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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


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Anecdotes from the Archive: Map-making on wheels

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Have you ever found yourself stumbling upon some great new restaurant or hiking path and, having no idea how you got there, realize its impossible to get back a second time? If only you had a cyclograph–a device that attached to a bicycle and made a topographical account of where you rode.

The cyclograph was invented by a Mr. Ferguson and featured in the May 28, 1904, issue.

The device was shaped like a horizontal box that sat atop the bicycle’s handlebars. The box contained drawing paper, which, “owing to the meridians that are traced upon it, may be kept constantly in position in the direction of the road according to the indications of a compass mounted upon the top of the box.” As the bicycle moved forward, the paper would move backward in the direction of the longitudinal axis of the bicycle and be marked by a small rubber wheel covered in ink. “If the bicyclist makes an angle upon the ground, he turns the paper (guiding himself by the indications of the compass) at an equal angle in the opposite direction.”

Apparently, experiments made with the cyclograph yielded positive enough results that a sample was ordered by the Intelligence Branch of the English government in order to study the topography of China.

It would be great to be able to see some of the maps drawn by the device, but I’ve yet to come across any. In the meantime, I suggest checking out contemporary digital artist Tim Clark’s body of work “Urban Impressions,” which uses an updated version of the cyclograph—GPS—to track his own movements through various cities.

 

About the Author: Mary Karmelek is a production assistant for Nature Publishing Group and is currently working on Scientific American’s Digital Archive Project, where she spends countless hours scouring articles and ads of decades long ago. She graduated with her MA in English from Fordham University in 2010 and currently resides in New York City. While her educational background is in gender and war trauma in modernist literature, Mary also has a keen interest in the historical and visual documentation of science, nature and medicine.





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  1. 1. GlennFleishman 4:06 pm 02/18/2011

    This is marvelous! I wrote an article for the New York Times in 2000 (http://partners.nytimes.com/library/tech/00/08/circuits/articles/17howw.html) about bike cyclometers, which date back as far as the 1860s. People wanted to know how far they had traveled (just as they wanted to later know the topography).

    Link to this

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