying the history of cartography, says Susan Schulten, a historian at the University of Denver who used Rumsey’s collection to research her 2012 book, Mapping the Nation.

“There’s an avalanche of information in the 19th century,” Schulten says, as governments started collecting demographic data in national censuses and measuring temperature, rainfall, and other features of the climate. For the first time in history, cartographers started mapping things that weren’t part of the physical environment—things like the prevalence of malaria and other diseases; the religious, ethnic, and educational backgrounds of the populace; the productivity of crops; and other economic variables.

“You could see entirely new patterns once you married geography to data,” Schulten says. This revolution in cartography, she argues, helped build the foundations of modern social science.

The maps below, all from Rumsey’s collection, illustrate this transition.

Three generations of the Cassini family worked on this national survey of France between 1750 and 1815. This detail shows the area around Grenoble, at the foot of the Alps. End to end, its 182 sheets would be 11.8 meters high by 11.5 meters wide.

Three generations of the Cassini family worked on this national survey of France between 1750 and 1815. This detail shows the area around Grenoble, at the foot of the Alps. End to end, its 182 sheets would be 11.8 meters high by 11.5 meters wide.

Stanford Libraries, David Rumsey Map Center

Detail from an 1828 U.K. map that shows the predominant religion and type of government, as well as the “state of civilization.” According to the mapmakers, that included Savage (blue), Barbarous (purple), Half Civilized”(green), and Civilized (tan).

Detail from an 1828 U.K. map that shows the predominant religion and type of government, as well as the “state of civilization.” According to the mapmakers, that included Savage (blue), Barbarous (purple), Half Civilized”(green), and Civilized (tan).

Stanford Libraries, David Rumsey Map Center

Detail from an 1856 map published in Edinburgh showing the predominant types of disease around the world.

Detail from an 1856 map published in Edinburgh showing the predominant types of disease around the world.

Stanford Libraries, David Rumsey Map Center

Geological map from a statistical atlas—the first of its kind—that accompanied the 1870 U.S. Census. Compiled by Francis Amasa Walker, the atlas is considered a landmark in cartography for its innovative maps of climactic, economic, and social variables.

Geological map from a statistical atlas—the first of its kind—that accompanied the 1870 U.S. Census. Compiled by Francis Amasa Walker, the atlas is considered a landmark in cartography for its innovative maps of climactic, economic, and social variables.

Stanford Libraries, David Rumsey Map Center

Detail from Walker’s statistical atlas showing the proportion of the population having at least one parent of foreign birth.

Detail from Walker’s statistical atlas showing the proportion of the population having at least one parent of foreign birth.

Stanford Libraries, David Rumsey Map Center

Detail from a map from Walker’s statistical atlas showing malarial deaths across the country.

Detail from a map from Walker’s statistical atlas showing malarial deaths across the country.

Stanford Libraries, David Rumsey Map Center

Red numbers in this detail from an 1881 U.K. atlas indicate “Paupers accommodated in Workhouses.”

Red numbers in this detail from an 1881 U.K. atlas indicate “Paupers accommodated in Workhouses.”

Stanford Libraries, David Rumsey Map Center