The Evolution of the Comparative Mountains and Rivers Chart in the 19th Century

Tableau Comparatif

Andriveau-Goujon's 1834 Tableau Comparatif - the most elaborate comparative mountains and rivers chart of the 19th century.

The comparative mountains and rivers chart is possibly the most interesting cartographic convention to develop and reach is fullest expression in the 19th century. This type of map or chart was generally constructed as a scientific and reference tool, comparing various mountains and rivers within the same plane and on the same scale, thus showing their relative magnitudes. Occasionally mountains and rivers charts are limited to the comparative geographies of specific countries or continents, but more commonly they are drawn on a global scale. The first comparative charts focused on mountains and evolved in response to late 18th century philosophical and scientific innovations. Most were initially conceived as combinations of traditional coastal profiles as used in navigation and mountain profiles commonly used in mining.

Pre-19th Century

Typical 18th century shore profiles.

While the proper mountains and rivers chart did not evolve until the 19th century, we can see its roots in the coastal profiles drafted on many 18th century nautical charts. Such profiles appear quite early in the history of the nautical chart, but were first introduced into regular usage by the London cartographer William Faden. Shore or coastal profiles focusing on specific and important stretches of coastline were designed to enable the navigator to recognize important land side features from far out at sea. These profiles, while often not drawn to scale, were among the first cartographic representations of mountains and rivers that placed distant and unrelated geographic features in close proximity to one another. Although not designed to this purpose, the juxtaposition of such significant geographical features could not help but to suggest a comparison.

Philosophical Background

Around this time a major philosophical transformation was occurring in western epistemological thought. One of the great philosophical debates of the 18th century was the between the British Empiricists and the Continental Rationalists. The British Empiricists, lead by David Hume and John Locke, believed that all knowledge was based upon experience and that scientific knowledge, though flawed, could be induced from this. The Continental Rationalists, on the other hand, based their scientific approach on the philosophy of Rene Descartes, who advocated that sensory experience itself was untrustworthy and that knowledge could only be obtained through reason. In 1787 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced Transcendental Idealism, essentially a compromise between these conflicting ideas. In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that both rationalism and empiricism are fundamentally flawed. Rationalism, he claimed reached its limits when addressing issues beyond human experience, such as God or Free Will, which by definition could not be known or addressed with reason alone. Empiricism, he argued, was also limited in that while experience is a necessary underpinning of all knowledge, without reason it is impossible to form collected experience into coherent ideas. This synthesis, which would prove enormously influential in both philosophy and science, opened the doorways to the modern scientific approach. In our case, it set forth the need to assess experience through the window of reason – thus through the juxtaposition and analysis of different experiences of a thing, say a mountain, it is possible to form a better understanding of mountains in general.

Alexander von Humboldt

Humboldt's Comparative Mountains Chart

Humboldt's important proto comparative mountains chart.

Among the first scientists to take Kant’s ideas into the field was Alexander von Humboldt, who, as with so many things, proved pivotal in the evolution of the comparative mountains and rivers chart. Humboldt, as a well educated German nobleman, was heavily indoctrinated into the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. During his epic journey into South America, Humboldt used illustrative techniques to catalog, define, and reason through the scientific data he collected. His published work is full of illustrations, maps, and charts, many of which were incredibly influential. In our case, we must focus on Humboldt’s profile of the Andes “Geographic der Pflanzen in den Tropenlandern, ein Naturgemalde der Anden”. Humboldt’s 1805 chart, shown to the right, is not strictly speaking a comparative mountains and rivers chart, however, it was extremely influential with regard to the development of the genre and is one of the earliest examples of a “more formal and scientific means of expressing the vertical dimension”. With this chart, Humboldt was attempting to illustrate his research and experience in climbing Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo. At the time Chimborazo was considered to be one of the world’s tallest mountains and indeed, though dwarfed by Everest, Chimborazo may still be considered the tallest mountain in the world if measured from the center of the earth. Humboldt’s ascent of Chimborazo was a significant accomplishment, not only because he reached an unprecedented altitude, but also for the detailed scientific observations he took along the way. Possibly influenced by the mountain profile diagrams he worked with as a mining engineer in Germany, Humboldt commissioned a Viennese landscape painter to assemble this chart according to his specific instructions. The chart compares and contrasts vegetation and mineral composition, noting tree and snow lines, rock forms, and even some subterranean elements. While only Chimborazo is specifically drawn in profile, Humboldt sets the stage for future development of this genre by textually noting the elevations of several other well known mountains, including Popocatepetl, Mont Blanc, Vesuvius, and Orizaba, as well as the elevation of Quito and the highest point reached by Condamine.

A New Cartographic Convention

Lizars' Comparative Mountains Chart

Lizars' and Thomson's Comparative Mountains chart of 1817 was one of the first of this genre.

The first formal comparative mountains chart of the 19th century is most likely Lizars’ chart of 1817, drawn for issue in Thomson’s New General Atlas.* This chart divides the world’s mountains by hemisphere, with the great Himalayan peaks of the Eastern Hemisphere dominating the right hand side of the sheet. Lizars embraces and expands on many of the ideas introduced by Humboldt, showing elements of related to geology, plant life, volcanic activity, and even incorporating important cities, mines, and as a point of comparison, the greatest achievement of man, the Great Pyramids of Egypt. That Lizars was directly influenced by Humboldt’s work is evidenced by the presence of Humboldt himself, a duly noted speck on the left hand face of Chimborazo. Though the arrangement of the mountains on this chart may initially seem haphazard, they are in fact arranged by hemisphere, with the mountains of the Americas appearing to the left and those of the Eastern Hemisphere appearing on the right. Though this chart enjoyed enormous popularity, it convention of dividing mountains by hemisphere while maintain a uniform global scale was not embraced again until the 1880s. Lizars’ chart of the world’s great mountains would continue to be published in various atlases until about 1827 when its primacy was supplemented by a new style of chart incorporating rivers.

The Lengths of Rivers

Thomson's 1822 Comparative Rivers of Scotland - one of the first comparative river charts of the 19th century.

The charting of the comparative lengths of rivers developed slightly later than the comparative mountains chart, but evolved out of the same Kantian Transcendental Idealism that inspired Humboldt do draw his profile chart of Chimborazo. Numerous early atlases incorporated tables defining the lengths of the world’s great rivers, but it was not until 1822 that the first rivers chart appeared in John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland. A year later in 1823 Fielding Lucas expanded this idea into a global chart. Both of these charts attempt to show not only the length of a particular river system, but also details about its course, including places where the river expands into lakes and seas, twists about mountains, or abruptly falls from great heights. The development of this style of river chart further suggested the incorporation of additional data such as chart of comparative waterfalls and comparative lakes. A further fact, that many rivers arise in mountainous regions, as shown in Thomson and Lizars “1822 Comparative View of the Lengths of the Principal Rivers of Scotland” where the Scottish highlands loom in the background, automatically suggest the next step in the evolution of the Comparative Mountains and Rivers Chart.

Bringing it all Together

Darton & Gardner's 1823 Mountains and Rivers

The first known comparative mountains and rivers chart.

The incorporation of the mountains chart with the rivers chart in William Darton’s 1823 “New and Improved View of the Comparative Heights of the Principal Mountains and Lengths of the Principal Rivers In The World” and Bulla’s 1826 “Tableau Comparatif” and marks the pinnacle of this type of chart’s development. In a single massive sheet, Bulla and Darton not only compare and contrast the heights of mountains and the lengths of rivers, but also add a table of waterfalls, show volcanic activity, levels of plant growth and tree lines, and add select cities and European buildings. Bulla even incorporates the achievements of the balloonist Gay-Lussac who ascended to 7000 meters in 1804. The example shown at right and at top, J. Andriveau and J. Goujon’s 1836 Tableau Comparatif et Figure, though heavily based on Bulla’s chart, is even more elaborate, with a reconstructed waterfalls section, added scientific and geographical knowledge, more important cities notated, extensive textual annotations, a section indicating undersea and subterranean regions, and wide border region full of contextual and statistical data. This style of chart was incorporated into numerous atlases and published in several rare independent issues until the mid 1850s when cartographers began to experiment with other variants.

Making it all Work

Tableau Comparatif

Andriveau-Goujon's 1834 Tableau Comparatif - One of the first charts to combine comparative mountains and rivers on a single sheet.

Once the convention of the comparative chart was established in the early 19th century, the challenge for subsequent engravers and cartographers was making it all work. The earliest such charts were effective in defining mountains on both a global and hemispheric scale. However, with the rise in prominence of the Bulla chart with its combined presentation of mountains and rivers on a global level, much of the more local and hemispheric context was lost. As engravers played with the style from the mid 1840s to the late 1880s, a number of new conventions and approaches emerged, some more popular and advantageous than others. Much of the evolution of the comparative geographical chart can be understood as a struggle to make a chart that was effective both in maintain regional context and representing the subject matter on globally. Below is an overview of the significant comparative mountains and rivers charts throughout the 19th century with a short discussion of their effect on the genre.

Carey's Comparative Mountains Chart

1825 Carez (Carey & Lea) Issue of Lizar's Mountains and Rivers

Carte Des Principales Montagnes Du Globe – This is a French version of John Carey’s 1822 adaptation of the traditional Lizar’s chart that appeared in Thomson’s 1817 atlas. Though the chart itself is reduced in scale, a plethora of statistical information has been added to the expanded marginal regions. Both this chart and the Lizars chart divide focus only on mountains, but are highly effective in displaying the world’s great mountains both in a hemispheric and global context – an important convention that would soon be abandoned only to resurface half a century later. This particular example was published in France under the name of Carez.

Finley's Mountains and Rivers Charts.

Finley's Mountains and Rivers Charts.

Table of the Comparative Heights of the Principal Mountains & c. in the World. / Table of the Comparative Lengths of the Principal Rivers throughout the World.- In 1827 the American cartographic publisher Finely introduced separate charts for mountains and rivers. Though his rivers chart adheres closely to convention established by Fielding Lucas, his comparative mountains chart is significant in that it is one of the first such to be center weighted with the tallest mountains situated at the heart of the chart. Later map makers would adopt the center weighted convention and eventually consolidate it with the rivers chart into a single sheet. This style of mountains and rivers chart would become exceptionally popular among both American and English engravers (most notably Tanner, Mitchell, and A. & C. Black) well into the late 19th century.

1834 S.D.U.K. Comparative Rivers

1834 SDUK Rivers Chart

A Map of the Principal Rivers shewing Their Courses, Countries, and Comparative Lengths.- This curious comparative rivers chart published in 1834 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge is somewhat unique in that it imagines all of the great rivers of the world letting out into a circular inland sea. Concentric circles show the general lengths of the rivers as the bird files, but cannot take into account the twists and turns of the rivers themselves. What this chart does show is, to a degree, the direction and course of the river’s flow. Direction, which in other comparative rivers charts is indicated textually, here is illustrated visually. Nevertheless, though innovative and physically attractive, the S.D.U.K. comparative rivers chart never caught on beyond its initial publication. It is unclear to us whether or not the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge ever published a separate comparative mountains chart.

Heights Of The Principal Mountains In The World. Lengths Of The Principal Rivers In The World- This stunning mountains and rivers chart was drawn by the

Mitchell's 1846 Comparative Mountains and Rivers Chart

Mitchell's 1846 Comparative Mountains and Rivers Chart

American engraver H. S. Tanner in 1836. The example at right is S. A. Mitchell’s 1846 use of Tanner’s engraving for his own important Atlas. This stunning center weighted chart, built on the Finley model, makes the significant advance of incorporating both mountains and rivers with substantial scientific and statistical data. The problem with both this map and Finley’s is that the center weighted style fails to express context on a local level, thus diminish the magnitude of smaller yet highly significant ranges (like the Andes or the Alps) in comparison to the majesty of the Himalayas. Mitchell published this chart in his atlas from 1846 to the late 1850s before discontinuing the series and selling his map plates to DeSilver.

Andriveau-Goujon's 1850 Comparative Mountains Chart

Andriveau chart showing volcanic activity.

Tableau Comparatif de la Forme et de la Hauteur des Principales Montagnes du Globe Terrestre, Dedie a Monsieur le Baron, Alexdre. de Humboldt- Another fine French comparative mountains chart produced by Andriveau-Goujon c. 1850. This chart is an entirely independent engraving by Amboise Tardieu and is dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt, who inspire this entire genre. No less than eight volcanoes are depicted spitting flames into the air. Though other charts of the period also identified volcanoes in this way, Tardieu takes the idea to an entire new level, thus establishing a convention that would later be developed expanded upon by other chart makers. This chart’s greatest drawback is that while it effectively shows the great mountains of the world relative to one another, it fails to offer continental even hemispheric context. In this sense it is a step backwards from the earlier 1817 Lizars and Thomson comparative mountains chart.

1864 German Comparative Mountains Chart

1864 German Comparative Mountains Chart

Die Benkannteren Hoehen uber der Meeres Flache in Transparenten Profilen. - This German chart issued by publisher Justus Perthes in 1864 is of a style that evolved independently in Germany between 1840 and 1870. In this example mountains are shown in a transparent profile with multiple ranges overlapping. While the chart focuses on the Alps, which would have been significant to the Perthes audience, it also incorporates the mountains of America, Africa, and Asia, as well as the Caucuses, Scotland and England. While this excessively complex style of rendering comparative elevation never caught on outside of Germany, its sophisticated use of profile may have had an impact on the early 20th century comparative global elevation profiles that adorn the base of many modern school maps.

1855 colton's Mountains & Rivers

1855 Colton's Mountains & Rivers Chart

Mountains and Rivers- In 1856 J. H. Colton introduced the first American published Comparative Mountains and Rivers chart to embrace the Bulla model in which mountains appear in the lower right and rivers in the upper left. Though not a direct copy of the Bulla map, the association is obvious and often correlates exactly with the earlier chart. This form had a number of advantages, not the least of which that it managed to place the world’s great mountains in proximity to one another regardless of their physical location. This however, was also its greatest disadvantage, for in taking the mountains out of context it became nearly impossible to relate them on a continental rather than global level. Many of the changes to the comparative mountains and rivers convention that would develop later in the 19th century were in response to this issue.

1864 Johnson's Mountains and Rivers

1864 Johnson's Mountains & Rivers

Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of Africa. / Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of Asia. / Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of Europe. Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of South America. Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of North America.- Initially the prominent American atlas publisher A. J. Johnson based his mountains and rivers chart upon Colton’s chart above. However, in 1864 Johnson re-imagined his mountains and rivers chart in an attempt to address the issue of context by isolating and grouping mountains by continent and incorporating them into five distinct charts. His is also possibly addressing his clientele from whom the nearby Rockey mountains are far more important than the distant peaks of Asia. While Johnson’s chart does give users a relative perspective on a continental level, it fails to maintain a uniform scale, thus sabotaging the need to relate mountains globally. Johnson published this chart in his important and popular atlases well into the 1870s, but the convention he established never caught on with other publishers and remains distinctly Johnsonian.

1851 Tallis Mountains and Rivers

1851 Tallis Mountains and Rivers

A Comparative View Of The Principal Waterfalls, Islands, Lakes, Rivers and Mountains, In The Western Hemisphere / …Eastern Hemisphere- John Tallis and company, publishing in 1851 segregated mountains, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and Islands by hemisphere. Clearly another attempt at addressing the context issue, Tallis succeeds on the hemispheric level, but again fails globally as the two charts are not comparable in scale. The most significant advancement of this chart was to place all of the common comparative values of each hemisphere into a single plate. Future mapmakers, inspired by this work would develop the hemisphere model considerably.


Mitchell's important combination of the comparative chart and the hemisphere map.

Western Hemisphere. / Eastern Hemisphere.- Samuel Augustus Mitchell Jr. (son of the above S. A. Augustus Sr.) was possibly inspired by the Tallis model when he chose to forgo a separate mountains and rivers chart and instead incorporate this data into his existing hemispheric projections. This was an important stepping stone in the ultimate resolution of the context issue and is one of the first examples of a comparative geological chart and a map on the same sheet. When Mitchell’s separate hemispheric plates were ultimately joined into a single double hemisphere sheet, comparative mountain and river data had to be adjusted for scale on a globular level.

1779 Gray Map of the World in Hemispheres - most likely the first modern comparative mountains and rivers chart.

1779 Gray Map of the World in Hemispheres - most likely the first modern comparative mountains and rivers chart.

Gray’s New Map of the World in Hemispheres, with Comparative Views of the Heights of the Principal Mountains and Lengths of the Principal Rivers on the Globe.- This map and chart, introduced in 1885 by O.W. Gray and Son must be considered the first modern comparative mountains and rivers chart. Gray combines Mitchell Jr.’s hemispheres into a single global double hemispheric projection and incorporates correctly scaled comparative data in each of the map’s corners. The advantages of this system are obvious, for not only does Grey offer comparative data isolated hemispherically, he also places each in such that it can also be compared globally. Possibly pandering to his audience, Gray also incorporates a center weighted chart that details the peaks of the United States.

Subsequent comparative mappings of the world’s mountains and rivers generally follow the Gray model. Maps of today typically abandon hemispheric limitations and attempt to show elevation contextually using a global cross-section in which the placement of individual geographic features roughly correspond to their longitudinal bracket.

Wolter, J. A., “The Heights of Mountains and the Lengths of Rivers”.

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6 Responses to “The Evolution of the Comparative Mountains and Rivers Chart in the 19th Century”

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  5. [...] character was the USA’s preeminent entrepreneur cartographer in the late 1800s. This comparative style was originally developed by a fellow called Colton, but Johnston was perhaps a more savvy [...]

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