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Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

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Map of a Nation tells the story of the creation of the Ordnance Survey map - the first complete, accurate, affordable map of the British Isles.


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Map of a Nation tells the story of the creation of the Ordnance Survey map - the first complete, accurate, affordable map of the British Isles.

30 review for Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    I know the exact moment I fell in love with this book. It came on page fifteen of the prologue, wherein Rachel Hewitt describes the debacle of a manhunt that followed the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. For want of a decent map of Scotland, England's fearsome army was led a merry chase across the Highlands by a half-lame septuagenarian and managed to lose "Bonnie" Prince Charles altogether. Charles's defeat came at the Battle of Culloden, famous for being the last pitched battle fought on the Britis I know the exact moment I fell in love with this book. It came on page fifteen of the prologue, wherein Rachel Hewitt describes the debacle of a manhunt that followed the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. For want of a decent map of Scotland, England's fearsome army was led a merry chase across the Highlands by a half-lame septuagenarian and managed to lose "Bonnie" Prince Charles altogether. Charles's defeat came at the Battle of Culloden, famous for being the last pitched battle fought on the British Isles, and infamous for the bloodthirsty zeal of the English troops during and following the battle. The English army annihilated the two thousand or so Scotsmen in around forty five minutes, and for anyone not quite sure how long forty five minutes is, Rachel Hewitt explains that it's "the time it takes to enjoy a soak in the bath". Upon reading this unlikely comparison between a scene of unimaginable bloodshed and a Cadbury's Flake advert, my eyebrows and jaw raced away from one another. Once I'd dragged down the former and pulled up the latter, I let out a sound somewhere between a snort of appreciation for the outrageous analogy and a snigger of expectation at what other delights the book would hold. The story of the Ordnance Survey maps turns out to be a fascinating one, and Hewitt tells it brilliantly. Not since Longitude have I been so enthralled by such a dry sounding subject, but not even Dava Sobel wrote this well. The book is always comprehensive but never too slow nor patronising, and has many a nice personal touch as well. The characters that brought the Survey to life are herein brought to life themselves, and thanks to some well placed and never smarmy personal recollections of the author, the book itself almost has a life of its own. The subject matter might not be to everyone's tastes, but maps aside it's a riveting tale of human triumph over and alongside nature and the elements with some intriguing cameos and some genuinely touching drama. And surely everyone appreciates a book with all that.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Puts the Ordinance Survey right on the map :). Something we walkers and scramblers have always loved, maps carried next to our hearts across the hills and through the rain, sleet and (rarely) burning sun. Winter nights on the kitchen table plotting routes. And 20 years ago wished for abroad in countries where whole hillsides seemed to be missing from the local maps! A moment in time just as the world changes - GPS, SATNAV, satellite pictures. The author places the start of the Ordinance Survey f Puts the Ordinance Survey right on the map :). Something we walkers and scramblers have always loved, maps carried next to our hearts across the hills and through the rain, sleet and (rarely) burning sun. Winter nights on the kitchen table plotting routes. And 20 years ago wished for abroad in countries where whole hillsides seemed to be missing from the local maps! A moment in time just as the world changes - GPS, SATNAV, satellite pictures. The author places the start of the Ordinance Survey firmly in the military world, beginning with the Highland clearances and wars with France, continuing with Ireland and the the mapping for taxation, the massive social implications of fixing place names and not forgetting the struggle of the 20th century for access to land. The military, economic and political setting gives the book a real bite without detracting from the heroics of the multitude of people who walked the land actually doing the mapping.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Fish

    My interest in maps was first triggered by a book passed down to me, aged seven, from the teenage son of a family friend. This "project manual" gave a grounding in many subjects, but it was cartography that caught my young imagination at the time. Fast forward more than thirty years and my wife, on the lookout for Christmas presents for an awkward bugger who just buys things when he spots them, stumbled across this. Telling the story of the Ordnance Survey may not be the most obvious thing to do, My interest in maps was first triggered by a book passed down to me, aged seven, from the teenage son of a family friend. This "project manual" gave a grounding in many subjects, but it was cartography that caught my young imagination at the time. Fast forward more than thirty years and my wife, on the lookout for Christmas presents for an awkward bugger who just buys things when he spots them, stumbled across this. Telling the story of the Ordnance Survey may not be the most obvious thing to do, but Rachel Hewitt does it with a passion which shines through the prose. You can almost feel the cold of Rannoch Moor - although having watched Nicholas Crane's Map Man probably helps.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Adam Yates

    I’ll never know why this book and its mundane subject matter ensnared me and in the end, it was a slog but I have retained a lot of the information and I feel smarter for it. One day, I will answer a question on University Challenge from the comfort of my sofa, my wife will look at me in astonishment and I shall arch my eyebrow and say “I knew that.”

  5. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    Enjoyable history of a national institution. It was at its best early on, describing the travails and technological innovations of the early pioneers, with background biographies to add colour, although I could have done with some accompanying maps to trace their routes. Later in the book, the survey became a national effort, and the focus shifts to political and administrative concerns rather than individual experience, which made it a drier read (and ironic, as the survey increased in scale an Enjoyable history of a national institution. It was at its best early on, describing the travails and technological innovations of the early pioneers, with background biographies to add colour, although I could have done with some accompanying maps to trace their routes. Later in the book, the survey became a national effort, and the focus shifts to political and administrative concerns rather than individual experience, which made it a drier read (and ironic, as the survey increased in scale and detail). Nevertheless, educational and interesting.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    The author takes us through the story of the OS by meeting the people who drove the idea forward, which also shows the context in which it was being done through the early years. Very enjoyable and informative.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Craig Morland

    Really interesting (if you're super dull like I am) but very dry in parts. Back to the land of make believe for a while...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tanya Turner

    Fascinating although at times a little too dense and quite dry.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rob Kitchin

    In Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt tells the story of the formation of the Ordnance Survey. The book should really have a title that frames the time period of the content since it almost exclusive covers the period 1745 to 1870, with practically no discussion of the history of the organization in the twentieth century. The use of the term biography in the title is, I suppose, a nod to the biographical approach to history telling, with Hewitt plotting the history of the organisation principally by In Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt tells the story of the formation of the Ordnance Survey. The book should really have a title that frames the time period of the content since it almost exclusive covers the period 1745 to 1870, with practically no discussion of the history of the organization in the twentieth century. The use of the term biography in the title is, I suppose, a nod to the biographical approach to history telling, with Hewitt plotting the history of the organisation principally by tracing the lives of its key actors – David Watson, William Roy, William Mudge, Thomas Colby and others. Throughout the narrative there are a series of asides, with some context relating to politics, military conflict, scientific advances, philosophy, popular culture, and social relations, some of which aid the tale, some a bit of a distraction. Hewitt’s starting point is the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the inability of English soldiers to navigate the Highlands, which led to a government-led mapping survey. Additional surveys were undertaken throughout the late eighteenth century, with the British collaborating with the French to create an accurate triangulation survey to document the precise location of key sites. These trig points became the basis for a national survey starting in 1791, under the office of the Master-General of the Ordnance, to underpin new, accurate maps. The survey first covered South East England leading to the first OS map in 1801 of Kent, and then continued across England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland during the first half of the nineteenth century. While it is evident that there is a substantial body of research underpinning the narrative, and there is a richness of detail, for my liking the account is somewhat an uncritical in charting Ordnance Survey’s history. There are very brief references to a more critical reading of how OS was a political body doing important work to maintain the Union and certainly no attempt at a postcolonial reading of OS’s work, particularly with respect to Ireland and Scotland. Instead the OS is framed as a somewhat neutral, yet civilising and Enlightenment endeavour, with some fairly weak defence of its colonial work. The result is an account that presents people, events and endeavours in a straightforward, face-value way but largely skims over the wider subtext. Overall, an interesting history of the formation of Britain’s national mapping agency, but lacking a critical edge.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Danny Whatmough

    On my count the book is actually only 312 pages of narrative (plus an introduction) but there's a tonne of references, if nothing else the book is amazingly well researched and referenced. I currently only own 5/6 OS maps in my room as well as having the app on my phone, and a puzzle book, and a few other bits people have bought me over the years. This book was one of those presents and I can easily say it's one of the best books anyone has bought me. I still don't fully understand how trigonometr On my count the book is actually only 312 pages of narrative (plus an introduction) but there's a tonne of references, if nothing else the book is amazingly well researched and referenced. I currently only own 5/6 OS maps in my room as well as having the app on my phone, and a puzzle book, and a few other bits people have bought me over the years. This book was one of those presents and I can easily say it's one of the best books anyone has bought me. I still don't fully understand how trigonometry works with regards to map making (I tried to learn, it confused me) but I know it creates some absolutely fantastic illustrations of a nation. I do now comprehend how much I took my maps for granted though, while I've had difficulty finding ones for when I travel abroad that I like as much as OS maps I always assumed it was just because I didn't know where to look, but from reading this book it looks like it's more to do with a pedigree and passion that was put into the map making process in the first place. It's honestly amazing to me just how much of a story there is behind what's essentially just a birds-eye illustration of a country, something that satellites and helicopters have made incredibly easy to find but back in the day the Ordinance Survey was starting up were completely novel ideas and the nearest thing might have been a hot air balloon. It's just a proper interesting book and it's really well written in my opinion, Touched on a few bits of history I knew bits about but never appreciated how important just knowing your area was and gave me a new found appreciation for how lucky I am to have detailed maps available for my use to avoid me from getting lost. (Though I'll still carry my GPS as a just in case)

  11. 5 out of 5

    Chris Miller

    For the most part this is a really interesting book. However, she runs on a bit when describing the triangulation in places. The mapping of the British Isles extended over a century and required high quality people to run it, and as Hewitt shows, for the most part, the people were there when needed. The Geodesic Survey was an immense undertaking that brought the natural world into the libraries of the country. It was an extraordinary accomplishment. Hewitt writes well, and with the exception of For the most part this is a really interesting book. However, she runs on a bit when describing the triangulation in places. The mapping of the British Isles extended over a century and required high quality people to run it, and as Hewitt shows, for the most part, the people were there when needed. The Geodesic Survey was an immense undertaking that brought the natural world into the libraries of the country. It was an extraordinary accomplishment. Hewitt writes well, and with the exception of the lousy footnoting system that seems to be favored by publishers at this time, it is a fine book. She has included an immense bibliography that compares well with Phillip Russell’s in The History of Mexico. I am still trying to figure out if she is an historian writing science or a scientist writing history. Either way it is a good read.

  12. 5 out of 5

    James Marland

    My first book of 2019 was ultimately a little disappointing. The subtitle of “a biography of the Ordnance Survey” hides the fact that the material covers less than half of its 300 year span. For a map book the illustrations were weak, and the wider role that maps play in British society were brushed over in preference to Hanoverian civil service politics.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    I love maps. This book is good history and just enough science. The book reminded me again of why paper maps are in many cases much more useful than digital as they allow one to see a much larger context and to be much more malleable in one's choice of route and even destination options. And it helped me remember why I love(d) trigonometry and geometry.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Bryan

    Fascinating tale of the foundation of the Ordnance Survey in the U.K. and how it established a new conception of space and national identity. Extremely detailed, almost to a fault, making it a bit tough to work through at times.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Voirrey

    This is not a light read - but is a fascinating account of how the Ordnance Survey began, how the mapping was done over the years, and the people who were involved. As an aside, I was interested to read that page 100, of our island, was published in 1873 - 3 years after sheet 108.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    Found this really hard going for some reason. Not as enjoyable as I hoped.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lukasz Lukomski

    Very interesting history of one of the most important British institutions.

  18. 4 out of 5

    PJ Boshier

    Very interesting book. Not a complete biography tho doesn’t go beyond 19th century. But well written and informative.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Chris Smith

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Quite dry and a long read but only goes up to the 1830s

  20. 5 out of 5

    David Clark

    Interesting but a little long by the second half

  21. 5 out of 5

    Yvonne

    Thoroughly researched and worthy book crammed full of information. The small print and copious notes make the book very comprehensive, but not always completely digestible. The subject could warrant more volumes as it covers over two hundred years of map development.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Martin Kohout

    A history of the British Ordnance Survey? A trifle esoteric, perhaps, but the subject had special resonance for me, as a friend and I completed 200-mile backpacking trips across northern England in 2009 and again in 2011, and I doubt I'd be here now without the good old O.S. maps. This is well-written history of science. The O.S. had its origins in the difficulties experienced by the English army in subduing the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 in part because they lacked reliable maps of the Scottish A history of the British Ordnance Survey? A trifle esoteric, perhaps, but the subject had special resonance for me, as a friend and I completed 200-mile backpacking trips across northern England in 2009 and again in 2011, and I doubt I'd be here now without the good old O.S. maps. This is well-written history of science. The O.S. had its origins in the difficulties experienced by the English army in subduing the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 in part because they lacked reliable maps of the Scottish Highlands. From this purely military seed grew an ambitious project to map all of Britain, a classic example of Enlightenment science, with its emphasis on precision and rationality and the belief that man could discover the harmonies and universal laws of Nature-with-a-capital-N. The undertaking took the better part of a century, and ran to great expense, and the ultimate irony is that it eventually became an essential tool for the Romantics, who emphasized the individual and subjective, as they sought to find and experience the sublime and ineffable in the British countryside during the Industrial Revolution. We (or at least I) tend to take maps for granted today, with satellite imagery and so forth, and the GPS navigation in our cars reduces our perception of our surroundings to a two-dimensional set of right or left turns. But it's hard to take maps for granted after reading about the hardships and determination of those early surveyors, who lugged hundreds of pounds of equipment up and down every mountain and hill, and quite a few steeples, in Britain in the effort to capture reality on a piece of paper.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    Maybe I was expecting too much, given all the good press this book got when first published, but I thought it was only all right. I liked the way Hewitt placed the significance of map making within contemporary culture - military need, popular culture (poetry, Enlightenment, tourism), social change (road improvements, enclosure, rise of the city), scientific advances in instrument making and mathematics. I didn't like the sometimes disjointed style, the occasionally weird asides, it not knowing w Maybe I was expecting too much, given all the good press this book got when first published, but I thought it was only all right. I liked the way Hewitt placed the significance of map making within contemporary culture - military need, popular culture (poetry, Enlightenment, tourism), social change (road improvements, enclosure, rise of the city), scientific advances in instrument making and mathematics. I didn't like the sometimes disjointed style, the occasionally weird asides, it not knowing whether to be serious history or popular history, and its at times gossipy tone. I was interested in the men who worked on the Ordnance Survey, I was less interested in reading extracts from poems, or hearing about the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge. I get why they appeared in the book, for the context they brought, but I'd rather buy a biography of them as individuals than read snippets of their lives as an aside in a history of map making.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michael Moseley

    William Roy was a mapmaker who covered the post Culloden repression of Scotland to the triangulation of the distance between London and Paris. Using a base line at Hounslow heath in 1787. The Scots got as far as Derby in 1745. The period following Culloden is known as the period of enlightenment; there where huge changes in I scientific understanding in this period. The 1st jigsaws were reproduction of Maps and where used as a teaching aid for children and adults alike. A metre was established a William Roy was a mapmaker who covered the post Culloden repression of Scotland to the triangulation of the distance between London and Paris. Using a base line at Hounslow heath in 1787. The Scots got as far as Derby in 1745. The period following Culloden is known as the period of enlightenment; there where huge changes in I scientific understanding in this period. The 1st jigsaws were reproduction of Maps and where used as a teaching aid for children and adults alike. A metre was established after the French revolution and is based on 10-6 of the distance between the North Pole and the equator. The enlightenment adopted maps as emblems of reason. Wordworth quote “Dreaming o’er the map of things”. William Mudge was the director of OS from 1820 for 29 years. He was succeeded by Thomas Coly who completed the survey of Ireland. The first England map was published 1st January 1870, southwest Northumberland.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Giulia Maselli

    As a researcher for Severndroog Castle, a Gothic folly in Greenwich used by Roy for its triangulation, I was looking for a book able to enlighten me about the metaphysics of maps. Maps are not my cup of tea so I was already prepared to endure endless pages of dreary mathematical descriptions. I was then more than delighted to read a social history of maps in England. Every detail and character is rendered with accuracy and wit. I embarked on a very adventurous and unexpected journey with eccentri As a researcher for Severndroog Castle, a Gothic folly in Greenwich used by Roy for its triangulation, I was looking for a book able to enlighten me about the metaphysics of maps. Maps are not my cup of tea so I was already prepared to endure endless pages of dreary mathematical descriptions. I was then more than delighted to read a social history of maps in England. Every detail and character is rendered with accuracy and wit. I embarked on a very adventurous and unexpected journey with eccentric cartographers and other remarkable philosophers of science. Georgian and Victorian societies used maps to foster patriotism, bicker with the French frogs and amuse themselves with impromptu parties where measurements were taken. Even the common man partook of the excitement and curiosity sparked by Roy's dream of a map of England. Cartography went well beyond glass ropes and theodolites and this book is absolutely the perfect companion to the history of mapping a so far imagined country.

  26. 5 out of 5

    John Welch

    Although I only gave this a 3 star rating, I think the Goodreads average of 3.57 is more accurate. This started off well as easy to read history, particularly as I am an OS map fan. The way that the Enlightenment had created the culture and envionment that allowed the Ordnance survey to take place was interesting, as I had originally thought that had been strictly military driven. The first 2/3rds of the book are 4 star material, as that is when the Author covers the most interesting people invo Although I only gave this a 3 star rating, I think the Goodreads average of 3.57 is more accurate. This started off well as easy to read history, particularly as I am an OS map fan. The way that the Enlightenment had created the culture and envionment that allowed the Ordnance survey to take place was interesting, as I had originally thought that had been strictly military driven. The first 2/3rds of the book are 4 star material, as that is when the Author covers the most interesting people involed in the first 50 years of the survey. The end however seems very rushed, covering a lot of time with very little information. Judging by the huge Notes and Bibliography section, the author had done loads of research, but I would guess her real interest was in the period covered in the first part of the book.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    I like maps, particularly OS Maps, so having seen positive reviews of this book I was keen to read it. It's a comprehensive account of the background to and production of the first one-inch series of OS Maps for the whole country, a task which from first proposals to the publication of the final map which completed the series took around 100 years! This is a scholarly book, with copious references (more than I have ever encountered in any other book I've read), yet eminently readable all the sam I like maps, particularly OS Maps, so having seen positive reviews of this book I was keen to read it. It's a comprehensive account of the background to and production of the first one-inch series of OS Maps for the whole country, a task which from first proposals to the publication of the final map which completed the series took around 100 years! This is a scholarly book, with copious references (more than I have ever encountered in any other book I've read), yet eminently readable all the same. Rachel Hewitt's enthusiasm for the subject shines through, and I look forward to further books from her in the future. Having read the book, I would love to see a practical demonstration of some of the instruments that she describes which were used to carry out the survey, and also to see how the data is taken from the surveys, engraved and used to produce a printed map.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Katy

    The subject of this book is just absorbing, as I love maps, and with information about our English history not touched on before, in the mapping of our little island, I was really anticipating a fascinating read. Rachel Hewitt has produced a very thorough and intriguing report on the beginnings of our wonderful map service. However, it is an extremely slow read, due to the intense amount of detail, sometimes too much, an incredibly small print size, and unless you are an academic, can leave the The subject of this book is just absorbing, as I love maps, and with information about our English history not touched on before, in the mapping of our little island, I was really anticipating a fascinating read. Rachel Hewitt has produced a very thorough and intriguing report on the beginnings of our wonderful map service. However, it is an extremely slow read, due to the intense amount of detail, sometimes too much, an incredibly small print size, and unless you are an academic, can leave the reader, having to re-read certain passages or whole pages, to understand the process of map-making. Despite that, I am glad I read the book.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Johanne

    Hmmmm a reminder to read more than the synopsis and the first page - a promising story but for me to much minutae about the people involved in getting the original map series out and way too much background of soldiers trudging round the highlands etc for many years before the OS even becomes a glimmer!. I really would have liked a more helicopter view of the OS and its role and the general development of its maps

  30. 5 out of 5

    Steve Chilton

    Judge a book by its title. This may have seemed to be a history of the OS. It is not. It's a PhD thesis with added literary padding. Hewitt starts with the 1745 rebellion as the genesis of the OS. Then the development of triangulation makes interesting reading. There are too many diversions into literary dead ends, and I found it oddly unsatisfactory, despite my deep love of the subject matter.

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