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Portrait of John P. Snyder, December 1966. John Parr Snyder Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

From Childhood Fancy to Space Age Discovery

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This is a guest post by Geography and Map Division summer intern, Wayne Hastings, who worked on processing and housing the John Parr Snyder Collection.

Imagine this. During the summer of 1972, the United States was in the midst of one of the most wildly impressive eras of technological and scientific development – the Space Age. After successfully landing the first human on the Moon, NASA and the United States Geological Survey were then on the verge of another era-defining achievement. Landsat, then referred to as the Earth Resources Technology Satellites Program, promised to innovate how we record the Earth’s surface with satellite data. One of the largest obstacles to sustaining Space Age momentum was contingent upon the development of equations, creating a puzzle that no one within NASA and USGS could solve… so John P. Snyder, an amateur cartographer, solved it for them.

Before Snyder derived the equations that made transforming satellite data into map projections possible, a process vital to understanding how the Earth’s oceans, forests, and cities were changing, he aspired to become a chemical engineer. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Snyder flourished as a young engineer, having received a bachelors and masters degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University, and later a masters in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949. However, in a 1973 interview with Pharma News, Snyder revealed that cartography had been his earliest passion, explaining that “I used to collect roadmaps as other boys collected baseball cards.”

Handwritten notes on lines notebook paper with gridded diagrams of the earth in mathematical projections.
Notebook excerpts, A Collection of Several Tables Pertaining to the Astronomy of the Sun, Stars, Planets. John P. Snyder, 1943. John Parr Snyder Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

In 1953, Snyder settled in Madison, New Jersey working as an engineer for Ciba Corp., all the while acclimating himself to his new environment by frequenting the local libraries and archives for maps. Beginning in 1963, Snyder began work on publishing his first cartography book, The Story of New Jerseys Civil Boundaries, 1606-1968 and by 1969 it was heralded as the “definitive work on the state, county, and municipal boundaries in the state.”  Shortly after, Rutgers Press published his second book, The Mapping of New Jersey: The Men and the Art in 1973.

Two hand-drawn maps of Newark Township boundaries with labelled boundary lines and historical notes.
Rough draft illustrations, The Story of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries, 1606-1968, ca. 1963. John Parr Snyder Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

These early projects distinguished Snyder as a researcher with a genuine interest in provoking positive change. Although careful not to politicize his cartographic publications, in fact Snyder was once the Democratic candidate for Madison’s mayor, he was hopeful that his descriptions of historic New Jersey maps would generate socio-political awareness. In a 1973 interview with the Madison Eagle, Snyder explained that he discovered a borough map that had labeled African American owned churches as “colored” and noted “there were apparently no objections to this symbol of inferior classification for some 20 years.” His correspondence with politicians and historical societies during this period give researchers deeper insight into his personal beliefs and how he hoped his professional work would be appreciated.

As documented in Pharma News, when asked by a local 7th grader about the usefulness of maps in learning about the Revolutionary War, Snyder replied:

“Find out which present-day roads in and near Elmwood Park were shown in maps of the Revolutionary period, especially the carefully drawn maps of Robert Erskine. Find out how the non-fighting Quakers and the pro-British Tories were treated during the Revolution by those who fought for the colonists. Compare that with the way people were treated recently when they had different views about the Vietnam War.” 

As Snyder was making a name for himself as a New Jersey historian, Alden P. Colvocoresses, a research cartographer at USGS, was developing the Space Oblique Mercator (SOM) projection – the program responsible for transforming Landsat data into map projections. Frustratingly, Colvocoresses’ team was unable to find the correct equations to make this possible, having been unable to develop equations that accounted for the rotation of the Earth and the movement of the satellites. By chance, Snyder was in the audience at Ohio State University when Colvocoresses publicly grieved that they had yet to find the solution for the SOM projection in 1976.

Cover page of "The Changing World of Geodetic Science."
This is the Ohio State University symposium where Alden Colvocoresses requested academia’s assistance in deriving the equations for the Space Oblique Mercator projection. The Changing World of Geodetic Science report, October 6-8, 1976. John Parr Snyder Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Within a span of a year, Snyder delivered the equations to USGS. Amazingly, he developed the equations on Texas Instrument calculators during long weekend nights. His correspondence with Colvocoresses and Waldo Tobler offers insight into how giants in the cartographic field encouraged Snyder during his early attempts, while his personal drafts of endless equations display his tenacity to see his vision through.

Two Texas Instrument scientific calculators in a conservation box.
Snyder’s TI-59 and TI-56 calculators used for developing the eighty-two equations for the Space Oblique Mercator projection. John Parr Snyder Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Amazingly, his work on the SOM projection blossomed into a second career as a USGS projection specialist, where he helped usher in a new era of projection science that pertains more to state-of-the-art computers and satellites, rather than traditional paper maps. His later works Flattening the Earth: Two Thousand Years of Map Projections published in 1993 and Map Projection Transformation: Principles and Applications, written with Qihe Yang and Waldo Tobler, and published posthumously in 2000, are tributes to how Snyder helped advance cartography into a modem era. His drafts from his earliest USGS works to his latest reveal how Snyder eventually became the peers of renowned mathematicians and cartographers, namely, Arthur Robinson and Waldo Tobler.

From a macro perspective, his personal documents archived at the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, spanning his childhood to his passing in 1997, ultimately preserve the legacy of someone who was able to transform their hobby into a personally fulfilling career. His high school commencement speech delivered on June 4th, 1943 from Broad Ripple High School, prophetically declared that his graduating class’s “crowning achievements” would derive from the “activities which we did entirely because we wanted to”, opposed to their required classwork. He assured that although the work from their hobbies and extracurriculars are unrecognized today, “tomorrow, their work [will be] brought forth, and they [will] become successes…because they have stuck to it.” Sticking to his own passion for cartography led to a second career that continues to impact how we understand New Jersey, the United States, and the world today.

Typewritten three-page speech of Snyder's high school commencement speech.
John P. Snyder’s Broad Ripple High School commencement speech, June 4, 1943. John Parr Snyder Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Having completed the processing, the John P. Snyder collection can now by viewed by visiting the Geography and Map Reading Room! You can make an appointment to see the material here.

Citation Notes

  1. “Cartography: Childhood Fancy,” Pharma News, October 1973.
  2. “Snyder Gets L. Award,” Daily Record, December 17, 1970.
  3. “Local author puts New Jersey on the map!,” Madison Eagle, August 2, 1973.
  4. “Cartography: Childhood ” Pharma News, October, 1973.
  5. John Parr Snyder, “Sidelining Education” (commencement speech, Broad Ripple High School, June 4, 1943).


  1. Wonderful and insightful story. Thank you for sharing.

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