Depicting the Landscape - Part 2

There are six sections in this feature spread across two parts:

Part one (accessible here):

  • Definitions
  • Section One: Early Topography
  • Section Two: Nautical Charts
  • Section Three: Describing the Landscape

Part two (this page):

  • Section Four: Modern Topographic Contours
  • Section Five: Alternatives to Topographic Contours
  • Section Six: Elevation Tinting

Bonus section: Legends


Clicking on any image will take you to a full-size, zoomable version of that map.

I suggest right-clicking and opening in a new tab or window.


Section Four: Modern Topographic Contours

"Contours - showing height above sea, horizontal form, and steepness of slope of the surface" - U.S. Geological Survey, 1897
"Contours - showing height above sea, horizontal form, and steepness of slope of the surface" - U.S. Geological Survey, 1897

Though not intended as a thorough, academically rigorous history of topographic mapping, a little bit of background on the history and creation of these maps is in order.

There are books, articles, and other sources that discuss this history in greater and more rigorous detail, some of which are in the references section at the bottom of this page.


Though elaborate tools and machines sometimes aided in their creation...

Multiplex stereoplotting instrument, U.S. Geological Survey, 1952. Public Domain - click image for source. See Reference 11 for more on these devices.
Multiplex stereoplotting instrument, U.S. Geological Survey, 1952. Public Domain - click image for source. See Reference 11 for more on these devices.

...mapmaking all the way through the late 20th century was done manually by skilled draftspeople and plotter operators.

U.S. Geological Survey, unknown date. Public Domain - click image for source.
U.S. Geological Survey, unknown date. Public Domain - click image for source.
U.S. Geological Survey - topographic party at planetable, Tallahatchie Drainage District, Mississippi. 1908. Public Domain - click image for source.
U.S. Geological Survey - topographic party at planetable, Tallahatchie Drainage District, Mississippi. 1908. Public Domain - click image for source.

Topographic information was collected in person by survey crews, who thoroughly (and tediously) measured the surface physically and with visual survey techniques.

Photography for mapping began in the 19th century, but its use was greatly expanded, and new techniques were developed, in response to the great demand for accurate mapping created by World War 1. Most subsequent maps in the 20th century were based primarily on aerial photography. (Read more on the development of these technologies in references 11, 12 and 13.)

Ground-based surveys continued, though, and continue to be useful in some circumstances despite the availability of satellite-derived and other high-tech elevation data.

In this 1875 geological map by the Geological Survey of Hokkaido, Japan, the survey points that the topographers took measurements from to derive the contours are shown, providing some insight into how the surveying was conducted. This map also features a very nice geological cross-section at the bottom.
In this 1875 geological map by the Geological Survey of Hokkaido, Japan, the survey points that the topographers took measurements from to derive the contours are shown, providing some insight into how the surveying was conducted. This map also features a very nice geological cross-section at the bottom.
(The above map contains the signature of J.C. Branner, Stanford's first faculty member and second president, whose personal collection was the origin of what is now the Branner Earth Sciences Library and map collection.)
(The above map contains the signature of J.C. Branner, Stanford's first faculty member and second president, whose personal collection was the origin of what is now the Branner Earth Sciences Library and map collection.)

Contour lines were first used to depict above-ground topography in the 18th century, but did not see widespread use until the late 19th century (see reference 1). There is evidence that soldiers in the British military resisted topographic contours, finding them confusing in comparison to the more evocative but less accurate methods commonly used, like hachures, that were more familiar to them (see reference 2).

Contour-line topographic surveys were already being conducted in the US prior to the creation of the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey), including this example from the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 of the Yellowstone region:

1871
1871
Stereo photograph of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone taken during the Hayden Survey of 1871 while surveying the region shown in the map image above. U.S. Geological Survey, Hayden Survey, 1871. Public Domain - click on image for source.
Stereo photograph of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone taken during the Hayden Survey of 1871 while surveying the region shown in the map image above. U.S. Geological Survey, Hayden Survey, 1871. Public Domain - click on image for source.

At its formation in 1879, the USGS consolidated the earlier survey expeditions and began its unified country-wide topographic mapping program. Except for added colors and changes in scale, the style has not substantially changed since its earliest editions:

U.S. Geological Survey, Yosemite Sheet (30 minute series), 1897 edition - surveyed 1893-4
U.S. Geological Survey, Yosemite Sheet (30 minute series), 1897 edition - surveyed 1893-4

As a point of comparison to the contour topographic map of the Yosemite valley above, consider this evocative and strikingly three-dimensional-looking 1872 hachure/hill-shaded version "from Surveys made by the Geological Survey of California":

A later USGS map of Yosemite, practically reaching the limit of what topographic contours can represent.
A later USGS map of Yosemite, practically reaching the limit of what topographic contours can represent.

Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States, enrolled at Stanford in its inaugural year of 1891 and ultimately studied geology under J.C. Branner. Hoover later amassed a fortune in the mining industry - some of which he used to create the Hoover War Library at Stanford, now the Hoover Institute. While still a student, in 1893, he worked with two other students to produce this topographical survey of part of the Stanford campus. It is well worth checking out the full map by clicking on the image to see where Hoover apparently used the back of the map to practice his signature.

As an interesting point of comparison when looking at these old maps, here is the first digitally produced topographic map, published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1982. It is the Birch Tree, Missouri 7.5 minute quadrangle:

"Compiled by digital-photogrammetric methods..."
"Compiled by digital-photogrammetric methods..."

Except for the different colors and the early computer typography, it looks remarkably similar to the earlier hand-drawn maps going back to the 19th century.

In the UK, the Great Britain Ordnance Survey (OS), in existence since the 18th century, created country-wide maps using hachures to depict topography starting in the early-mid 19th century. The OS introduced contour lines in its later editions of country-wide maps surveyed and published in the 1890s and early 1900s, but continued to simultaneously produce versions using hachures and hill shading through at least the first contoured edition - see reference 3.

Like the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Great Britain (UK) Ordnance Survey (OS) eventually settled on a design, typified by the 1961 example below, which became familiar to map users in the UK and continues to today. USGS maps do also contain annotations and descriptions, but OS maps are particularly fun to look at because of the many castles, ruins, antiquities and other indicators of human history marked on them.

Ordnance Survey - one inch to one mile map (seventh series)
Ordnance Survey - one inch to one mile map (seventh series)

For this brief history it has been convenient to look at US Geological Survey (USGS) maps, but the bulk of the "mundane" maps in Stanford digital collections are actually military maps, and only a small number of early US Geological Survey (USGS) and Great Britain (UK) Ordnance Survey (OS) maps have been digitized here. As you'll see, though standards and techniques evolved similarly, military mapping agencies had their own unique styles that are far less familiar to most than the common USGS and OS maps.

The following are examples of different interesting topographic styles and problems that mapmakers solved. And, some that just look nice or contain interesting topographical features!

The United States Army Map Service developed its own style, similar to but separate from the USGS style.
The United States Army Map Service developed its own style, similar to but separate from the USGS style.
Joint maps of the international boundary between United States and Canada : from the source of the St. Croix River to the Atlantic Ocean, USGS, 1934
Joint maps of the international boundary between United States and Canada : from the source of the St. Croix River to the Atlantic Ocean, USGS, 1934
Topographic map of the Grand Canyon National Monument, Arizona, USGS, 1944
Topographic map of the Grand Canyon National Monument, Arizona, USGS, 1944
China, 1962. Interesting river cutting through a canyon.
China, 1962. Interesting river cutting through a canyon.

Mapmakers have come up with some beautiful solutions for depicting ice and snow-capped mountains and glaciers alongside the regular topography:

Greenland, US Army Map Service, 1952
Greenland, US Army Map Service, 1952
Der mittlere Tunsbergdalsbre in Südnorwegen - German map showing glaciers in Norway, 1937
Der mittlere Tunsbergdalsbre in Südnorwegen - German map showing glaciers in Norway, 1937
Glaciers in Greenland, US Army Map Service, 1944
Glaciers in Greenland, US Army Map Service, 1944
Snow/Ice-capped peaks in Tibet; Chinese map
Snow/Ice-capped peaks in Tibet; Chinese map
Glaciers at Mt. Everest, 1934
Glaciers at Mt. Everest, 1934
Tibet; Chinese map
Tibet; Chinese map

Some interesting rivers and waterways as part of the topography:

An enjoyable thing to do with these maps is to find the location on a modern digital map such as Google Maps/Google Earth, and see how the satellite/aerial view compares to the old map. In this case, the shapes of the rivers seemed improbable - but not only is it reasonably accurate, there are nearby rivers outside the map area that are particularly spectacular. You can search for "49.3 N 134.5 E" in Google Maps - the coordinates taken from the upper left corner of the map.
An enjoyable thing to do with these maps is to find the location on a modern digital map such as Google Maps/Google Earth, and see how the satellite/aerial view compares to the old map. In this case, the shapes of the rivers seemed improbable - but not only is it reasonably accurate, there are nearby rivers outside the map area that are particularly spectacular. You can search for "49.3 N 134.5 E" in Google Maps - the coordinates taken from the upper left corner of the map.
Japanese map apparently copied from Russian original, with simple topography, 1923.
Japanese map apparently copied from Russian original, with simple topography, 1923.

There is no topography to speak of here - it's completely flat, full of canals. An interesting place to explore on Google Maps:

Nanxun, China, US Army Map Service, 1958.
Nanxun, China, US Army Map Service, 1958.
Langxi, China, nearby the previous map, US Army Map Service 1958. Showing a similar marshy, meandering river/canal landscape interacting with hilly topography.
Langxi, China, nearby the previous map, US Army Map Service 1958. Showing a similar marshy, meandering river/canal landscape interacting with hilly topography.
Sheer cliffs and waterfalls are difficult to represent in two dimensions and especially with contour lines. The mapmakers here invented their own way to evoke the spectacular Victoria Falls.
Sheer cliffs and waterfalls are difficult to represent in two dimensions and especially with contour lines. The mapmakers here invented their own way to evoke the spectacular Victoria Falls.

Surveying stopped at the border between Basutoland (now Lesotho) and South Africa.
Surveying stopped at the border between Basutoland (now Lesotho) and South Africa.
西伯利十万分一圖, 勘察加半島中部, and 勘察加半島南部 - Maps of Siberia, Central Kamchatka Peninsula, and Southern Kamchatka Peninsula, Russian/Japanese, 1923
西伯利十万分一圖, 勘察加半島中部, and 勘察加半島南部 - Maps of Siberia, Central Kamchatka Peninsula, and Southern Kamchatka Peninsula, Russian/Japanese, 1923
Mariana Islands 1:25,000, US Army Map Service, 1952
Mariana Islands 1:25,000, US Army Map Service, 1952
Philippine Islands 1:250,000, Iloilo City (and Guimaras Island) sheet, US Army Map Service, 1955
Philippine Islands 1:250,000, Iloilo City (and Guimaras Island) sheet, US Army Map Service, 1955
Basutoland : 1:50,000 (now Lesotho), Great Britain Directorate of Colonial Surveys, 1956
Basutoland : 1:50,000 (now Lesotho), Great Britain Directorate of Colonial Surveys, 1956
British Colonial Kenya, 1962
British Colonial Kenya, 1962
Part of the legend for the Kenya map series shown above. These evocative fantasy lands in legends showing every type of feature all in one place are the most interesting part of some maps!
Part of the legend for the Kenya map series shown above. These evocative fantasy lands in legends showing every type of feature all in one place are the most interesting part of some maps!

Calling back to the nautical charts in part 1, with advances in surveying technology it became possible to survey underwater topography (bathymetry) with the same level of detail as above-ground topography:

NOAA, 1990
NOAA, 1990

The above bathymetric map includes this 3D representation of the entire map area, which is a jarringly modern reminder - after looking at so many hand-drawn older maps that otherwise look similar - that mapping completely changed once computer-generated maps became possible.

Some of the 20th century map design aesthetics have carried forward, but many have now been lost to computerization.


Most of the maps in this section are at fairly large scale, and small details get lost. Here's one last example, this time of small-scale topographic mapping, with trees included, where you can really imagine yourself in the landscape of the map:

Filoli, 1915
Filoli, 1915

Section Five - Alternatives to topographic contours

Before the use of topographic contours became standard, a variety of artistic methods were used to depict landscapes (such as the early examples in part 1, section 1). It's worth looking at one of these techniques in brief detail, hachures, which are common in the nautical charts we've already seen and have been mentioned as a point of comparison throughout this exhibit.

Though hachures often just provide a general sense of a landscape, like the early maps in section 1, the surveying that went into hachure maps in many cases may have actually been quite sophisticated. Even so, on the page it lacks scientific accuracy and the usefulness of hachured topography in the field is often limited.

A happy fort on a hachured hill
A happy fort on a hachured hill
Territoire d'Alger - Algeria, 19th century
Territoire d'Alger - Algeria, 19th century
Aomen xiang tu : Macau, 1950s (tourist map)
Aomen xiang tu : Macau, 1950s (tourist map)

Though hachures are intuitive and relatively easy to understand, this map charmingly includes an example hachured mountain in its legend:

Taiwan, 1959
Taiwan, 1959

As shown in the previous section, accurate topographic mapping is a time-consuming and tedious process that requires a whole lot of accurate data. In some cases, a map may be needed for immediate use, but an accurate survey is infeasible.

In the era of accurate topographic contour maps, inclusion of contour lines implies scientific accuracy. If an accurate survey is not possible, military mapmakers in particular sometimes provide the best elevation information that they have using symbology that is distinct from normal topographic contours so that it is clear that the topography data can't be relied upon. In this first example, the mapmakers explained their decision not to provide contours:

"The hill features on this sheet have been sketched from the hill shading on the original French series. The information available was not sufficient for contours or form lines to be interpolated, and therefore the representation can only be interpreted as indicating shape of country."
"The hill features on this sheet have been sketched from the hill shading on the original French series. The information available was not sufficient for contours or form lines to be interpolated, and therefore the representation can only be interpreted as indicating shape of country."

That is likely what is normally implied by the use of similar symbology in other maps, such as these:

Philippine Islands 1:500,000, US Army Map Service, 1943
Philippine Islands 1:500,000, US Army Map Service, 1943
Portuguese East Africa, Great Britain War Office, 1905
Portuguese East Africa, Great Britain War Office, 1905
Fiji Islands (Viti Levu) 1:62,500, US Army Map Service, 1943
Fiji Islands (Viti Levu) 1:62,500, US Army Map Service, 1943

The design of the topographic expression provides a sense of how confident the mapmaker is in the elevation data.

In other cases, the elevation data is simply not of primary importance to the purpose of the map, but is still included:

Norway : Special strategic map, US Army Map Service, 1945. The focus of this map is the major roadways and railways connecting the cities and regions. The topography could almost be considered decorative.
Norway : Special strategic map, US Army Map Service, 1945. The focus of this map is the major roadways and railways connecting the cities and regions. The topography could almost be considered decorative.

Some more examples of relatively modern non-contour-line topographic expressions:

South West Africa (now Namibia), 1957
South West Africa (now Namibia), 1957
Carte de l'Indochine/佛領印度支那五十万分一圖, Japanese WW2 map reproduced from earlier French map, Bangkok sheet
Carte de l'Indochine/佛領印度支那五十万分一圖, Japanese WW2 map reproduced from earlier French map, Bangkok sheet
Asia 1:1,500,000 - Russia, Seymchan sheet, US Army Map Service, 1943
Asia 1:1,500,000 - Russia, Seymchan sheet, US Army Map Service, 1943
Asia 1:1,500,000, Korla, China sheet, US Army Map Service, 1943
Asia 1:1,500,000, Korla, China sheet, US Army Map Service, 1943

Sometimes, contours simply can't express the landscape very well. This map does use topographic contours, but contains other kinds of topographic expression as well, such as this artistic representation of shifting sand dunes that provide a sense of the wind patterns through the area.

Deutsche Heereskarte Algerien und Tunesien 1:200,000, 1943
Deutsche Heereskarte Algerien und Tunesien 1:200,000, 1943
More shifting topography. An Nafud (or The Nefud) Desert, Saudi Arabia. Made famous in the English-speaking world by Lawrence of Arabia,  though in reality his forces did not cross the desert as depicted in the film.
More shifting topography. An Nafud (or The Nefud) Desert, Saudi Arabia. Made famous in the English-speaking world by Lawrence of Arabia, though in reality his forces did not cross the desert as depicted in the film.
This map of a portion of the Suez Canal features this expressionistic representation of featureless shifting sand dunes - and what looks like the Sarlacc Pit from Return of the Jedi.
This map of a portion of the Suez Canal features this expressionistic representation of featureless shifting sand dunes - and what looks like the Sarlacc Pit from Return of the Jedi.

Often, a map is simply not intended for critical use, merely a visual reference. A popular example are the maps issued with National Geographic magazine.

Another example is this remarkable series of maps depicting National Parks, issued by the US Geological Survey in the mid 1910s (see more here and here). These kinds of art maps are not the focus of this feature, but their depiction of topography is so attractive that inclusion of one felt warranted.

Section Six - Elevation tinting

SRTM Data Release for Africa, Colored Height. NASA, public domain - click image for source.
SRTM Data Release for Africa, Colored Height. NASA, public domain - click image for source.

Elevation tinting/coloring (also known as hypsometric tinting - hypsometry is the term for "measurement of land elevation") provides an easy visual reference for relative heights across a mapped area. This can have a significant advantage over standard contour lines, where elevations are labeled with small text, making comparison difficult.Tinting also creates an evocative, easy to understand image while retaining scientific accuracy, unlike hachures and other forms of topographic expression. For some applications, elevation tinting is the best of both worlds. However, elevation tinting does preclude using colors to represent any other type of data on the map, and so can't always be used. It is also less useful for field use, e.g. in orienteering navigation or geologic mapping.This type of topographic representation is relatively common today as it is easily created from digital elevation data, such as that collected by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) shown here. The principles of tinting long predate modern technology, though, as well as hachures and contour lines - they may have actually been invented by Leonardo da Vinci around 1502 (Royal Collection Trust, inventory number 912277).

Here are a few examples of pre-digital elevation-tinted maps.

Indochine Française (French Indochina, including Vietnam), 1939
Indochine Française (French Indochina, including Vietnam), 1939
French North Africa 1:500,000, WW2
French North Africa 1:500,000, WW2
Service géographique du Maroc - Morocco, 1921
Service géographique du Maroc - Morocco, 1921
Touloise, France - Great Britain Directorate of Military Survey., Great Britain Ordnance Survey, 1968
Touloise, France - Great Britain Directorate of Military Survey., Great Britain Ordnance Survey, 1968
Xinjiang Province, China, US Army Map Service, 1949
Xinjiang Province, China, US Army Map Service, 1949
Tint elevation key from map above.
Tint elevation key from map above.
Both above-ground topography and water depth (bathymetry) are tinted in this ~1919 map of Gallipoli (key below)
Both above-ground topography and water depth (bathymetry) are tinted in this ~1919 map of Gallipoli (key below)
Key from above map
Key from above map

In conclusion...

We've only briefly touched on geological maps, which really deserve their own entire feature, so I'll conclude with this pleasing example of a geologic map overlaid on beautifully drawn topographic contours, which could pass as a work of modern art:

Though I did say at the start that these are "mundane" maps, I hope that you found them illuminating.

This is only scratching the surface of the digitized map collections at Stanford, and is by design not representative of the maps that might normally be considered most interesting - and almost certainly isn't even the best possible sampling of the "mundane" maps.

For this feature I drew primarily on the thousands of maps that I personally have played some part in digitizing, but there are over 100,000 digitized maps in the Stanford Digital Repository, and I simply have not seen most of them.

I invite you to explore our map collection further on your own. Most everything is publicly accessible. Try this SearchWorks search as a starting point, or this EarthWorks search of georeferenced scanned maps which you can browse using a digital map.

Enjoy your exploration!


Chris Hacker

Digitization Lab Assistant, Digital Production Group, Stanford University Libraries.

For me, maps create a spark of adventure and possibility in the imagination like few other things do. At around 11 or 12 years old, I participated in a topographical survey of the island the summer camp I attended is situated on, and enjoyed map and compass orienteering before the days of handheld GPS. Later, I studied geology as an undergrad and then a graduate student, where I became immersed in the world of scientific maps.

All along, though, my interests skewed towards human history as much as, or more than, the billions of years of Earth's geologic history. Having the opportunity for the past several years to work on digitizing thousands of old maps, such as most of those I featured here, has been a real pleasure. I only wish that I had put more thought into organizing the lists of interesting maps that I've come across.


Special thanks to Olivia Diaz - age 12 and an ever-curious rockhound - for valuable assistance organizing this project, and for reviewing the text and providing useful suggestions.

Thanks also to Andria Olson, for inviting me to join this Spotlight exhibit and for reviewing and suggesting useful improvements and corrections.



References and further reading

Reference 1: Rann, K., and R. S. Johnson. “Chasing the Line: Hutton’s Contribution to the Invention of Contours.” Journal of Maps, vol. 15, no. 3, 2019, pp. 48–56., doi:10.1080/17445647.2019.1582439. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17445647.2019.1582439.

Reference 2: Rann, Karen. “The Appearance of Contour Lines.” The Great Lines, 9 Aug. 2020, https://thegreatlinesproject.wordpress.com/2020/08/09/the-appearance-of-contour-lines/.

Karen Rann, author of the above two references, is an artist, currently pursuing a PhD studying the invention of contour line topographic mapping, among other things. Their blog, The Great Lines Project, is a wonderful, fascinating, rigorously researched and referenced source of information on the history of topographic maps and related topics.

Reference 3: Ordnance Survey Maps, One-Inch Revised New Series, England and Wales, 1892-1908, National Library of Scotland, https://maps.nls.uk/os/one-inch-rev-new-series/.

Reference 4: South Pacific Sandy Island 'Proven Not to Exist', 22 Nov. 2012, https://blog.geogarage.com/2012/11/south-pacific-sandy-island-proven-not.html.

Reference 5: Imhof, Eduard, and Harry Steward. Cartographic Relief Presentation. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1982. Print. https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/3954975.

Reference 6: “Library & Archives History.” Hoover Institution, https://www.hoover.org/library-archives/about/history.

An inspiration for this exhibit more than a reference, I highly recommend this article on geological illustrations:

Reference 7: Merriam, D. F. “A Lost Art: Geological Illustrations.” GSA Today, vol. 19, no. 11, pp. 30–34., doi:10.1130/GSATG62A.1. Accessed 13 Aug. 2020. PDF available at https://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/19/11/.

Reference 8: “Images Taken by the (SRTM) Mission.” NASA, https://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/(SRTM).

Reference 9: da Vinci, Leonardo. “The Rivers and Mountains of Central Italy C.1502-4.” Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 912277, www.rct.uk/collection/search#/1/collection/912277/the-rivers-and-mountains-of-central-italy.

The following is a nice overview history of topographic mapping at USGS, written by USGS geographers:

Reference 10: Usery, E. Lynn, et al. “125 Years of Topographic Mapping: USGS History, Part 1: 1884–1980.” ArcNews Online, Fall 2009 Issue, www.esri.com/news/arcnews/fall09articles/125-years.html.

Reference 10: Usery, E. Lynn, et al. “125 Years of Topographic Mapping: USGS History, Part 2: From the Dawn of Digital to The National Map Part 2.” ArcNews Online, Winter 2009/2010 Issue, https://www.esri.com/news/arcnews/winter0910articles/125-years.html.

Reference 11: Thompson, M. “Development of Photogrammetry in the U.S. Geological Survey.” Geological Survey Circular 218, 1958. PDF available: https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/0218_1958/report.pdf

This is not publicly accessible without Stanford or other academic credentials, but is thorough and interesting:

Reference 12: Collier, Peter. The Impact on Topographic Mapping of Developments in Land and Air Survey: 1900-1939, Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 29:3, 155-174, 2002. DOI: 10.1559/152304002782008440 https://doi.org/10.1559/152304002782008440

This is publicly accessible and summarizes some of the key points from reference 12, as well as providing some other interesting history:

Reference 13: Burtch, Robert. “History of Photogrammetry”, 2008. https://ibis.geog.ubc.ca/courses/geob373/lectures/Handouts/HistoryofPhotogrammetry.pdf

Public domain resources from USGS and NASA used in this exhibit link directly to their sources from the images.