Sunday Maptinee: The Mapmaking Process (1973)

Caitlin Dempsey


In 1973, the United States Army produced training film TF5-4523 entitled, “The Mapmaking Process” which it described as explaining the “theory of mapmaking, and illustrates the methods and techniques used to produce maps; planning, surveying, compiling, and reproduction.” Retrieved from the National Archives, the training video is available in three parts for viewing.

The opening statement proclaims that “Man is a mobile creature.  Ever since his earliest days, he’s moved from one place to another, exploring the world around him.  And, always, his movements have been guided by maps.”  The training video starts out with a very brief introduction to the importance of maps, concluding with “nowhere are maps more important than in the military; they define areas to be occupied or defended.”

Since it’s a training video, the intent of the video was to introduce mapmaking tasks that a member of the US Army would be involved in such as field surveying which the narrator described as “the phase of mapmaking” those that enjoy the outdoors will “enjoy the most”, involving being out in “dense forest, parched desert land, and icy Arctic regions.”  Concepts such as triangulation, control points, and traversing are discussed in the first segment.


The second part looks at compiling, which the video defines as the process by which the data collected from the field surveys and control data is brought together to make the map using such techniques as using a protractor to plot control points and shrinking aerial images using a reduction printer.  The resulting small aerial image is called  diapositive.

Reduce aerial map
Reduce aerial map called a diapositive.

The stereo plotting device is called a multiplex plotter which uses several vertically mounted projectors and is used to achieve multiplex triangulation.  The segment highlights the complexity of creating what the narrator refers to as the “manuscript”, the end map using such labor intensive processes as created scribes and peelcoats.  (The USGS has a good overview of the 1970s process in this paper: When Maps Were Scribed: USGS Geologic Map Production in the 1970’s.) 

Scribing a peelcoat.
Scribing a peelcoat.

The final segment looks at reproduction using the offset photolithic process which involves a produce of burning photosensitive plates with a series of images used to make the final color map.

Loading a plate into the reproduction machine in order to make color copies of maps.
Loading a plate into the reproduction machine in order to make color copies of maps.

Finally, the concept of map revisions is addressed with map editors using such tools as a vertical sketch master.

Checking for map changes using a vertical sketch master.
Checking for map changes using a vertical sketch master.

The mapmaking video provides a great insight into the long and laborious process of collecting field data, preparing that data, and scribing geographic data onto a map.  Start watching the film below

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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.

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