Filmed on Friday May 14, 02004

David Rumsey

Mapping Time

See our blog for updates on tickets and other media; tickets will go on sale one month before the Seminar.

Maps and time

David Rumsey’s spectacularly illustrated lecture, “Mapping Time” is not just about maps. It is the future of data and knowledge handling. People literally gasp at the things Rumsey shows can be done.

I love it when techies, artists, and historians all gasp at the same time. That happened with David Rumsey’s spectacularly illustrated Seminar About Long-term Thinking on May 13-14, “Mapping Time.”

Once an artist, long a real estate success, now one of the world’s leading historic map collectors and THE leading online map innovator, David Rumsey gives an exceptionally deft graphic talk. Complex and elegant things kept happening with his images, always on cue with never a hesitation or false move. I’ve never seen a tighter weaving of ideas, words, and persuasive images.

You can find everything he talked about and more at his website:


Maps define worlds, Rumsey said. Compare the Spanish and British maps of the years of discovery in the New World. Because the Spanish maps and charts were kept as state secrets, their voluminous naming of rivers and mountains and so on didn’t last. The British proudly published all their discovery maps as a proof of ownership. Their names are the ones that still adorn the land.

The combination of the Web and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) has utterly transformed the world of maps. When Rumsey contemplated donating his collection of historic maps to a library or museum, he learned that they would be hidden carefully away in some vault, and almost no one would see them. So instead he put the collection online—inventing new super-high-resolution imaging systems and new browsers that could read the multi-gigabyte images. His site now gets two million visitors a year. Stanford’s excellent map library gets six thousand users a year.

Nothing shows the value of high resolution as well as maps, said Rumsey. For example, he was able to take the 110 separate sheets of a bird’s-eye view of late 19th Century St. Louis and in a “digital knitting project” connect them all into one vast, beautiful image. There are two TERAbytes of data on his website. Because the files are too large to download, he invented browsers that can explore and compare them.

It’s the comparison tools that are shocking. Thanks to GIS, Rumsey can take old somewhat incorrect maps and “geo-rectify” them, using “rubber-sheeting” software tools he developed, so that the old maps can overlay perfectly on current precisely accurate maps. He demonstrated with four maps and an aerial photo of the San Francisco waterfront area where he was giving the talk. Starting with the old map, he faded up through the sequence of maps to the present, and you saw the city build in exquisite detail. Then he popped the four maps into four separate windows and scrolled them all in synch.

Take Lewis and Clark’s hand-drawn maps of the Missouri River from 1805. Once geo-rectified, you can use them for navigating now, GPS in hand.

Tim O’Reilly commented, “This means that old maps are no longer ‘wrong.’ The past is not a mistake. You can add new information to an old document in a way that keeps it perpetually valuable.”

Rumsey demo-ed some other features of his site, such as his way of empowering serendipity by providing a “ticker”—a crawl of random images from his collections (and now other collections, including art) scrolling along the bottom of the screen. Click on anything enticing, and off you go to explore it.

He said that getting totally covered by Google was essential—”Google is the ultimate catalog.” Once fully linked on Google, his traffic took off from 2,000 visitors a day to 7,000.

Then Rumsey showed what happens when you “drape” his maps over a raised-relief topological version of the landscape. You can view it obliquely. You can fly through it! As you fly through it, you can flick from one historic version of the landscape to another! This is where the gasps took over.

To my mind, Rumsey’s dynamic layering tools for visual data are new tool of thought, one that will become common. They are a compelling new way to think in time.

All of Rumsey’s maps can be perused totally for free. We asked him how much it costs to run his incredible operation. He said it’s maybe 3 or 400K a year. Where does the money come from? From him. David Rumsey is one of the most impressive just-do-it philanthropists I’ve ever met. He is having more fun with his money and his time and the world than just about anyone.

More Seminars


SALT Summaries Book

$2.99 Also available as a paperback book

Condensed ideas about long-term thinking summarized by Stewart Brand
(with Kevin Kelly, Alexander Rose and Paul Saffo) and a foreword by Brian Eno.

Seminar Sponsors

David and Abby Rumsey • Kim Polese • The Kaphan Foundation • Garrett Gruener • Scorpio Rising Fund • Peter Baumann • Brian Eno • Greg Stikeleather • Cameo Wood • Ping Fu • Peter Schwartz • Lawrence Wilkinson • Ken and Maddy Dychtwald • Future Ventures • Ken and Jackie Broad • AtoB • WHH Foundation • Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan • Jackson Square Partners Foundation • The Long Now Members

We would also like to recognize George Cowan (01920 - 02012) for being the first to sponsor this series.

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