A Tactile Map of the Roman Empire: An Innovative Map That Allowed Blind & Sighted Students to Experience Geography by Touch (1888)

From curb cuts to safer play­grounds, the pub­lic spaces we occu­py have been trans­formed for the bet­ter as they become eas­i­er for dif­fer­ent kinds of bod­ies to nav­i­gate. Closed cap­tion­ing and print­able tran­scripts ben­e­fit mil­lions, what­ev­er their lev­el of abil­i­ty. Acces­si­bil­i­ty tools on the web improve everyone’s expe­ri­ence and pro­vide the impe­tus for tech­nolo­gies that engage more of our sens­es. While smell may not be a high pri­or­i­ty for devel­op­ers, atten­tion to a sense most sight­ed peo­ple tend to take for grant­ed could open up an age of using feed­back sys­tems to make visu­al media touch respon­sive.

One such tac­tile sys­tem designed for Smith­son­ian Muse­ums has devel­oped “new meth­ods for fab­ri­cat­ing repli­cas of muse­um arti­facts and oth­er 3D objects that describe them­selves when touched,” report­ed the Nation­al Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter in a Feb­ru­ary post for Low Vision Aware­ness Month. “Depth effects are achieved by vary­ing the height of relief of raised lines, and tex­ture fills help improve aware­ness of fig­ure-ground dis­tinc­tions.” Hap­tic feed­back tech­nol­o­gy, like that the iPhone and var­i­ous video game sys­tems have intro­duced over the past few years, promis­es to open up much more of the world to the visu­al­ly-impaired… and to every­one else.

One inven­tion intro­duced over a cen­tu­ry ago held out the same promise. The tac­tile map, “an inno­va­tion of the 19th cen­tu­ry,” writes Rebec­ca Onion at Slate, “allowed both blind and sight­ed stu­dents to feel their way across a giv­en geog­ra­phy.” One pop­u­lar­iz­er of the tac­tile map, for­mer school super­in­ten­dent L.R. Klemm, who made the exam­ple above, believed that “while the water­proof map could be used to teach stu­dents with­out sight,” it could also “fruit­ful­ly engage sight­ed stu­dents through the sense of touch.”

Though cre­at­ed in Europe, tac­tile maps have had a rel­a­tive­ly long his­to­ry in the U.S., debut­ing in 1837 with an atlas of the Unit­ed States devel­oped by Samuel Gri­d­ley Howe of the Perkins School for the Blind. (See Michi­gan above.) Klemm’s map up top, depict­ing the Roman Empire (284–476 CE), is a lat­er entry, patent­ed in 1888, and, he promis­es it’s a decid­ed improve­ment on ear­li­er mod­els. In an arti­cle that year for The Amer­i­can Teacher, he described “the painstak­ing process of cre­at­ing one of these relief maps,” notes Onion, “a process he used as anoth­er teach­ing tool, enlist­ing stu­dents to help him scrape and carve plas­ter casts into neg­a­tive shapes of moun­tain ranges and plateaus.”

Those stu­dents, he wrote, devel­oped “so clear a con­cep­tion of the topog­ra­phy and irri­ga­tion of the respec­tive coun­try that it can scarce­ly be improved.” Tac­tile accu­ra­cy meant a lot to Klemm. In text pub­lished along­side the map, he took Howe and oth­er pub­lish­ers to task for rais­ing water above land, an idea “so unnat­ur­al, that the mind nev­er thor­ough­ly becomes accus­tomed to it.” Klemm also cri­tiques a French map of “very per­fect con­struc­tion.” This hand­made ver­sion, he says, though inge­nious, is “expen­sive and very inef­fi­cient.” While its util­i­ty “in the case of insti­tu­tions, and for the use of pupils of the wealthy class­es is undoubt­ed… the cost­li­ness of maps con­struct­ed on such a prin­ci­ple places the advan­tages of the sys­tem beyond the reach of the blind gen­er­al­ly.”

Klemm’s con­cern for the qual­i­ty, accu­ra­cy, util­i­ty, and eco­nom­ic acces­si­bil­i­ty of this ear­ly acces­si­bil­i­ty tool is admirable. And though you can’t expe­ri­ence it through your screen, his method is prob­a­bly a vast­ly-improved way of learn­ing geog­ra­phy for many peo­ple, sight­ed or not. Tac­tile maps did not quite become gen­er­al use tech­nolo­gies, but their dig­i­tal prog­e­ny may soon have us all expe­ri­enc­ing more of the world through touch. View and down­load a larg­er (2D) ver­sion of Klem­m’s map and learn more at 19th Cen­tu­ry Dis­abil­i­ty Cul­tures & Con­texts.

via Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vin­tage Geo­log­i­cal Maps Get Turned Into 3D Topo­graph­i­cal Won­ders

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, “the Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever Under­tak­en,” Is Free Online

A Rad­i­cal Map Puts the Oceans–Not Land–at the Cen­ter of Plan­et Earth (1942)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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