Friday, October 9, 2009

Phyllis Pearsall and the London A to Z Street Atlas. Connections with the TomTom Navigation Device and Technical Drawings

Unable to find the address of a party she was going to, in a 1919 Ordnance Survey Map, Phyllis Pearsall (1901 – 1996) decided to devise a more efficient way of helping herself and others to navigate the labyrinthine London streets. Working from her bedsit or studio on Horseferry Road near Victoria Station, before satellite imaging or extensive aerial photography, she set off early each morning to walk and catalogue the streets of the city. As London was so big, rather than produce a cumbersome map, which would be very hard to read as each street, bridge or building would be so small in scale, Pearsall decided to divide it into different sections, each of which would be coded in an index. She
walked a total of 3,000 miles while mapping London’s 23,000 streets. Completed in 1936 she met almost universal apathy from the book buying establishment and so formed the Geographer's A-Z Map Company and arranged to have 10,000 copies printed - completing all the proof-reading and design work herself.
Yet Pearsall never saw herself as a designer, but as an artist and travel writer who happened to have invented a successful design concept by chance. She rarely thought of the Atlas as anything other than a means to allow her to pursue a life of painting and writing.

Influences and Early Twentieth Century England
Early twentieth century saw the gradual establishment of a modern constitutional monarchy and was a time of great economic and industrial growth. “Faster” and “sooner” were the buzz words of the time. Everything was on the fast road to a new century until the Great War. For cartographers, there was opportunity in this chaos. Everybody wanted maps to stick little pins and flags to mark the battle lines, defeats, and victories while refugees and travelers wanted routes and escapes.

The Map
The London A-Z is a geographical, urban, street map with severe scale reduction. The maps show only planimetric distance and its symbols are exaggerated in size to ensure visibility. There are generalizations in the map that reflect judgments about the relative importance of mapable features and details. So in a street map, information that relate to streets and directions are enhanced and others displaced.
A map often has a point of view – mostly the cartographer’s.
Pearsall’s A to Z street atlas and gazetteer reflected her deep and rigorous process instilled through her life experiences, of collecting information and constructing it effectively with the sole intent of making London city legible for everyday life. The map works in reality. It abandoned any semblance of coherent urban structure in favor of presenting a legible coded surface. The streets are manipulated by smoothening and simplification. A calculated selection of information like post offices, hospitals, police and spaces pertaining to street navigation. Similar to the contents of a book, the opening page shows how to access categorized information quickly. It has important information to guide the navigation of the atlas including Contents, Reference, Publisher information and a Disclaimer. There is a definite focus point (originating point) of the atlas. The city is divided into rectangular zones which are numbered and correspond to the page number for further details. It is handy unlike the foldout map, but lacks the celebratory depiction of erstwhile monarchies with all their power and glory. It seems classless, devoid of hierarchies and hardly any depiction of the physical terrain. It could well be the map to any other city.

Relating the London A-Z to the TomTom – Navigation System
About TomTom
GPS originated as a military technology as a system of satellites launched by the U.S. Department of Defense in the early 1970s, that offered precise ground locations for both defensive and offensive purposes. GPS has now become a ubiquitous consumer technology available in cars, watches, and PDAs. The TomTom, just like the A-Z, reads the map through grids and keys. The start menu has information about language, systems, and voice choices. The main difference being the real time in which the TomTom functions as opposed to the A-Z which would have to be updated as the city grows. You can also map the physical navigation of the A-Z to the digital of the TomTom through the very same language of icons and legends, zooming in digitally as against physically in the former. A big difference would be the customizability of the map although a lot of your freedom, anonymity, simplicity is lost through this technology, perhaps nudging a militarization of the people. It also points out to our obsession of control and of the desire to know our location at all times. Is this leading to a different kind of imperialism or colonialism?

Relating London A-Z Map to Technical Drawings
About Technical Drawings
Drawing to communicate technical ideas may predate the written language. The oldest drawing instruments known, a drawing board inscripted with a temple plan, date from the 3rd millennium BC from the city of Lagash in Babylon. The ancient Greeks influenced drawing through their work in geometry, and tools such as the compass and triangles used in engineering were then developed
It is a coded language that helps engineers and users communicate complex product details for manufacturing. Dimensions, tolerances, thickness, materials, cross sections are some of the terms used. Each page has a table with keys and legends identifying the parts and the materials. The grid is used in both the A-Z and the Technical drawings to identify the location of the detail on the page. Technical drawings have a universal language which allows for a standard and global code for production.
Just like the A-Z atlas, the TomTom and the Technical drawing is a representation of a physical reality. Like any other representation, there is a loss in the translation of the sensation of form, experience, and ergonomics. A product is appreciated in its context and its interaction with the user. It is an intangible representation of a material out of its context. There is a discrepancy in its visualization but the drawing translates the image into reality through its data.
Map is a tool for data visualization but is as much ingrained and intermingled with reality.

A-Z London Street Atlas (Street Maps & Atlases). Null: Geographers' A-Z Map Co Ltd, 2002.
Hartley, Sarah. Mrs.P's Journey. New York: Pocket Books, 2002.
Kaplan, Caren. "GPS & Militarization." Project Muse.

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