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This is What the World Looked Like to Columbus

A map by Henricus Martellus from 1489. Image Credit: Yale University Library

The mistake that took Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean in 1492, rather than the east Asian destination he was hoping for, might have been a product of the map above.

The 15th century map by the German cartographer Henricus Martellus is thought to be the best map we have illustrating Columbus’ perception of world geography. It’s housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where an imaging team has been analyzing it to read writing that has faded into invisibility over the centuries. They photographed the area rug-sized map under 12 different light frequencies to reveal the more than 500-year-old text.

Smithsonian magazine created this nifty infographic of some of the information hidden inside. 

The 6-foot-tall map is believed to be from around 1491. It quotes an encyclopedia published in the same year, and its depiction of world geography is consistent with our understanding of where Columbus thought he was going. On the eastern portion of the map, it shows Japan—Columbus' intended destination during his initial 1491 voyage—as being just across the ocean from Europe and Africa. Of that land mass, the map says: “This island is 1000 miles from the continent of the province of Mangi [a term for southern China]; the people have their own language and the circumference of the island is [illegible] miles.”

On the bright side, they managed to get three of the seven continents right. 

[h/t: Smithsonian]

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Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?
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Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

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This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
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Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images

In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]

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