The Power of the Polar Projection, Part One

Continuing to riff on the Soviet Union’s program of Cold War military mapping has me thinking about iconic Cold War maps, or at least the more unusual ways the Cold War landscape has been represented through maps.

One that leapt out was the polar projection, in which the North Pole becomes the center of the map and the USA and USSR find themselves in close and uncomfortable proximity across the top of the world.

Azimuthal projections. Courtesy USGS

Azimuthal projections. Courtesy USGS

One of the most important popularisers of the the azimuthal polar projection (seen on the left of the diagram above) was mapmaker Richard Edes Harrison, staff cartographer or consultant to Time, Fortune, and Life during the Second World War. Harrison’s reputation comes from his willingness to create maps that were striking visual statements. His work really jumps out when you compare it to the average map in a magazine or atlas.

(You can find many fine examples of Harrison’s work in this profile at the New Republic.)

His most popular innovation was the “perspective map” or “Vulture’s View,” which looked like a relief map viewed from altitude (say, 40,000 feet), presenting some of the curvature of the earth and looking very much like a genuine view from altitude (if more precise). The result, printed in full colour in a glossy magazine like Time or Fortune, had an immediacy that more conventional maps lacked. Harrison’s work emphasized the geographic unity of the globe and the ways in which aviation had already reshaped the meaning of proximity. This “air age” cartography lifted the viewer into the air and showed them how flight paths could cut across the globe in ways that a conventional cylindrical projection couldn’t show.

The polar projection was one of these “air age” cartography tools. It showed the viewer just how close the United States was to Europe and the USSR when one wasn’t forced to follow the east-west paths shown on the usual Mercator projection. Maps like “One World, One War” in Look at the World: The Fortune Atlas for World Strategy (1944) or the 1941 “World Divided” in Fortune magazine, which Harrison reused in 1952 as “U.S. Commitment,” picked the polar project to demonstrate the significance of that proximity.

Harrison was hardly the only person busy considering how new perspectives could make American maps more responsive to the demands of World War Two and the Cold War. Timothy Barney’s Mapping the Cold War: Cartography and the Framing of America’s International Power ranges from Harrison and the late Cold War maps in DoD’s publicity brochure Soviet Military Power to the AFL-CIO’s wide distribution of the map “Gulag–Slavery, Inc.” and William Bunge’s expressive anti-nuclear Nuclear War Atlas. He points out that the US State Department’s official geographer, S.W. Boggs, was a keen advocate for using projections more appropriate than the familiar but often misleading Mercator projection. More than twenty years before the Peters equal-area projection became a hot topic, Boggs was promoting his own “eumorphic” equal-area projection on the basis that it was better suited to dealing with issues related to the more than half of the world’s population that lived below 40° North latitude.

Boggs From An Album of Map Projections by John P. Snyder Philip M. Voxland, p.69. Courtesy USGS.

Boggs Eumorphic projection.
From An Album of Map Projections by John P. Snyder and Philip M. Voxland, p.69. Courtesy USGS.

The reason you rarely see Bogg’s “eumorphic” projection is the same reason you rarely see a polar projection except when someone wants to make a point about geopolitics: there are just too many easily available Mercator maps.

But, even while Boggs was trying and failing to get US officials to look beyond the Mercator projection, one polar projection was showing up again and again around the world. You’ve seen it plenty of times. And it wasn’t even developed by a professional cartographer.

To Part Two


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