Alexander Keith Johnston, a Scottish cartographer, died July 9, 1871, at age 66.  Earlier in the century, Alexander von Humboldt had demonstrated the virtues of the thematic map, which depicts, in addition to geography, such other features as crops, minerals, or the distribution of animals. Heinrich Berghaus, in Germany, had published the first true thematic atlas in 1845-48, and Johnson decided to transform the Berghaus atlas for an English market. His first version of 1848 duplicated Berghaus’s atlas in size and elegance, which is to say it was enormous, and difficult even to carry around. So in 1850 Johnston published The Physical Atlas of Natural Phenomena, a slightly smaller edition which quickly created a market for this new kind of map. It merited a second edition in 1856. The Linda Hall Library owns all three editions of Johnston’s Physical Atlas (as well as Berghaus’s original Physikalischer Atlas), and we displayed a Johnston map of alpine glaciers in our 2008 exhibition, Ice: A Victorian Romance.

One of the visual attractions of Johnston’s atlases are the many vignettes that decorate the maps. Thus when he wants to map the world-wide distribution of animals (see second image above), he uses every empty space to show us what these animals look like, so we have insets on the edentates (armadillos, aardvarks, etc, first image) and on mountain mammals (third image).  Another zoology plate allows us to compare the old world pachyderms (elephants, rhinos, etc.; fourth image) with the pachyderms of the New World (tapirs, peccaries, etc; fifth image). The vignettes seem to make the maps come alive in a very attractive way.

All of the images above were drawn from the 1848 edition of Johnston’s’ Physical Atlas.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to