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The Longhand World
Old maps and pencils will improve your world
23 June 2020 . 4min read

As I mentioned the other day, I went for a drive. It wasn't to a particular place, or for a particular reason. It was just a drive.

During said drive, I switched on the map in the car. Again, I wasn't planning on using the route/navigation part of it; I just wanted to see the world scroll by on it. I'd previously configured it up, so that North is always up. Which means that the map doesn't rotate as you drive; drive south and you are going downwards on the screen. You know, like all bendy paper maps work.

The car has maps of the entirety of Europe; every single road. You can ask it to plot a course to Zurich, and it will do just that. Lovely. However, given the age of the car and the maps, I prefer to think of them as more of an artistic impression than a technical drawing.

I'm a great fan of maps. I just love maps. I love the notion that someone has actually visited each and every place on the map, and drawn it on a map. I know that's not true these days, with satellites and related technical wizardry in place, but in yesteryear, it felt somehow more tactile.

In 1747, King Louis XV of France commissioned cartographer Cesar-Francois Cassini de Thury, to draw an as exact a map of France as possible. Cassini was an experience cartographer and boldly stated that it would take 20 years to produce. Not having access to satellite telemetry in 1747, Cassini used the geodesic triangulation technique to get the raw data. This essentially meant taking 6 foot long chains, laying them on the ground in a specific fashion, and documenting the measurements. It was to be produced on the scale of one line (one twelfth of an inch) on the map to 100 toises on the ground, that is 1/86,400. A toises was a standard unit of measurement used in France until 1812; 6 feet long. Interestingly, the precise, exact measure of a toises, since before 1394 was taken from an iron bar embedded in the wall of the Grand Chatelet.

Anyway, in fulfilling the cartography commission, Cassini had to visit each and every part of France. In the end it took 50 years to complete, spanned 2 Cassini generations, with the final map requiring 182 sheets.

By its very nature, it was the longhand method of creating a map. Yes, I know it was the only method.

I remember as a child, a man knocking on the door of our house, newly built in 1984. He was from the Ordnance Survey and wanted to take a look at the external shape of the house. Why? Well, he wanted to draw it onto the new Ordnance Survey map of this area. How cool is that?

Well, that got me thinking. About writing.

My current (at the time of writing this) tool of choice for writing is my 2016 12 inch MacBook. It weighs a mere 920 grams. At its thinnest point is just 3.5mm thick, has a 10 hour battery, and having no cooling fans is completely silent. I've written a lot of words using this delightful piece of kit.

As I've previously alluded to, well actually, I've specifically stated, I use (at the time of writing this) a piece of software called Ulysses. Again, it's super lightweight, and doesn't get in your way.

I'm using that setup right now.

In thinking about the long hand nature of early cartography, pre-satellite. I got to thinking about writing pre-computer, or even pre-typewriter. Don't worry, I will spare you (this time) a diversion into the history of the typewriter.

Writing a lengthy prose, using nothing but a pen or pencil and some paper, is almost unheard of these days.

We are all so trained in reading typeset works; I wonder if we are even generally capable of reading a 10 page handwritten document. The result of Cassini's endeavours was not a book of measurements, but a map. The result of this is an electronic email nicely formatted containing these words for you to easily read.

It's not about the result, it is about the process.

The author, James Patterson, prefers to write all of his novels out in longhand. Using yellow paper and a pen.

Has the modern ease with which we can create content removed some of the creative muse of it? Well, it certainly has allowed new types of content to be created, stuff that just wouldn't be possible without that modern ease element.

But what about writing?

Where we end up, is that I do wonder if my writing would be creatively better if I was to write it longhand. My preference would be a pencil and paper. I'm certain that it wouldn't be technically better, but those fixes can be inserted when I transcribed the handwritten art into the precise electronic edition.

Given some extra time, perhaps next week I will just have to give that a try.

In musing about maps, I think I have concluded that sometimes, a longhand view of the World can be a richer and more fulfilling experience.

This particular man-made construction can be seen for tens of miles. It's positioned almost in the middle of nowhere, on a tiny road that climbs steeply. Getting closer, two things occur. 1, the sheer scale of it. 2, the curiously over-the-top security around the place. Now, I'm not saying that it is weaponising bats or anything like that, but it does feel more than a little unsettling. I took this photo on a drive-by; I didn't stop long!


Profile photo of Nigel Derbyshire

I'm a carbon-unit who writes; a Carbon Writer. Life & culture are my default topics, mixed with a little English wit & sarcasm. Full of mostly true stories, I occasionally remember to write them down. Found in a crowd, or contemplating in a corner. Habit of talking to anyone. Author.
- Nigel Derbyshire