Mapping Ship Logs

Caitlin Dempsey


Ship logs contain a wealth of geographic data within them.  The Old Weather Project is building a database of historical weather information extracted through crowdsourced efforts.  Now, Ben Schmidt, who is an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, has mapped out historical shipping routes.  The resulting visualization looks like a jumbled mess of human hair with continents particularly in the Southern Hemisphere discernible. The darker threads emphasis routes along the trade winds.

Schmidt created this visualization from NASA’s International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set (ICOADS).  In particular, he mapped out shipping routes from ICOADS’ US Maury collection.  Having been injured in a stagecoach accident in 1839, Matthew F. Maury was disqualified from sea duty despite his request to be assigned to the Pacific Squadron.  Instead, he was assigned on July 1, 1842 as the officer-in-charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments.  It was in that post that Maury undertook an extensive study of thousands of historical ship logs and charts.  Nicknamed the “Pathfinder of the Seas”, Maury published “Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic.”   At the height of his career, Maury was named the Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments.  

Shipping data from ICOADS US Maury collection. Visualization: Ben Schmidt.
Shipping data from ICOADS US Maury collection. Visualization: Ben Schmidt.

His legacy was a collection of ship records representing 12,336 voyages from 1784-1863 known as the Maury Collection and on November 17, 1993, Professor Hou Wenfeng, Director of the National Marine Data Information Service of the State Oceanic Administration of China and Gregory W. Withee , U.S. Chairman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) signed a Joint Implementation Plan to digitize the Maury Collection of historical ships’ weather logs stored in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA, 1981).

Ben Schmidt has visualized data spanning from pre1860s to 2000s from ICOADS (the data is freely available for download from the ICOADS data product page and contains records spanning from 1662 to 2007).  This panel Schmidt created from different sampling periods shows changes in ship routes (note the opening of the Panama Canal).

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World Shipping Routes, 1750-2000. Source: Ben Schmidt.
World Shipping Routes, 1750-2000. Source: Ben Schmidt.

With his research interests in the digital humanities and the intellectual and cultural history of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, Schmidt utilizes his analysis of Maury’s digitized data to underline the importance of how “[d]igitization makes the most traditional forms of humanistic scholarship more necessary, not less.” More: Reading digital sources: a case study in ship’s logs

 (Via Unified Pop Theory)

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.