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How Do You Map the Ocean Floor? A review of the book, Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor, by Hali Felt

Soundings Hali FeltHow do you map the ocean floor?  Who created the first map of the bottom of the sea?

Cartographers were putting the depths of the ocean on the map long before Google Street View provided their very first underwater panoramic images of the Great Barrier Reef, and the Apple map app shipwreck.  The book, Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor, by Hali Felt, tells the story.  If you are interested in exploring the history of women in science, and the changes in scientific thought over the last century, then this book is worthy of your time.  Hali Felt brings Marie Tharp and her partner, Bruce Heezen to life.  The biography paints a picture of a unique and remarkable person, how she came to be, and her accomplishments before the digital age, when a woman was not invited, or acknowledged, in the scientific community.

Marie Tharp’s physiographic diagrams of the ocean floor, illustrated to the world, the theories of plate tectonics and continental drift. The story involves a lot of politics and drama in the scientific community.  It makes me glad that I decided to go into the family map printing business, instead of academia.  I loved Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor, Hali Felt’s biography of Marie Tharp, and not just because she wrote about Williams & Heintz Map Corp.  My dad used to talk about Marie’s visits to have us print her maps.  He described her as “quite a character”, a unique and colorful individual, bubbling over with personality.  It was a joy to find Williams & Heintz, my dad, and grandfather mentioned in the pages.

In the fall of 1961 the Geological society of America published Marie and Bruce’s second physiographic diagram.  This diagram showed the South Atlantic Ocean, included the Caribbean and Scotia seas, and the eastern margin of the South Pacific Ocean.  Marie spent four years (from 1957, when she finished the North Atlantic, until 1961) drawing the floors of these oceans, which had never been done before; it took her only ten months to re-create the land masses surrounding the oceans, all of which had been well documented before.  When preparing these diagrams, Marie followed the same method she’d used when drawing the North Atlantic: plotting profiles, examining adjacent tracks for trends and regional characteristics, sketching the relief of the terrain along the profiles, and filling in blank areas by extrapolating and interpolating.

In July 1961, while the physiographic diagram of the South Atlantic Ocean was in the process of being printed at the William and Heintz Map Corporation in Washington, D.C., Marie wrote three letters to Bruce.  These letters show how deeply invested she was in what happened to her work when she was finished drawing. After making a trip to D.C. to meet with the printers, she went to Ohio, where her brother had carried on at the farm in Bellefontaine after their father’s death.

“Dear Bruce,” she wrote on July 3, “I thought I would write you a letter about my adventures in Washington with the thought that it might save on your telephone bill.” Bruce had just returned from Russia, a guest of the Academy of Sciences, and Marie wrote that she had waited until she was sure he was “back safe and sound.”

“I left Piermont Monday, June 19 about 5:30 p.m. and arrived at Williams & Heintz next day about 1 p.m.,” she wrote, “having spent the night at a Mobil somewhere between Phila. and Baltimore. Fortunately, both Mr. Heintz & his son were there-the son showed me all around the plant-really a wonderful setup.” On her tour, Marie got to see printing presses and a camera as “big as a room,” none of which would be used on her map because it was, she repeatedly mentioned to Bruce, “too big.”

“I didn’t see the actual outfits they did use on our map-but there was also a huge pie-shaped vat that they pour the colored inks in & whirl around to make the color proofs.”

The printers, Marie told Bruce, had made up a blue-ink print of the South Atlantic map for her to review. All the ocean floor’s texture had been transferred to a metal plate in order to make a negative, but Marie deemed the print made from it too pale-a disappointing result from four years of work.   So she retouched” the whole thing, took a “steel point which must have been used for 20 years or so” and etched the grooves deeper, thousands of miniature valleys in which blue ink would pool instead of water. She fixed a mistake this way, too. The Shag Rocks, a group of islands west of the Falkland Islands, were blurry, and the printer “offered to splice a piece in the negative and I expect they could have done it perfectly,” she wrote. “But I went ahead, scratching in more lines on the negative & the next day still scratching.”

There were also, she said, some mistakes with the markings of degrees along the border and concerning the legend she “suggested that Columbia University be set in smaller type.” The big black Old English typeface “seemed a little overpowering,” so they reduced it by about one-third. “It looked much better.” And then there was the matter of the words Lamont Geological Observatory. “I also wish I had suggested that [they] be moved down a V8 inch from our names-just for proportion’s sake-but I didn’t.”

The map’s contrast worried her the most. “I do hope you will give this matter of contrast your particular attention. I should be crushed to death if it is a washed out print … honest to goodness it’s worth another trip to Washington to see the contrast of the print before a color proof is made … I guess this is enuff for now.” She signed off with the words, “Love Marie.”

Her second letter, dated July 25, 1961, and sent from Bellefontaine, begins much like the first: she is worried about Bruce’s phone bill reaching “astronomical proportions.” She is “flabbergasted” to hear that the new oceanography building on the Lamont campus is almost done. “Excuse this writing but my hand is stiff from painting. I am doing the inside hall-changing dark doors to yellow. On rainy days I paint inside & when it quits raining for two days in a row I do windows outdoors.” There follows some discussion of the lakes in the Andes. “They should not be solid blue or green or edged in green. If they do turn out any of the above ways I think the best thing would be to call up Mr. Heintz and have his boy paint out the color overlay & print the damn lakes in yellow.”

The paragraphs that follow all use the word also: “I also hope you like.” “I should also like to remind you.” “Also I should like to know.” “Also if this guy.” “I am also happy to hear your little model is working out so well” -she was referring here to a globe of the world’s ocean floors with raised relief that Bruce was trying to make. “Have you yet gotten a hold of some dental wax or softer material for final details? … Somehow I would like to be back helping you. It’s very lonely here. Well, keep me posted & write to me. Love Marie.”

Marie never mentioned, in her letters from July 1961, all the new features that she had exposed for the first time in her map of the South Atlantic. What would she have said anyway? Also I should like to point out that we showed the Equatorial Mid-Ocean Canyon, which debauches into the Pernambuco Abyssal Plain, for the first time? Also I should like to note that we showed the Ameghino Canyon, off the coast of Argentina, and the submarine canyon of the Orange River, off the coast of South Africa? Also I should like to remind you that we discovered the Romanche and Chain fracture zones? Bruce didn’t need to know these things, but in order to know the importance of her work, we do.

I wrote previously about Marie Tharp here.

Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor

Hali Felt

Henry Holt

352 pp.

From The Map Vault of Williams & Heintz Map Corp.- Tectonic Map of Mexico 1961

Tectonic Map of Mexico Printed by Williams & Heintz Map Corp. in 1961

Tectonic Map of Mexico Printed by Williams & Heintz Map Corp. in 1961

Tectonic map of Mexico LedgendWilliams & Heintz Map Corp.  printed the Tectonic Map of Mexico in 1961 for the Geological  Society of America.  The map was compiled by Zoltan de Czerna. The Bathymetry was compiled by Bruce C. Heezen.  The preparation of the base map and final drafting was done by David Saldaña.  They spent the years from 1956 to 1959 compiling and preparing this map.

After printing, we would inspect each individual sheet.  Because even though this is a multi-color map, it was printed on only a two color press,  a more common press in the early 1960’s.  This required the paper to be fed through the press multiple times.  The difficulty was, that if the paper did not feed into the press exactly the same every time, it would result in a misregistration of the image.  Since the run lengths of these jobs was rarely more than several hundred we used to run a significant amount of overs and when the job was finished each sheet would be individually inspected to catch the misregistered sheets.

This level of inspection is not possible with runs in the millions, so today it’s a good thing we have six color presses.

For more information on print registration and map colors see:

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