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Maps for the Masses: Geography in the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

It is almost a cliché to say, but today, in 2016, maps are everywhere. The barriers to geographic information have come down so that anyone with internet access or a smart phone can see maps of the world in incredible detail. But the wide availability of maps to people of all walks of life is a relatively new achievement in the history of cartography, as detailed maps of lands near and far were often only accessible to the educated or affluent elites. Over time, maps have become democratized, and in 19th century England, a major forerunner in expanding access to geographic information was the whimsically named Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

"Frontispiece for the Penny magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge" by C.J. Grant and G. Davies (lithography). 1832. Lewis Walpole Library, Digital Collection. Yale University.

“Frontispiece for the Penny magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge” by C.J. Grant and G. Davies (lithography). 1832. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) was founded in 1826 in London as a nonprofit publication house aimed at disseminating…well, useful knowledge, to the masses of English society in language and formats that were understandable to the layman. In a time when formal education and expensive scientific books were financially out of reach for many, the SDUK hoped to attract a wide readership with publications that were authoritative yet affordable. Among the organization’s most prominent publications was the Penny Magazine, a weekly magazine highlighting scientific topics in simple language for a general audience.

Shortly after the group’s founding, a Map Committee was formed to organize the development of maps and atlases. Led by Captain Francis Beaufort, the esteemed Hydrographer of the Navy and expert in nautical charting, the mapping project of the SDUK began producing atlases arranged by country and region. Despite the high quality of the maps in design and accuracy, the atlases required assembly on the part of the customer. Maps comprising parts of a single country were published in sporadic intervals over long periods of time, as they became available. Frustrated consumers would often have to wait years to receive all of the maps in a country series, in addition to a table of contents page that would instruct them on how to assemble the final atlas correctly. The long timelines for the completion of the map series were largely due to Beaufort’s uncompromising standards for accuracy and meticulous attention to detail.

One of the more surprising cartographic innovations of the SDUK mapping project was an early use of “volunteered geographic information,” or the harnessing of geographic data collected and disseminated freely by volunteers. As described in Mead T. Cain’s excellent history of the SDUK mapping initiative, Beaufort sent a letter to the Secretary of the Society in 1833 about using missionaries in the British colony of the Cape of Good Hope to relay geographic data back to SDUK in order to produce a map of South Africa:

My Dear Sir

In the Cape of Good Hope Almanac for this year I see some missionary stations mentioned in the outskirts of the Colony which are not to be found in the maps belonging to the Colonial Office. The parent societies have offices in London, and I do not see that there would be any impropriety in your asking them to lend us for a day, their maps or other documents by which we might correctly place their stations.

The activity of those zealous proselytizers is astonishing, there is no part of that extensive settlement to which they have not penetrated-and being always the forerunners, not only of settlers and colonists, but of military expeditions and commercial travelers, all our discoveries and all our recent geographical knowledge has been derived from them. I send you the addresses of the two principal societies-and I leave it up to you to act as you think prudent.

In addition to country maps, the SDUK produced detailed city maps, including a comprehensive map of the eastern half of Paris in 1833 (below).

Eastern Division of Paris

“Eastern division of Paris: containing the Quartiers” by James Shury, W.B. Clarke, Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (UK). 1833. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Many of the city maps included beautiful panoramic sketches of the city and scale-accurate diagrams of major landmarks drawn by architect W.B. Clarke. An 1832 map of Athens (which focuses mostly on the Acropolis and surrounding landmarks, like a tourist map) includes many of the features that make the SDUK city plan maps celebrated to this day.

Acropolis, Athens

Detail of Acropolis from “Athens” by William Martin Leake, C.R. Cockrell, W.B. Clarke, J. Henshall, Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. 1832. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

City Panorama

Detail of City Panorama from “Athens” by William Martin Leake, C.R. Cockrell, W.B. Clarke, J. Henshall, Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. 1832. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Building Sketches

Detail of Building Sketches from “Athens” by William Martin Leake, C.R. Cockrell, W.B. Clarke, J. Henshall, Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. 1832. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Despite the beauty of these city plan maps, many customers awaiting the completion of the country series maps were furious with them, claiming that they were pulling resources away from the completion of their atlases, years in the making. As one angry letter-writer wrote:

I am afraid it is superfluous to ask when the Series will be completed as I find that the Society in its zeal for the promotion of geography has most acutely discovered that this world contains cities as well as countries: therefore maps may be multiplied ad infinitum.

In 1837, Baldwin and Cradock, the publishing firm that provided the material resources and distribution activities of the SDUK mapping project, went bankrupt. The mapping initiative continued over the next few years under different publishing schemes, but the operation came to a close with the Society’s dissolution in 1848.

In the years after the SDUK’s closing and up to the present day, the maps produced by the Society are recognized as some of the most accurate and well-designed maps of the era. While the consumers of SDUK maps at the time were frustrated with the years-long process of completing the country atlases, today we can appreciate the cartographic perfectionism championed by Captain Francis Beaufort. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge certainly deserves recognition as innovators in the history of cartography.

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