Rachel Hewitt’s entrancing story of the birth of Britain’s Ordnance Survey is both a skilful piece of history and also a striking example of the limitations of the profession.
It was a dedicated group of people who led the way in mapping, and for all their dedication they were also curiously unfocused, often being distracted into side projects which were worthy but delayed the mapping of the country. It may have made for slower mapping but it makes for all the more interesting history.
In writing the book, Hewitt has filled a gap in the historical record, producing a charming account of the many varied personalities and technical developments that accompanied the production of the first comprehensive map of the country.
Yet in that tale she also highlights the limitations of history, for the organisation the Ordnance Survey (OS) had become by the early twenty-first century was one almost at odds with the principles of its creation. The OS was still an organisation dedicated to mapping with a strong belief in the necessity and utility of maps, but in its origins it had shown a strong commitment to openness, with its data widely available for reuse. As a result, although military requirements were a major prompt in the early days of the OS’s history, its information was always made public – available to all, not locked away as military secrets on confidential maps, knowing the widely available data would garner more support for its funding and would end up being better data as mistakes would be spotted and employees would be encourage to keep on their toes. Early cartography also had a healthy two-way relation with technology, but stimulating and benefiting from the creation of new, ingenious and ever more accurate instruments. The knock-on technological benefits could be very surprising, as with the need to be able to see a trigonometry point on a far peak in poor visibility inspiring the development of limelight which ended up being widely used in the West End’s theatres to illuminate not distant peaks but the theatrical stage.
Yet, at least until spring 2010, the 21st century version of the Ordnance Survey was one often seen as hostile to the modern equivalents of these – the idea of open data, sharing information and encouraging innovate reuse of information. Rather than being a proponent of open data, the OS had become a close repository, insisting on high payments that restricted use and innovation to a small number of rich enterprises rather than making its data available to all in the spirit of its early days. The freeing up of some key data sets on 1 April 2010 was a return to those Ordnance Survey roots which Rachel Hewitt’s book so charmingly documents.
Two quick caveats to watch out for if wondering whether to buy this book: despite the topic, it is text heavy and despite the title, it is about the Ordnance Survey’s pre and early history. Despite these caveats, it is a great read.