Friday, April 30, 2021

united colours of the Black Sea

Some thoughts on

Black Sea
Coasts and conquests: from Pericles to Putin
Neal Ascherson
Vintage Paperback 2015

When I suggested writing the feature that came out this week, on the Scythians, the editor recommended the book Black Sea, and I managed to read most of it in time for the feature and the rest shortly after. While it was very instructive on the Scythians and their role as “barbarians” in the eyes of the Ancient Greeks, their history (which I’ve written about in the feature) is just one of many slightly crazy things that have been going on around the Black Sea over the last 3000 years.

In ten chapters (untitled, keeping the suspense as to what they may be about) Neal Ascherson covers the cultures that have lived around the Black Sea, rounding the book off with a chapter about the water body itself as an ecosystem. Apart from the Scythians, Cossacks and Sarmatians of the northern shore, we get to know Pontic Greeks in today’s Turkey, many of whom decided to return to their homeland in the 1920s, after 3000 years of absence, and then wondered why people in Greece weren’t quite like their idea of Greekness.

We get insights into the birth of Polish nationalism, dreamed up at the sea port of Odessa (run by French aristos who fled the Revolution), at a time when Poland didn’t exist. Ascherson, who has also written a history of Poland, is very engaging on the weird and wonderful ways in which groups of people conjure up a national identity when they don’t have a country and perhaps no more than a shared language and/or religion to support the idea of “nation”. In some of the smaller groups scattered around the area, even the language is in need of saving, and some appear to have adjusted their religion flexibly to whoever ruled the land.

Alternative models to the modern nation state have worked around the Black Sea, such as the Greek trading ports that coexisted peacefully with Scythians and Sarmatians in the hinterland. The multi-national empires of the Ottomans and Russian Tsars, and then the Soviet Union, suppressed the regional nationalisms, which then came back with a vengeance. After the demise of the Soviet Union, nations around the Black Sea engaged in regional wars, including the 1992 war between Georgia and Abkhazia, and the current conflict in Ukraine.

All in all a rich tapestry of cultural diversity and historical ironies, also reflected in the light of recent events – this edition was updated in 2015. Sadly, not much is said about the German settlers in the Odessa region, whose number included two of my ancestors (see the legendary Klundt clan blog entry). I suppose these people were just too normal and boring compared with the likes of Pontic Greeks and Scythians.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

almost famous

I've seen a surprising increase in views of blog entries here. Between mid November and early December, views of similar entries (eg CB features, always blogged to the same protocol and promoted the same way) have gone up by a factor of 5-10, and stayed high since. Until November they were on a gradual decline curve, sliding to fewer than 100 in some cases.

I've selected one type of entry for clarity, but it's the same phenomenon for other types as well (eg family history), which is what makes me suspicious. It can't be that all these very different topics are suddenly finding a lot more interest. It could be something like improved visibility in searches. Or at worst, some kind of accounting glitch or increased activity by bots? If anybody has any idea what may have happened (or developed a surprising addiction to this blog since November), I'd be grateful for hints.

The one thing I did change around that time was giving up on the regular (up to four times a week) science news entries, which had also slipped in viewing stats since I introduced them a couple of years earlier. I absolutely don't see, however, how these would have scared away 80-90% of my audience.

Screenshot from today - you can read the actual numbers when you click on the pic.

PS (29.4.) I have now updated the profile info with a new photo (the other one was around 10 years old) showing lockdown locks and grey moustache. Might keep the views in check.

Monday, April 26, 2021

the original barbarians

It may just have been their bad luck, but the Scythians were there on the Pontic Steppe (north of the Black Sea) in the middle of the first millennium BCE, when the ancient Greeks unilaterally decided that their own folks represented civilisation, and everybody else, especially the Scythians, were barbarians. The Greeks wrote this down in the documents which became the bedrock of European civilisation, while the Scythians, although successful in many ways, left no written documents to be used in their defence. Now molecular studies including genomics are promising to give a fair hearing to those original barbarians.

I've rounded up recent molecular research into the life and fates of the Scythians and mixed it up with some cultural history for my latest feature which is out now in Current Biology:

Saving Scythians from oblivion

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 8, 26 April 2021, Pages R359-R361

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Many Scythian burial sites contain elaborate art sculpted in gold, often displaying animals or warriors. This battle scene is part of a comb. (Photo: Levan Ramishvili/Flickr.)

PS (30.4.2021): I've now posted a review of the book Black Sea, which I read in preparation for this feature.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

a Jewish ancestor

I’m currently reading the excellent family history memoir “House of Glass” by Hadley Freeman, about her grandmother and her siblings - a Jewish family who fled pogroms in Poland in the early 1920s and settled in Paris, only to be confronted with antisemitism and persecution again, two decades later. This inspired me to dig up what little we know about my own very small fraction of known Jewish ancestry (1/128, i.e. one of my 5-times-great-grandparents), in the hope that maybe somebody out there knows more about this than I do.

So, what we know is that on the first of May, 1768, a Jewish man born in 1744 or 1745 was baptised in the Lutheran faith at the church of Idstein (dukedom of Nassau) and took the name of Karl-Henrich Weyland. Although we don’t know his birth name or family, all the details of the ceremony suggest that he came from a well-respected local family. At the time, there were only four Jewish families in the town, who are known by name because they had to register and apply for a Schutzbrief (SB). Note that they didn’t have heritable family names yet, so the paternal line is indicated by the son putting his father’s given name behind his own (not sure if daughters did the same, I've seen many referred to only by their given name). Among these four families, based on the age match, my father identified as the most likely parents for Karl-Henrich:

Jakob Isaak, Krämer in Idstein, SB um 1744, + 1776
Libbet oo um 1744, + 1804 in Idstein.

Jakob’s parents are also recorded in Idstein:
Isaak Lazarus, seit 1731 (SB) Viehhändler in Idstein, * Usingen + 1761 Idstein.
Bele + 1761 Idstein

And Isaak’s father Lazarus came from the nearby town of Usingen

Many of the other Jewish residents of 18th century Idstein appear listed here but don't fit our age requirement.

Both the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery of Idstein are of more recent date. Jakob and his family would have been buried at the nearby village of Esch, where no gravestones survive.

And at this point we’re stuck, although getting stuck in the late 17th century isn’t so bad, as only very little information survived the 30 years war (1618-48), so we’re already quite close to that event horizon.

Idstein - Merian (Wikipedia)

The mystery that puzzles me even more though is: Did the five daughters of the station master (including my great-grandmother, see the Kauer clan) really not know that they had a Jewish-born great-great-grandfather? My father, who knew three of the five sisters really well (his grandmother plus two sisters who remained unmarried and close to his parents and grandparents) insisted they didn’t know.

But I have my doubts. They knew a lot of things about other ancestors in the same generation as Karl-Henrich Weyland. Just next to him in my ancestry list is Maria Magdalena Hebel, and they knew that she was a first cousin of the writer Johann Peter Hebel. I am increasingly inclined to think that they knew that very well, and that it became a buried secret after 1933, and was never mentioned again. Chances are that there are other cases of Jewish ancestry as well which were very hastily swept under the rug.

Conversely, if you take it as given that people in Nazi Germany swiftly forgot their Jewish ancestors, how many more could I have that were similarly forgotten? Karl Henrich Weyland is perfectly placed to be forgotten about (without the need to falsify records), as he’s just outside the depth to which Nazi authorities asked people to prove their non-Jewish genealogy. So his generation is essentially where Jewish “dark matter” begins.

In his generation, I have four other ancestors who are known by name but seemed to come out of nowhere, just like he did before my father found his adult baptism record. These are Franz Josef Kaiser (an Austrian infantry officer who had a daughter born in Grötzingen, near Karlsruhe, in 1794), and then three ancestors of the Düsselmann family at Krefeld, namely Henrich Düsselmann, Anna Elisabeth Siepmann, and Christophel Wilsberg. These I should perhaps investigate. And then there are 52 people missing completely, so I have no handle to grab them by. Depending on how often conversion happened in the 18th century, I could conceivably have more than 1/128 Jewish ancestry – although I suppose in the Christian population, the converts were a small fraction, so I wouldn’t expect to have more than one or two other examples in my family tree.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Tinbergen connections

Cello teacher Janet Tinbergen, who taught our young musician for more than 10 years, has passed away in December 2020, aged 75. I wrote an obituary for the amazing “Other Lives” series in the Guardian, which you can read here. A separate appreciation by the Oxford Music Festival, where she served for decades, is here.

I was wondering whether to explore some of the local connections in a longer obituary or feature for a local paper, but it looks like the Oxford Times and Mail don’t do obits any more, and they didn’t respond when I tried to contact them, so I’ll just drop a few notes here.

Janet inherited the family trait which her father’s biographer, Hans Kruuk, described as “pathological modesty.” So she went as far as admitting that her father was a scientist, but would never have mentioned that he was anything special. In fact, Niko Tinbergen, a pioneer of behavioural biology, won a Nobel prize, as did her uncle, Jan Tinbergen for economics. (I believe the two are still the only pair of siblings among Nobel laureates.) When I got to know her through sitting in and taking notes on my daughter’s cello lessons, I figured out the connection and read the biography (review here). Over the following years, I always enjoyed the stark contrast between her perspective as a daughter, typical quote: “he and his bloody birds”, and the knowledge that she was talking about one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

To me, a key indicator of his greatness was that he devised experiments that were so simple you could get a bunch of primary school children to replicate them, but they still did answer important biological questions. So it struck me as almost tragic that he hadn’t been able to communicate the beauty of his achievements to all of his family. However, where scientific (eg mathematical or anatomical) information was helpful for improving cello technique, she did not shy away from using it, sometimes prefaced by: “As the daughter of a scientist, you will understand …”

Niko’s disciples at Oxford included the globally famous science communicators Richard Dawkins and Desmond Morris. The latter did come up in conversation at times. Intriguingly, Janet was aware of Morris’s work as an artist late in life, although she described herself as blind to visual arts.

The Oxford ecologist David Lack was reportedly the person who invited Niko to visit Oxford and consider moving here, which he did in 1949. This I only found out when researching Janet’s obituary. For a decade, I played wrong notes in the Festival’s family class also attended by the Lack family (one generation later), and I didn’t know about their Tinbergen connection.

Oxford University named the massive 1960s brutalist building housing the Zoology and Psychology departments after Niko Tinbergen (opened in 1971). In 2017, it was diagnosed with an incurable asbestos problem and cleared for demolition (although I wasn’t quite sure how it can be safe to demolish if it can’t be made safe to use - maybe the university just wanted another world-beating new building and welcomed the excuse). The last walls of the building disappeared around the same time as Janet died, ending seven decades of Tinbergen presence in Oxford. Although, of course, quite a few cellists around here will remember Janet's creative technique vocabulary, from rigmarole to flapping chickens, for many years to come.

Reflections on the Tinbergen legacy ...
(own photo, taken Dec 2018, when the mirrors were set up to secure the gates of the demolition site)

Update 16.6.2022: The house where the Tinbergens lived for decades now has a blue plaque, see my photos on flickr.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

finally, the Kauer clan

last update: 15.1.2023

My grandmother Ruth had four grandparents like everybody else, but only 3 pairs of great-grandparents, as her grandmothers were sisters. Each of the three pairs had numerous great-grandchildren, and my grandmother was remarkably well-informed about her extended family, so I have quite a lot of info about these 19th and early 20th century people. Although the three founder couples lived their whole lives in very modest circumstances in their respective provincial towns (one in Krefeld and the other two in Simmmern) many of the children and grandchildren used the opportunities of the Gründerzeit for geographic and social mobility.

I made blogposts about two of these clans, namely the Düsselmann family from Krefeld, and the Imig family from Simmern back in 2009, but never got round to the third clan. So here, finally, comes the Kauer family, also from Simmern. As before, details left in German are generally from my grandmother (or from the notes of her aunt Johanna), any info I have added or confirmed independently from my own research will be in English:

Mathias Kauer * 21. 6.1813 Simmern + 2. 4.1885 Simmern, a shoemaker at Simmern.

} oo 13. 9.1844 Simmern unter Dhaun (NB different place from the town of Simmern)

Katharina Sophia Weis * 25. 3.1815 Raversbeuren + 8. 1.1862 Simmern

Mathias Kauer (1813-1885) - one of the earliest family photos we have.

Note on Mathias Kauer's ancestry: His maternal grandfather Karl Henrich Weyland (1745-1796) from Idstein (Taunus) was Jewish and converted to protestantism to marry Katharine Margarethe Schmidt (1749-1792) - see the new blog entry on this story. We don't know whether the subsequent generations knew this. My father was adamant his grandmother Helene didn't, but I tend to think that naming her daughters Ruth and Esther was a hint that she did. Obviously, in the Nazi era you would have buried that little detail deep and not mention it to your grandchildren. Compare and contrast: Mathias's paternal grandmother, Maria Magdalena Hebel, was a first cousin of the writer Johann Peter Hebel. And that detail, although just as remote as our drop of Jewish ancestry, was known and remembered by everybody.

Note on Katharina Sophia Weis - her lineage is described here based on a family history written by her brother Christian Gottlieb Weiß in 1891. Her sister Maria Margaretha Weiß (1809-1885) married into the village inn at Hahnenbach which is shown here.

Note also that, in contrast to the other two clans, the names Kauer and Weiss are widespread and very little help with genealogy (but see also the PS at the bottom re. Kauer).

The couple had 8 children and 18 grandchildren:

1. Christoph Gottlieb (1845-1909) - the station master of Adamsweiler
oo Margarete Imig (1847-1930)
1.1. Christoph Gottlieb Matthias *12.10.1875, + 11.11.1875
1.2. Johanna Sofia * 9.11.1876 Mühlhausen, + 26.11.1953 Hahnenbach
1.3. Auguste (1879-28.9.1952) oo (1900) Wilhelm Fuchs (1872-1963) Postinspektor Münster a.St.
1.3.1. Helene (1901-1965) oo Karl Betz (Witwer; Kinder Hella und Karl-Heinz aus erster Ehe)
1.3.2. Natalie “Nelly” (1906-1984) oo (1931) Christian Paust Dieter Paust
1.4. Anna Katharina (22.12.1880-16.4.1965 Heidelberg Handschuhsheim)
oo Heinrich Thiebold (12.4.1877-24.8.1948), Oberlehrer in Brebach (Saar)
1.4.1. Erwin * 1902, an Krupp gestorben
1.4.2. Martha (1907- nach 1983)
oo Willi Helmer, Saarbrücken + 1986 Dieter + late 1960s Ingeborg oo Wittig Annemarie oo Meiser * 7.1.1940 + 9.3.2022 Saarbrücken
1.4.3. Robert * 1910
oo Aenne Schmidt
oo Friedel
1.4.4. Hertha * 1917 Güdingen + 2005;
oo August Rudolf Bladt, Lehrer o/o 1944 Lothar Bladt * 1944 Eberbach (Baden) + 2022 Berlin Astrid
1.5. Louise Regina gen. Kätha (1883-1960)
1.6. Helene oo Julius Düsselmann
1.6.1. Ruth (1908-1993)
1.6.2. Werner (1911-1941)
1.6.3. Esther (1918-1983)
1.7. Karl (1888-1891) an den Masern gestorben (died of measles)

2. Karl (1846-1910) Postmeister in Herdecke oo Susanne Auler
2.1. Karl (ca. 1877-1904)
2.2. Gustav

3. Wilhelmina * 25.11.1847 Simmern + 23.3.1850 Simmern

4. Friedrich (1849-1921), Direktor der Taubstummenanstalt Wriezen
oo Auguste Kaufmann aus Marienburg a.d. Nogat (heute Polen)
4.1. Hedwig
oo Morgenstern, Arzt in Wriezen (We think he was Jewish and may have died in the Holocaust, but we don't know for sure.)

5. Katharina Sophia (*12.9.1851 Simmern + 24.12.1880 an Scharlach/Diphtherie oder bei Geburt von 1.?) oo 1879 Friedrich Schmitt (1844-1912), von Beruf Schmied, Simmern Hundsgasse
5.1. August (1880-1921) Lehrer zuletzt in Wiesbaden, + an TB, ledig

6. Maria Magdalena (1854-1934)
oo 19.4.1879 Gustav Auler (-1906), Färber, Auler-Haus am Simmerbach,
+ an Folgen einer Kriegsverletzung von 1870
6.1. Luise ( -1925) oo Heinrich Faller
1 Sohn
6.2. Sophie oo Leonhard
1 Sohn, * 1916, + Norwegen [laut Ruth]
1 Tochter [laut Johanna]

7. Johanetta Augustina (1855-1931)
oo Heinrich Martin (-1902), Schneidermeister, wohnten im Kauer-Haus in Simmern
7.1. Henriette gen. Jettchen (-1948), ledig
7.2. Johanna (-1960) oo Albert Klugt, Lokomotivführer, Simmern
7.2.1. Ruth
7.2.2. Albert
7.3. Lina oo Karl Kehrein (-1942), Bäcker in Kirn
7.3.1. Heinz (-1944) oo Else Elke Rainer
7.4. Helene (1891-) oo Schmidt, Textilgeschäft in Idstein
7.5. Sophie, oo Gottfried Goldbeck, Juwelier in Wiesbaden 1. Gottfried (Friedel) + bei Stalingrad

8. Christina * 1.6.1858 Simmern + 8.12.1858 Simmern

PS (22.5.2021): The name line Kauer leads back to the village of Nickweiler, a couple of km west of Simmern, and today part of Nannhausen, where evidence fades in the early 17th century. I looked up that location yesterday as I knew nothing about it, and was shocked to discover there is a Kauerhof and a Kauermühle there, so a farm and a mill in the name of the Kauers. More shockingly still, the Kauerhof was mentioned in the documents for the foundation of the abbey Ravengiersburg in 1074. Obviously, that doesn't prove ancestry, and it is likely that people coming in from elsewhere will have adopted the name of the farm, which was more fixed than any family names. But still, seeing a relevant name on a document from 1074 sets a new record. Will have to dig some more in that direction. Most of the Kauer entries you find in genealogy databases come from geographically clearly separate areas, including Switzerland, and several eastern areas including eastern Prussia, Silesia, and Bohemia. So it appears that, for the Hunsrück area, despite of what I said above, the name Kauer is in fact a useful one that can be tied to a single origin. (Note though that the sculptor Emil Cauer (1800-1867) came to Kreuznach from eastern Germany, so his whole dynasty is unrelated to our Kauers.)

New tag: all family history entries related to this clan are now tagged Kauer.

Update 15.1.2023. Added a few dates and names under 1.4. Anna Kauer, as two of her grandchildren died in 2022.

Monday, April 12, 2021

coffee time

A little light relief for plague year two - there is a lot of research on the effects of caffeine, simply because it's easy to round up a bunch of students, give them caffeine or placebo, and let them do some tasks. However, we're still surprisingly uncertain about the real life effects of coffee consumption on heart, brain and everything else. As the people championing the legalisation of drugs like to point out, coffee is much more powerful than things like cannabis or ecstasy, so if coffee were to be invented today, it would risk being banned straightaway. (Some authorities did try banning it in the past and failed.)

So what do we know and what remains to be uncovered? In my feature I've rolled out a bit of the cultural history and discussed some of the questions being investigated right now. Bottom line, while we're still unsure about many things, the health advice has become more encouraging in recent years. Moderate consumption of coffee probably isn't going to be detrimental to your health.

The feature is out now:

What coffee does to body and mind

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 7, 12 April 2021, Pages R311-R313

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Roasting beans is a crucial step in producing the complex mixture of flavours found in coffee. (Photo: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay.)

Oh, and I was very glad to discover in the course of my research for this Bach's coffee cantata. Here's the video that inspired the introductory paragraph of the feature:

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich

I'm sharing some vintage photos in a new flickr album of family history with social context, i.e. no portraits, but people engaging in activities or posing outside their work place, this kind of thing. To provide some more supporting information than I would put on flickr, I've started a new series here, which is called "Every picture tells a story". I've retrospectively tagged the recent blog entries about Heinrich's string quartet and about the station master of Adamsweiler to become the first parts of the series. (Part of the inspiration is the ongoing series of picture stories in Der Spiegel, called Familienalbum, where I submitted the string quartet photo but failed to get it published.)

Now to a village inn that was run by a cousin of that Adamsweiler station master in the 19th century. The connection goes via the Weiss family which is extremely well documented thanks to a write-up from the 1890s which luckily survives in a transcript. So, essentially, our station master's mother was Sophie Weiss, and her sister Maria Margaretha married an innkeeper called Johann Peter Schmidt in Hahnenbach, and his daughter married Ferdinand Weirich, whose name appears on the sign here:

This postcard was sent on 17.8.1904, it carries the signatures of the inn keeper family as well as the station master family who had come over from Adamsweiler to visit (maybe 200 km away). This was part of a legendary journey to the home land to find husbands for the youngest of the five daughters, Helene and Kätha who signed the card.

Ferdinand Weirich's daughter Lina married Christian Giloy, and they kept the business going. In the more recent picture below the signage refers to her as the widow of Chr. Giloy, but I'm not sure when he died. The picture could be from the 1930s I guess, which is also when the oldest daughter of the station master, who had remained unmarried, acquired a piece of land from her cousins and built a house on it to retire there.

(Loving all the bicycles in this photo, today I wouldn't dare to cycle there, the roads are murderous.)

Some dates for the four relevant generations - quite incomplete, which is why I'm struggling to date the second photo:

Maria Margaretha Weiß (1809-1885) oo 1842 Johann Peter Schmidt aus Hahnenbach

Wilhelmine Caroline Schmidt (*1848) oo Ferdinand Weirich

Carolina Weirich (1871-1951) = die alte Lina oo Christian Giloy

Ferdinand Giloy (1895-1979) oo “junge Lina”

The place was still in the same family in my childhood, but I'm not sure who owns it now. It's been known as "Hahnebach Stubb" in recent incarnations.

Updated 11.6.2021 - I rediscovered the date of the first postcard, it was mentioned in a text I had written 7 years ago. Further postcards from that travel exist, will have to find them the next time I'm in situ.

Update 13.3.2022 - Visiting the village in February 2022, I took a few photos of the present state of the building. I hear it's been closed for the last five years.

Also, I hadn't realised before that the current annex (on the right) is in a different place to the side building in the early 20th century. Maybe the earlier one was just a wooden barn.

See also my twitter thread as an illustrated TOC of the series.

Friday, April 09, 2021

a short-lived city

#lostcities bonus episode: Hamborn

When I was rounding up 10 cities which my ancestors inhabited between 1900 and 1970, it struck me that my in-laws were attached to one city during that time, but with a duration of stay that is unrivalled on my side. A young couple arrived in the industrial city of Hamborn (now part of Duisburg) from rural East Prussia in October 1922. She registered at the new residence on the 13th, he started work at the coal mine Gewerkschaft Friedrich Thyssen, Schacht 1/6 on the 23rd (and yes, I have the documents for both these dates). They married five months later and stayed at Hamborn the rest of their lives, which in her case meant more than 56 years. The last of their children died there in 2015, so that makes 92 years of family presence.

That’s real commitment to a place. The lifetime of Hamborn as a city was much shorter, however. After a decade of dramatic population growth, the village, which had only started to run a market in 1898, became a city in 1911. In 1929, its 132,000 inhabitants lost the fight against the all powerful neighbour and became part of Duisburg, initially as a conglomerate called Duisburg-Hamborn, but from 1935 simply as one of many districts of the city of Duisburg. Although many never accepted that state of things. Postcards were still printed with the line “Industriestadt Hamborn” (the example below dates from 1961, would you believe). Another city lost to the efficiency drive, like Rheydt on the other side of the river Rhine.

I borrowed the photo from the usual source, but we do in fact own a specimen of this postcard, and around 20 more. I've visited the attractions in the two frames at the top, but need to go back to see the old town hall and water tower in the one at the bottom left.

Update 25.6.2021: Der Spiegel reports that 20 railway lines are set to be revived, including (number 11 in the list) the one from Oberhausen to Wesel that serves the station at Hamborn. (The main line goes via Sterkrade and passes to the east of Hamborn).

#lostcities series:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  5. Rheydt 1923 - 1935
  6. Königsberg 1935 - 1945
  7. Aachen 1936 - 1940
  8. Idar-Oberstein 1940 - 1962
  9. Bad Nauheim 1945 - 1972
  10. Würzburg 1961 - 1968

See also the twitter thread for this series.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

flattening the Earth

Some thoughts on

Mercator: The man who mapped the planet
Nicholas Crane
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2002 / Phoenix paperback 2003

The Mercator projection is everywhere these days, although some of us are aware that it is problematic because it inflates the size of countries further away from the equator, thus creating the wrong impression that South America is no bigger than Greenland, and Africa smaller than North America. Alternatives are available but rarely used.

The reason is, of course, Google maps. The Mercator projection is mathematically the simplest way of straightening a globe to make a flat map. You just use the longitude and latitude lines as an orthogonal coordinate system, as your x and y axes. So once you know coordinates of places, it is computationally extremely simple to create a flat map. Nothing wrong with that when you do that for a city map or even a small country, but when people use Mercator to (mis)represent the globe, as Royal Mail does, I come out in a rash.

Reading the biography of the man behind the projection, I learned that mathematical simplicity wasn’t his motivation. He had happily drawn heart-shaped maps of the world before, and he had produced much-coveted globes. The problem he set out to solve was based on the fact that sailors in his time navigated by compass bearing, i.e. the angle between their direction of travel and the measured direction of magnetic north. The simplest way to navigate would be to keep this bearing constant throughout. However, this isn’t the shortest route on a globe, and on most maps it isn’t a straight line. So, to Mercator, the attraction of the orthogonal projection was that the longitude lines will always be straight and vertical, so a route following compass bearing will always be at the same angle to them and thus also be a straight line. Simples.

Born in 1512 as Gerard Kremer, the son of a cobbler latinised his name in line with humanist contemporaries such as Erasmus. His life of just over 80 years neatly falls into two halves, split by a near death experience courtesy of the Spanish Inquisition, after which he decided the Spanish Netherlands weren’t safe for him and settled in the small town of Duisburg on the other side of the river Rhine. Having grown up not too far from that place, which in the 20th century became a major centre of heavy industry complete with Europe’s largest inland harbour, I found it cute to read about the peace and quiet Mercator found in the town, where he completed most of the work that he is remembered for, including the first maps using his famous projection and the book of maps that gave us the word “atlas”.

His move was linked to plans to launch a university at Duisburg, which then fell through. The town later did get a university, which was founded in 1655 but dissolved in 1815. The modern university was set up in 1972 as a Gesamthochschule. In 1994 it was named Gerhard-Mercator-Universität, but in 2003 Mercator lost this honour again, as his university merged with the University of Essen.

Another irony is that, while Mercator mapped all of the known world, and even some speculative geographies that turned out to be fictional, such as a ring of islands surrounding the North Pole, he never left the boundaries of a map of the Rhineland area shown at the front of the book, which covers around 400 km by 600 km. (It amused me that this map prefacing a book about a map maker shows Cologne on the wrong side of the river Rhine. As Colonia is a Roman foundation, it’s not hard to remember that it belongs on the left bank.)

Crane published the biography in 2002, before Google maps started flooding the world with Mercator projections, but I was still a bit disappointed that the epilogue doesn’t even mention the perception problems it creates and the alternative projections that others have produced to create a fairer representation of the planet. The biography is available as an e-book but the paper version seems to have gone out of print, unfortunately. Mercator's 500th birthday in 2012 would have been an opportunity for a new edition both to celebrate his work and re-assess it in the brave new world of Google maps.

PS: I just discovered his descendants are on GedBas. No obvious connection to my family history, but good to know.