Dictionary Project: Volume X, Day 1

In the beginning were the Heavens and the Earth. That’s a paraphrase of the Bible, and perhaps because that’s how the Bible starts, The Dictionary does, too.

The Dictionary is The Century Dictionary and Cylopedia, a twelve-volume set printed in New York in 1901, and lovingly cared for by at least two previous owners over the 113 years before it came into my care in September 2014. The Dictionary Project will share information from one volume per month, from October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015 (gods willing and the creek don’t rise). The volumes are numbered, so I’m starting in the tenth month, with Volume X: The Atlas.

This is a much-used Atlas, and it pleases me that this should be so. I love maps, and the Atlas was always my favourite school textbook. I open this Atlas and imagine a wealthy urban American family (who else could have afforded such a set?) with several children, all receiving their early education at home, from tutors, governesses, and specialized masters, in that period between publication and the First World War. History and geography require that they refer to this book often. Perhaps it scarcely spends any time on the shelf with the other members of the set, so frequently is it needed. Perhaps, if their schoolroom has such a thing, this book lives on a proper bookstand, open for most of every day, and closed to mark the end of daily lessons.

My initial plan to post maps according to the alphabet was confounded by the number of places starting with B, C, D, P, N, and M, and the general dearth of Q, X, and Z places (there was no Zaire in 1901, for instance). So I’m going through the maps in order of appearance in the book, and we’ll work around the world in the opposite direction to the sun’s path.

One of the earliest maps in the book is this two-page spread of The Heavens, Northern and Southern Hemispheres:

IMG_1867Click on the photo to open in a new window/tab and surf around inside!

The magnitudes of stars and constellations, the Milky Way in both Hemispheres, the solar system without Pluto (that was a short period of planethood for you, Pluto), illustrations of lunar and solar eclipses, the relative size of the planets (still no Pluto): this page covers it all!

In sector C-3 on the left hand page, there is a star called “Alderamin”, which I misread as “Alderaan”, for one nerdy second. I now know that the stars that comprise the Big Dipper (The Plow if you’re English) are called Benetnasch, Alioth, Megrez, Phaed, Merak, and Dubhe. I may never again snicker at the names celebrities give their children. (Maybe.) And if you follow the Ecliptic line around, you’ll see all the constellations that comprise the Western zodiac. (Hello, Sagittarius! We’re awesome.)

And now, The Earth. Specifically, “The World: on Mercator’s Projection, showing the chief countries and their colonies, also the ocean currents and the principal routes of travel.” This map is reminding me of this one with a humorous caption. It’s an American Atlas, in an American publication, and it’s not the only one to feature this configuration of the world. I get it. But the bright yellow “shining beacon of hope” in the centre of the world, and the division of Asia, still make me laugh.

IMG_1868If you know anything about Mercator’s projection of the Earth, you know that it’s synonymous with “wrong”, or at least “distorted”, as the brilliant West Wing discussed in one of its “Big Block of Cheese” episodes:

“Africa is 14 times the size of Greenland” gets me every time. Whoa. But at least Europe and South Africa are slightly more to scale in this Atlas. And I agree with C.J.; the upside-down map freaks me out, too

See anything on that map of the world that you’d like to see more of? Leave me a comment, and if I haven’t already scheduled that place for closer examination, I’ll feature it on a wild-card day.

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