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About Eight Decades in the History of Discoveries:
Some Personal Reminiscences


By Norman J. W. Thrower, SHD Fellow
Personal Reminiscence
49th Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Arlington, Texas - October 7, 2008




The title for this paper was suggested by Ed Dahl. It is autobiographical, as he requested, and could also be titled, informally, “A Trip down Memory Lane.” My assignment from Ed is autobiographical, personal, and selective -- even, impressionistic. This account covers more than eighty years. I hope no one will be offended if their name is not mentioned; and I also hope it doesn’t turn out to be what my grandchildren call an “ego trip.” This is one person’s view of a good deal of institutional history, and is not, I know, the last word on the subject. About one third of the period covered is from before I was involved with the Society for the History of Discoveries (SHD).

Although, as a Professor at the University of California -- Los Angeles (UCLA), I later earned my living by teaching and writing about maps, I once made them. This came about in the following way: I was born in England, and from my earliest childhood was interested in art. I attended art school, but early in World War II, I was conscripted -- the word that was used -- into the British Army. After basic training I was sent to India to fight in the Burma Campaign, in the artillery. While in India (on my way to Burma, it seemed), I took an examination for training in the Survey of India in mapping. I passed, and was sent from what is now Bangladesh to Simla (now called Shimla).

Simla, at 8,000 feet elevation in the Himalayas, is a so-called “hill” station; as the summer capital of the British Raj, it included a training center for the Survey of India. I was transferred to the Royal Engineers, the unit in charge of mapping in the British Army. I had left a tent in the humid delta of the Ganges River for a private hotel in Simla. As I soon learned, since the eighteenth century, the Survey of India had been one of the world’s great mapping organizations. Overall, by 1850 India was better surveyed and mapped than any other large country in the world. Sir George Everest, for whom the highest mountain on the planet is named, was a Surveyor-General of India.

After nine months training in Simla, including, unusually, a winter spent there, I was assigned as a cartographer to the Army General Staff in Delhi, the capital of India. There the Vicereign, Lady Wavell (wife of the Viceroy, Lord Wavell), sponsored art classes in the Viceregal Palace, which I took, during the depths of World War II. The instructors were official war artists: a well-known portrait painter from Britain, Simon Elwes; and from the United States, Millard Sheets, my first close acquaintance with a Californian. America had entered WW II by this time. (Later, I met Sheets’s son in Pasadena, California, and discussed his father’s career with him.)

In the Survey, I was allowed unlimited travel within the sub-continent of India. I visited Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras in the south; and the Taj Mahal in Agra, and many other wonderful places, in Rajasthan, and elsewhere in northern India. Later, I was transferred from Delhi to another well-known hill station, Murree (now in Pakistan and the Headquarters of the Survey of Pakistan). There I continued my work in cartography, and visited nearby Kashmir, where tourists can’t go today, for political reasons. In between these travels, I helped produce maps by the then-new method of photogrammetry.

When the war was over I returned home to Britain where, based on my wartime experience, I obtained a position in London, in the Directorate of Overseas Surveys (D.O.S.). This organization undertook mapping of former British colonies by the latest techniques of aerial imaging, and remote sensing of the environment. It was in London that I met my future wife Elizabeth McPherson Martin (Betty), an officer in the United States Army Nurse Corps. She had lived in India as a child, where her father, an American physician and surgeon, founded the modern hospital in Taxila (now in Pakistan). I had visited this place when in the subcontinent, and through this connection had corresponded with Betty. We were married in England and came to the United States, where her father then had his medial practice, in Ohio.

I obtained a position in cartography at the University of Virginia, at the Virginia Geographical Institute, and took an Honors degree at that University. Some of my course work was with Erwin Raisz, a well-known cartographer from Hungary, whose landform maps are still used today, and who wrote General Cartography, the then-leading textbook on the subject in the English language. Everything seemed “general” to me, newly in the U.S.: General Motors, General Electric, General Eisenhower, and General Cartography. This last text was used in Raisz’s classes at the University of Virginia, understandably, but also widely elsewhere.

A fellow student in geography courses at the University of Virginia was Gary Dunbar. He is more truly an historian of discoveries than I am, and should be writing this piece. He is now fully retired and declined co-authorship, but was very helpful to me in the preparation of this paper. Gary left the University of Virginia for graduate work at Louisiana State University, but we corresponded.

Betty and I, with our growing family, moved to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There I took a Ph.D. under Professor Arthur Robinson, who, like Raisz, was another distinguished academic cartographer. His work in the field remains well-known today, especially through his studies on thematic or “special-subject” mapping, and map projections. I took a Ph.D. minor in the History of Science at Wisconsin under Marshall Clagett, later of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton. (Subsequently, Robinson became President of the International Cartographic Association, a high honor in professional cartography; I attended his installation in Vienna, Austria, later on.)

My first and only full-time professorial appointment began at UCLA in 1957. I joined the newly founded SHD in 1961, the second year of its existence. Along the way I have published a dozen books, and more than one hundred articles and other contributions on maps and geographical discovery, in a number of different places.

The book that has given me the greatest visibility is Maps and Civilization: Cartography in Culture and Society (1992, 1998, 2008). This book had two earlier printings under the now “politically incorrect” title, Maps and Man: An Examination of Cartography in Relation to Culture and Civilization (1972). It has continued to be published with the more acceptable main title, Maps and Civilization, and covers the story of cartography from pre-history to the present. It is also in Spanish and Japanese language editions. On the back cover are some favorable endorsements: one I treasure particularly is by the English nobleman map and book collector, Lord Wardington; and another is by John P. Snyder, probably the greatest authority on map projections in the past half century. Sadly, John died recently. Shortly before his death he wrote a review of Maps and Civilization. John was a Quaker, and a very straightforward person. I quibbled about one point in his review and he replied, “Well, I did say that it was the best one volume book in the field. Didn’t I?”

Gary Dunbar -- who reminded me that he joined the SHD a year before I did -- attended the meetings in Portugal commemorating the quincentenary, in 1960, of the death of Prince Henry, later known as “The Navigator.” (At the time Gary was an assistant professor at the University of Virginia.) I didn’t go to Portugal then, but did later on, and saw the great monument of Prince Henry leading the explorers out, in Belem, seaward of Lisbon. It was erected as part of the commemorations in honor of the quincentenary of the date of the death of the “half-English” Lusitanian Prince (his mother was Eleanor of Aquitaine, an English Plantagenet princess, and his father was John 1st, King of Portugal). At the time, I was busy writing a commissioned article on Prince Henry for The Journal of the Institute of Navigation, number 7, 1960; a scientific, and not normally an historical, publication. (It became an especially important journal at the beginning of the Space Age.)

It was as a result of the Henrican celebrations that the SHD was born. Thom Goldstein recalls the circumstances in his letter to Jack published in A Book for Jack (John Parker), edited by Carol Urness (Associates of the James Ford Bell Library, 1991). Thom and Jack had been riding on top of a bus from Lisbon’s University City back into town when the outlines of the Society [SHD] took shape. Thom continued: “On festive occasions you have sometimes credited me with the original idea…. But I know … how much of the constant day-to-day work of … keeping us going and growing, has been performed by you.” (184)

From the beginning, (1960), the then newly-founded, SHD produced Newsletters and held meetings, sometimes with other societies. After nine years, in 1969, SHD published the first number of its journal, Terrae Incognitae: The Annals of the Society for the History of Discoveries (TI ). Gary Dunbar published a well-researched article, titled “Societies for the History of Discoveries,” in TI, volume 6, 1974, pp. 65-74. In this article he reviewed the activities of a dozen societies which had, or have, geographical discoveries as their central theme.

We don’t need to go into detail about all of these societies but only discuss the two which survive today. They are the Hakluyt Society of London, U.K. (the oldest of all these societies), founded in 1846, in Hakluyt’s memory long after his death; and the SHD, founded in the U.S. in 1960. The Hakluyt Society is named for the Elizabethan compiler of travel literature, Richard Hakluyt, a Welsh cleric, who published original accounts of sea voyages and land travels, especially by the Europeans of, and before, his period (the sixteenth century).
 
As indicated above, in early Victorian times, a so-called geographical record society, the Hakluyt Society, was founded in his memory in London. It was my great privilege to publish The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley in the Paramore, 1698-1701 (2 vols.), in 1981 (copyright 1980). This work, I believe, is the most important historical research I’ve ever undertaken. There are approximately 250 volumes in the present three series of the Hakluyt Society, but it publishes no journal regularly. By contrast, the SHD has published a journal, TI, every year since 1969, and holds annual meetings at different locations.

From the beginning there was controversy over the name: the Society for the History of Discoveries. Some wanted it to include the word “geography” or “geographical” – SHGD -- (Society for the History of Geographical Discoveries). One historian of science and technology joined the SHD (and subscribed to the journal) because he thought “discoveries” meant “inventions.” But it remains the Society for the History of Discoveries in spite of these objections.

The first editor of Terrae Incognitae was Bruce Solnick of the State University of New York at Albany. Professor Solnick set down guidelines for the journal, which may be summarized, as follows: “Terrae Incognitae welcomes all who do research in the history of discoveries. It shall not be limited, in authorship, to membership in SHD. It will be published annually.” These guidelines have been followed, with some changes, from the beginning. Some of the changes will be detailed below. The SHD and TI owe much to the vision of Bruce Solnick, the first editor, and later, a President of the SHD.

The lead article in volume 1 of TI is by John Parry, at the time Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History at Harvard University. The article is titled, “The Indies Richly Planted.” Another article, by Ursula Lamb, then at the University of Arizona, is titled “Science by Litigation: A Cosmographic Feud.” There were four other articles, and some twenty book reviews, but no illustrations in any of the articles in volume 1, 1969. This was to change in volume 2, 1970, when there were black-and-white maps, illustrating two of the seven articles. Also, there were three short book “notices,” by the editor following reviews, by others. I was elected President of SHD, and in 1980 we met at the UCLA’s Clark Library, of which I had become the Director (a non-Library position), one of many fine venues for SHD annual meetings over the years.

The objectives of the SHD were set out by Ralph Ehrenberg, first, in volume 8, 1976, of TI. A new editor, Douglas Marshall, took over TI in 1978, with volume 10. TI had been published by Nico Israel in Amsterdam since 1969, but with the new editor, it moved, in 1979, to Wayne State University Press, in Detroit, Michigan. I published my first piece in TI, a short article with two illustrations and titled “New Light on the 1524 Voyage of Verrazanno,” in volume 9, 1979, pp. 59-65.

Some changes came with the move of TI to Michigan. An important new feature was introduced: “Recent Literature in Discovery History.” This bibliography of current, relevant books and articles in the field was compiled by Barbara B. McCorkle, then at Yale University; it continues today. David Buisseret, who took over the editorship of TI in 1981 and continued in this role until recently, provided a remarkable service to SHD and TI. Volume 13, 1986, included Michael Kalen Smith’s useful index of volumes 1 through 12 (1969-1980), which I hope will be continued. In 1979, the green cover of the journal had changed from matte to glossy, and later to red, though in varying shades, which was to last through volume 26, 1994.

In 1990, with volume 22, SHD took over publication of its own journal, TI, but the format remained substantially unchanged. I found it impossible to generalize about the subjects of the contributions at SHD meetings and in TI; eclectic, varied, and interesting are the words that come to mind. Subjects range over all fields of geographical discovery history, without any pattern, as far as I could discern. The total number of pages in the volumes varies widely (from 90 to 150) but averages about 115 per issue. For some unexplained reason, the cover of TI changed to black in 1999, then to blue up to the present; I don’t understand the reason for these changes, but, in any case, libraries often rebind them; so sometimes the covers are not noticed.

The first year in which an international member became President of the SHD was 1999. Francis Herbert of the Royal Geographical Society, a long-time supporter and contributor to the SHD and TI. The presidency is usually for a short time of one or two years; typically the Vice President (the program chair), succeeds to the presidency. There had been overseas officers and/or contributors from the early years: Helen Wallis, David Quinn, Tony Campbell, and others. For lists of officers, as well as contents, see the front matter of TI, where they are entered.

The venues of the annual meetings would be an interesting study; they tend to follow the locations of the institutions of the current president or the vice president at the time. For example, I was president in 1971 when the SHD met at UCLA’s Clark Library. I published my second article in TI, volume 29, in 1997: “William H. Emory and the Mapping of the American Southwest Borderlands,” pp. 41-96 (an article of longer than average length, with more than twenty illustrations). Controversial topics of papers in TI and at SHD meetings range from Verrazano’s voyage to the East Coast of North America (whether the voyages actually took place or not); to the location of the site of Francis Drake’s sojourning place on the West Coast of North America, and the associated, “Plate of Brasse,” mystery. Many other controversies world-wide have been treated in TI and at SHD meetings.

The fifth decade of the SHD brought the sad news of the passing of both of the two principal founders. Thom (Thomas) Goldstein is memorialized by John Parker in TI, volume 33, 2001, and John (Jack) Parker was remembered in TI, volume 38, 2006, in an obituary by Carol Urness. Thom and Jack lived to see their creations, the SHD and TI, flourish, and seemed to be pleased with the results.

To conclude on a happy note, TI, volume 39, 2007, had color illustrations for the first time; I hope this will be a permanent feature of the journal. May SHD and Terrae Incognitae continue to flourish!

(To read more about Norman J. W. Thrower, see his citation as SHD Fellow by clicking here.
Thanks to Ed Dahl and Carol Urness in the preparation of this article for web posting.)


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