Visualizing Geography: Atlas for the Blind (1837)

A friend passed along this gem of cartographic history to me today and I must share. This comes via the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, who have 1 of the 5 remaining original maps designed by the New England Institute for the Education of the Blind in Boston in 1837. The map is apparently the first map produced for the blind that they could read without the assistance of a seeing person. While the map is not ‘written’ in contemporary Braille, it is embossed with the relative geographic outlines of topographic features, such as lakes and mountains, as well as the relative interpretive information a reader would need in order to ‘visualize’ the geography being described to them through their fingers. The accompanying keys/legends and narrative descriptions of each state/geographic visualization enabled, in theory, blind students to encounter maps much like we do now: Through a set of interpretive coded and visualizing mechanisms that enable one to visualize the larger scale of land and national boundaries.

What is striking to me is how similar this experience for the ‘blind’ is to the experience of the ‘seeing.’ Neither group can ever see the geographies mapped into atlases, but we rely on some play of scale and imagination to enable us to see things much larger than our corporeal scope of vision. This makes me think of the relationship between seeing and blindness in terms of what they have in common: A shared effort to push upon the limits of vision each is endowed with. I wonder if this is a better way of interpreting blindness not as a lack of vision, or a sense displaced onto other senses likes hearing and olfactory to ‘make-up’ for its absence, but a state of imagining or learning: As developing a capacity to understand or inhabit something more. A desire, in other words, not so much an impediment.

Learning to see, in this regard, seems to be a relatively shared concept among the visually ‘paired’ or impaired. As one of the map’s creators explains:

“[the blind children] soon understood that sheets of stiff pasteboard, marked by certain crooked lines, represented the boundaries of countries; rough raised dots represented mountains; pin heads sticking out here and there, showed the locations of towns; or, on a smaller scale, the boundaries of their own town, the location of the meeting-house, of their own and of the neighboring houses, and the like; and they were delighted and eager to go on with tireless curiosity.”

Do we not also approach the foreignness of the world like this? Through representations, interpretations, putting things into place? Making our geographies? Seems like an all too human process.

Images can all be found at:


~ by Em on May 31, 2012.

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