Since Classical Antiquity there has been a need to understand and explain how our senses work. Aristotle, for example, acknowledged their importance, but for him, the brain was hardly implicated in sensory processing save for its cooling function upon the blood. Without discussing Aristotelian ideas of the senses, we can affirm that taste, sight, smell, hearing and touch allow us to perceive, know and orient ourselves in the world.

The sense of sight is probably the most developed sense in humans, followed by hearing. We tend to associate sightlessness with feelings of claustrophobia and disorientation, as José Saramago brilliantly expounds in his novel Blindness. Wim Wenders revisits the idea in the documentary Janela da alma, which sketches an affable portrait of blindness by alluding to its deep connections with spatial orientation. One of the many abilities developed through blindness is being able to know where things are located without actually seeing them.

The link between blindness and cartography is deeper than one would think. Blindness tends to come with overdeveloped spatial awareness. Maps made up of carved lines and points were developed around the same time as Braille, the tactile reading/writing system for the blind. In 1830 Samuel G. Howe taught children from the New England Institute for Education of the Blind to read tactile maps. The children quickly learned, for example, that stiff jagged lines stood for political boundaries between countries and raised wrinkled dots for mountains. They were soon able to orient themselves using the maps.

Many of these children were driven to teach others how to use these maps. The “Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind” was subsequently published, with a print run of 50 copies, of which only five survive. The atlas is composed of 24 state maps accompanied by informational texts about each state and the symbols used.

Howe’s maps fared better than European atlases, which were considered impractical, expensive and lacking in text. The “Atlas of the United States,” on the other hand, provides information in raised lettering, which makes it accessible to sighted users too.

The entire Atlas is now digitized and has been published by the David Rumsey Map Collection, one of the greatest collections of cartography, with more than 150,000 fascinating maps of different places from around the world. The website is definitely worth a visit for a look at the amazing collection and a momentary exercise in imagining the intricate maps our minds might hold if we were sightless.

Since Classical Antiquity there has been a need to understand and explain how our senses work. Aristotle, for example, acknowledged their importance, but for him, the brain was hardly implicated in sensory processing save for its cooling function upon the blood. Without discussing Aristotelian ideas of the senses, we can affirm that taste, sight, smell, hearing and touch allow us to perceive, know and orient ourselves in the world.

The sense of sight is probably the most developed sense in humans, followed by hearing. We tend to associate sightlessness with feelings of claustrophobia and disorientation, as José Saramago brilliantly expounds in his novel Blindness. Wim Wenders revisits the idea in the documentary Janela da alma, which sketches an affable portrait of blindness by alluding to its deep connections with spatial orientation. One of the many abilities developed through blindness is being able to know where things are located without actually seeing them.

The link between blindness and cartography is deeper than one would think. Blindness tends to come with overdeveloped spatial awareness. Maps made up of carved lines and points were developed around the same time as Braille, the tactile reading/writing system for the blind. In 1830 Samuel G. Howe taught children from the New England Institute for Education of the Blind to read tactile maps. The children quickly learned, for example, that stiff jagged lines stood for political boundaries between countries and raised wrinkled dots for mountains. They were soon able to orient themselves using the maps.

Many of these children were driven to teach others how to use these maps. The “Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind” was subsequently published, with a print run of 50 copies, of which only five survive. The atlas is composed of 24 state maps accompanied by informational texts about each state and the symbols used.

Howe’s maps fared better than European atlases, which were considered impractical, expensive and lacking in text. The “Atlas of the United States,” on the other hand, provides information in raised lettering, which makes it accessible to sighted users too.

The entire Atlas is now digitized and has been published by the David Rumsey Map Collection, one of the greatest collections of cartography, with more than 150,000 fascinating maps of different places from around the world. The website is definitely worth a visit for a look at the amazing collection and a momentary exercise in imagining the intricate maps our minds might hold if we were sightless.

Tagged: , ,