The Scholarly Mapmaker Wants 'True Portrait of Mother Earth'

Erwin Riasz Makes His Landform Maps From Aerial Photos

It's quite easy to make a map. Even if you can't draw. Simply sketch in a few lines on a piece of paper, identify some important intersections and checkpoints, and that's it. For indicating directions or the location of a place, such a map will probably serve as well as the Esso variety from the local gas station. Maybe even better, since it will be less cluttered with irrelevant material.

The basic consideration about all such maps is the utilitarian function. We use them because we want to know where we are, or where we are going to. Rarely, if ever, does the map give any indication of what the land itself really looks like. It merely relates places to other places.

No Colors Needed

For many professional cartographers, however, this is not enough. In their maps, they want to show the actual configuration of the territory. To give these true pictures of the earth's surface, cartographers do not have to rely on some color scheme, with different colors representing different heights. With sufficient time, skill, and patience, they can actually sketch into the map the various mountains, valleys, and other land formations.

It is this more scholarly approach which typifies the map-making of Erwin Raisz, a former lecturer in Cartography at the University and one of the world's foremost experts in so-called landform maps. Geology, geography, and history departments at universities throughout the country order maps from him, as do various government agencies in Washington.

A resident of Cambridge, Raisz has traveled in every state in the United States, every province in Canada, every country in Europe, and in Turkey, Arabia, Mexico, Cuba, Alaska, and the Canadian Arctic. For his actual map-making, he uses aerial photographs, large collections of which are available both in this country and abroad. He particularly likes those taken with a trimetrogon camera--really three cameras in one. They are mounted so that one camera takes a picture straight downward, while the two others take pictures obliquely left and right from horizon to horizon with a small overlap.

When such pictures are being taken, the plane will usually fly at a constant height--about 20,000 feet--and at a constant speed, making parallel flights over a given area about 30 to 50 miles apart. With the additional aid of various types of land surveys, Raisz then makes his maps, transferring the material from larger scale maps to smaller ones. One map can--and has--taken him many months to complete.

Six-Foot Globe

Raisz is often called upon to undertake special projects. The familiar map of Harvard, for instance, is his work. Last year he did a relief globe of the Earth, six feet in diameter, which he carved from plaster of Paris. It is now being commercially manufactured from rubber. His own particular interest is the "land-type" map, a colored version of the landform. The colors, however, do not represent different heights--they indicate the vegetation and cultivation of the land. This comes closest, he says, to a "true portrait of the face of Mother Earth."

Born in Hungary, Raisz came to this country in 1922. He got his Ph.D. in Geology at Columbia. Then, to support himself, he started making maps for the Geology Department there. Eventually, he started teaching cartography, too. At that time, only Chicago University and West Point, aside from Columbia, offered such a course.

When Hamilton Rice founded the Geographical Institute of Exploration at Harvard, Raisz came here. And he stayed for 20 years, teaching cartography and caring for the Institute's collection of maps ("The largest in New England."). In 1950, three years after President Conant decided to discontinue the Geography Department, Raisz withdrew his support from the Institute, and it closed.

This was the inevitable consequence of Conant's decision which, says Raisz, "was a pitiful thing to do--the very best people were here."

'Got Along Fine'

Since then, Raisz has taught at Clark University, the University of Virginia, and in Rio de Janiero ("I couldn't speak Portuguese--only Spanish--but we got along fine."). This spring he will go to the University of Florda to teach cartography and to work on a state atlas. Soon he intends to do a landform map of Mexico, as well.

Interest in geography is increasing so much that Raisz feels confident land-type maps of the entire Earth will inevitably be made, sooner or later. There are some 75 universities in the United States teaching cartography at present, and the figure is growing.

All of this makes Raisz wonder even more why the University has decided to limit so drastically all courses dealing wtih geography. "Even Yale is building up its geography department," he notes.Knobby Sandstone, Etc. The map on the left is a small segment from Raisz's landform map of North Africa. Raisz uses special symbols for each type of land configuration, such as mountain, dendritic sandstream, dissected plateau, wind-etched limestone, knobby sandstone, lava, etc. Raisz thinks highly of this map. He tried to sell a copy of it to a student in History I62 (Westward Movement) who kept insisting he only wanted a map of the Pacific Northwest. Raisz found this hard to believe, but gave the boy what he wanted, anyway.