I have come across a fascinating article from the Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine this week by Simon Willis. We often take for granted how accessible the world has become since the advent of the jet age. Even the world’s longest commercial flight in 2015 is still under 20 hours non-stop. But how often do we really think about global travel time a mere century ago. Or, more importantly, how far we have come in connecting the world’s remotest regions. In 1914 a royal cartographer to King George V, John G. Bartholomew, published “An Atlas of Economic Geography” which included among its myriad of maps and descriptions, an isochronic map (defined in a dictionary as “a line on a map or diagram connecting places from which it takes the same time to travel to a certain point”).
Simon Willis’ Economist article noted above describes John. G. Bartholomew’s An Atlas of Economic Geography in the following manner:
“It was a book intended for schoolboys and contained everything a thrusting young entrepreneur, imperialist, trader or traveller could need. As well as the predictable charts of rainfall, temperature and topography, it had maps showing where you could find rubber, cotton or rice; maps showing the distribution of commercial languages, so that if you wanted to do business in Indonesia you knew to do so in Dutch; and maps showing the spread of climatic diseases, so that if you did find yourself in Indonesia you knew to look out for tropical dysentery.” – Simon Willis
So, just how long did it take to get around the world in 1914? Within a 5 day journey, you could reach much of continental Europe, the mid-Atlantic, Istanbul (aka Constantinople), and northern Africa. In the 5 to 10-day timeframe, one could travel to Lake Baikal in Siberia or Winnipeg in central Canada. In 10 to 20 days or 20 to 30 days, a traveler could reach most global destinations and ports via ship. The most demanding travel of over 40 days to regions like the rich rainforests of central Africa and South America, Australia, Papua New Guinea, the sub-Arctic regions like Alaska and Siberia, and the rugged and beautiful terrain of Mongolia and Tibet. While some of these distances can be explained simply by the infrastructure that was in place in 1914 (primarily ships and railroad), it is nonetheless striking to think of being able to travel from London to Winnipeg faster than say the Sahara in Africa (which is much closer geographically). Geographic obstacles also played a major part of travel times. For example, a traveler could voyage from London to Beijing in 10 days at best, but over 40 days to reach Tibet or western China which was thousands of miles closer to London.
The next time you travel to destinations around the world give a quick thought to the advances over the past century. The delays, inconvenience, security, and cost of modern travel can be seen from a new and different perspective over time. The world has become a smaller place without doubt. Let us hope that as the world further connects and integrates, that we still hold the world’s beauty in high esteem and wonder – no matter how quickly we can now reach it.
Map #1 – Isochronic Distances, 1914
Map #2 – Isochronic Distances, 1881
- Isochronic Passage Chart by Francis Galton 1881. What is a Isochrone Map? The Alternative Transport Blog. 2015. Retrieved from https://alternativetransport.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/what-is-an-isochrone-map/.