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The way we were before Google Maps


Viviane Richter reviews a newly digitised collection of Australian maps that shows the way we found our way around before GPS. 


Google maps may have left the modern atlas gathering dust, but this collection breathes new life into the maps that guided the way long before GPS. This National Library of Australia collection of more than 600,000 maps is both a testament to the resourcefulness of early explorers and a comprehensive transcript of how the world’s societies evolved.

There are many skilful hand-drawn works of cartographers on paper, others looking as though they should adorn art gallery walls. One example (below) is the rebbelib stick charts, which mark currents, waves or swells and were once used by the Marshallese to navigate the Pacific Ocean by canoe.

Square rebbelib stick chart used by the Marshallese to navigate the Pacific Ocean by canoe off the coast of the Marshall Islands. Indicates sailing directions for atolls and islands in both the Ratak (eastern) and Ralik (western) chains of the Marshall Islands. Seashells depict the atoll and island locations. Atoll and island names are typed on strips of paper which are glued onto the wooden sticks. Each straight stick represents regular currents or waves around the low lying atolls while the curved sticks depict ocean swells.
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA / DIGITAL MAPS COLLECTION

Family historians may find Australian state and territory subdivision maps handy. Other maps shed light on land use such as mining, roads, and military use. This comprehensive collection has an Australian focus, but spans all corners of the globe.

Highlighted works include Norman B. Tindale’s 1940 map of the Aboriginal tribes in Australia, the 1655 Martini Atlas of China and Japanese pictorial world war maps and the first Dutch chartings of land that became Australia.

Norman B. Tindale’s iconic 1940s map showing the distribution of Aboriginal tribes of Australia
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA / DIGITAL MAPS COLLECTION

Japanese pictorial world war II map showing Japanese and German influence and occupation, international boundaries, transportation, oil fields, water features, naval bases, distances in nautical miles and populated places.
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA / DIGITAL MAPS COLLECTION

1618 Chart of the Malay Archipelago and the Dutch discoveries in Australia by Hessel Gerritsz. met Octroy Vande H.M. Heeren de Staten Generael der Vereenichde Neerlanden
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA / DIGITAL MAPS COLLECTION

Plan of the Stamford Estate, Indooroopilly Railway Station Queensland
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA / DIGITAL MAPS COLLECTION

1859 Robinson's Road map of Victoria highlighting main roads and rivers as well as electric telegraph lines marked in red, railways marked in black and post towns marked with their distance in miles from Melbourne.
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA / DIGITAL MAPS COLLECTION

Walter Burley Griffin's 1917 plan of the city of Canberra showing a land axis and a water axis.
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA / DIGITAL MAPS COLLECTION

All online maps are freely available for download, in high resolution here.

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Vivian ritchter 2016.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Viviane Richter is a freelance science writer based in Melbourne.
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