The 1940s Happened in Greyscale

Today we continue our trend of occasionally looking at positive, rather than negative, examples of cartography. I wanted to show off a map by Michael Bricknell, a student at the University of Wisconsin, which concerns the balloon bomb attacks on the US by Japan during the Second World War, and which recently won first prize at the Wisconsin Land Information Association’s annual conference.

Reported Balloon Bomb Incidents, by Michael Bricknell


Another detail

The colors are what really make this map, in my opinion. I am a big fan of subtle color schemes, which leave most of the crayons in the box. I think they’re easier on the eyes; they don’t shout at you with a bright rainbow that demands attention. Here, a simple palette of greys and reds goes a long way toward focusing the reader’s eyes and establishing a visual hierarchy. Imagine if this map were made with a bright blue ocean and green land and brown type — how well would the red dots stand out then? A reduced, subtle palette makes it a lot easier to bring the important information into the foreground — to create a figure-ground contrast, between what’s critical and what’s supplementary. It’s also an emotionally appropriate aesthetic, I believe. We’re dealing with topics of war and violence. Again, subdued colors fit the subject matter’s tone — bright colors would be out of place here.

The map feels a little like a 1940s intelligence report on the subject. The title typeface and the face used on the captions for each panel has a nicely militaristic feel. The greyscale, while advantageous for the other reasons mentioned above, is also very much suited to the time period. Color printing and color film were rare, and so the most of us who weren’t alive during that time tend to imagine World War II as taking place in a greyscale world.

Finally, I’ll point out the graph at the bottom. It’s quite efficient. It aligns nicely with the map of the North Pacific, and packs two graphs into one space — elevation of the balloons and the number recovered at different longitude ranges. The day/night shading is a helpful addition, as it emphasizes the sense of time better than the scale of hours along the bottom can do on its own.

In all, a worthy effort. An interesting story with a strong, coherent aesthetic behind it.

I have focused only on the positive in this post, but a more balanced treatment, positive and negative, of the work would be beneficial. In fact, when sharing his map with me, Mr. Bricknell requested constructive criticisms. In an effort to generate audience engagement, I am posing to you, the reader, a challenge (as suggested by Mr. Bricknell). Please leave comments containing your own critique of his work. I will hold back the rest of my opinions for now, to avoid unduly influencing you.


8 Responses to “The 1940s Happened in Greyscale”

  1. 17th March, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Even after staring for a while in an attempt to find something wrong and offer constructive (no, douchey) criticism, all I really want to do is echo how damn nice this map is. I nod in agreement with everything in this post.

    But I did manage to think of two things. First, the wind speed isolines don’t entirely do it for me. Better would be the prevailing wind directions (if available), leaving us to rely on the graph at the bottom for an idea of speed. My brain really wants to fill in the unknowable details of the exact paths that the balloons took, which the wind speeds don’t really allow for without direction (even though we can of course see where the balloons ended up).

    Second, the sequential dot colors suggest quantity or some other numeric value more than they do dates. But I don’t have a good suggestion for something better!

  2. 2 Glenn Brauen
    18th March, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    I really like this map. As you say, the muted colours work really well.

    If I were to suggest a change in the design, it would be to try to avoid the use of the Mercator projection for the wind speed map and the way that is used to set up the graph below it. In the current design, the regular spacing of the meridians on the projection are carried down into the graph showing the distribution of the balloon landing sites classified according to latitude of the landing site, as a proxy for distance. The double duty of the graph to show what I believe is an average travel rate of the balloons and indicating how long the balloons would be expected to take to cover the distances reinforces the use of latitude as a proxy for distance travelled.

    But then why not use a distance preserving projection for this map? The launch sites seem to be reasonably close, given the overall scale of the map, so an azimuthal equidistant projection centred on the launch sites would allow a map user to read off the real distances travelled and you could redesign your graph to reclassify according to the real distance.

    Thanks to Michael for sharing the map and Daniel for creating this blog!


  3. 22nd March, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Oooo, how did I miss this? Fantastic example of a publication quality map of real (GISable) data. Looks like something you’d see in a 1940’s news reel. I agree with Daniel 100%, the use of almost all grey tones and a few elements in (commie alarmist) red is what makes the map work. This is what I would call a “teaching map”, it has a lot in terms of appropriate use of cartographic design while respecting the data.

    My only critiques are fairly minor:
    1) State and province lines could be thinned down or screened back a little. They are the same density as the continental lines and some of the type. Pulling them back would help move the nation boundaries up a level in the visual hierarchy.
    2) Projections are inconsistently applied between the main map frames. Not sure if this a bad thing, but I noticed it right away.
    3) The shadow on the large red arrow bottom frame does not seem to match the smaller arrow shadows above.
    4) Aisa is too dark. It creates a kind of island effect where the ocean near the western pacific begins to look like land. Maybe a lighter shade would better.
    5) It might have been cool to see the large “launched” arrow drawn across the entire pacific, generalizing the route of most of the balloons. Although I see how that would ignore the many odd strikes away from the core US/Canada zone.

    Cool map, any chance we could get a link to the full version of this?

  4. 5 Erik Swanson
    29th March, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Very nice map, on a subject I have found quite interesting since I first learned about it a decade or more ago. I just have a few proofreading-type text edits to suggest. The 5 kg bomb I would term “anti-personnel” rather than “anti-personal”, and the references I have seen report it as a one 15 kg bomb (rather than one 5 kg bomb). And if I may be so bold as to offer the following corrected text block:

    The Japanese military launched nearly
    9,300 balloon bombs to attack the United
    States during World War II. Launched from
    three primary sites on the east coast of
    Japan the balloons followed the strong
    wind currents to reach North America.
    Documented military accounts from
    November 1944 to July 1945 counted 285
    positive sightings either on the ground or
    in the air. The technology placed inside
    these weapons allowed them to regulate
    their altitude between 30,000-40,000 ft
    and release their weapons after a period
    of time. The only casualties on mainland
    United States during World War II were
    caused when an Oregon church group
    investigated a downed balloon while on
    a picnic, setting off the device.

    Those are my suggestions; others will undoubtedly have different opinions about comma placement. But I do note that it was a church group, rather than a family. Killed were the pastor’s wife, and five children. Two of the children were related, but none were related to the pastor’s wife.

  5. 6 Anthony
    13th July, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    The changing shades of red/pink for timeline doesn’t work for me. Before I saw that part of the legend, I thought it would represent some sort of damage evaluation – dud, exploded-no damage, exploded-property damage, exploded-injuries/deaths, or something like that.

    I’d also want to see some internal detail in the states – big cities, major military installations, or the like. There’s a cluster I recognize as being in and around Sonoma County, but how close to Sacramento is the cluster to the northeast? How close to LA is that cluster in Southern California? How close to Boise is that one in the middle of Idaho?

  6. 2nd September, 2010 at 8:36 am

    I want to thank Mr. Huffman for this opportunity to share my map. This feedback is most appreciated. This exercise was an exciting project and was influenced by the August 24, 2009 Episode No.9 from The History Detectives. The lack of any (good) map from this episode made me want to search for this data. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library and found the Smithsonian Annals of Flight No. 9, 1973 article. This article included maps and data researched by historian Mr. Robert C. Mikesh. I could not find a recent map on this topic. I feel this was my re-interpretation of the data based on existing sources and I hope to revisit this project in the future to improve based on these suggestions.

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