Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Good buy, Columbus

Let's say it's 1491, and then let's say you are Christopher Columbus, packing up for your voyage around the world.

From an early version of LL Bean, you have all your supplies, and that crazy hat you love so much.  But there is no Mapquest, no Google maps, no Shell station on the corner to give you a free folding map that once you open it you can never fold it back up again, and when you get home later on, the map is wadded up and sort of looks like a salad in the back seat with the "We saw the Bahamas!" Tshirt and "I ♥ America" brochure.

So how did Columbus find his way here, especially since this was a time when mapmakers thought that Japan was where the Bahamas are - a mistake often duplicated by today's airline baggage handlers?  Think about it, though.  From where you stand in your front yard, can you figure out where the next town is, let alone the next continent?  How did they even figure out where they were?  Mapmakers had to rely on the calculations of returning Explorers, and a lot of them came back with parking tickets on the windshield.

Cartographers (mapmakers) were part of an infant industry then. Fred Flintstone didn't care what town was north or south of Bedrock, but when Columbus wanted to take a vacation, he needed direction.

Lucky for him that a fellow named Heinrich Martellus Hammer, German by birth, was mapping what he thought the world looked like from his place in Florence beginning in 1480. By 1490, he had produced a flat map that looked a lot like the globe that Martin Behaim came out with a couple of years later.  Both the map and the globe show features not seen before in other maps...and historians now feel that they both borrow heavily from the maps that Columbus's brother Bart (Bartolomeo) had made in 1485.

Picture 1 - original map
In 1960, one of the maps known as the Martellus Maps, 79" by 48", was found in the glove compartment of a Dodge and donated to the Yale University library. As you can see from picture 1, you can hardly read anything on there, although it did make an interesting wall hanging at Yale for the past 55 years.

Picture 2 shows how the map looks now, since a team, backed by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, photographed the map in 12 reflective colors, including several frequencies beyond the range of visible light.
They found this text near the map marking of the Indian Ocean, warning of the whale, "a sea monster that is like the sun when it shines, whose form can hardly be described, except that its skin is soft and its body huge."
(This is the same technology that allowed delicatessens to make those infra-red sandwiches before microwaves came along.) High tech software enabled the scientists to make a readable map, as well as several tasty hot subs.
Picture 2 - improved map

“We’ve recovered more information than we dared to hope for,” says Chet Van Duzer, a map historian who is leading the project.

Science is certain that Columbus himself had this map with him as he discovered America. Credence is lent to this notion by a newly-found rubber stamp marking on the left corner saying "Property of Columbus - Hands Off!"

I am certain that as soon as I get a chance, I am changing my name to Chet Van Duzer.

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