John P. Snyder and Map Projections, by P. A. Ahmetaj

John Snyder passed away on April 28, 1997 in Olney, MD. He was 71 years old. kam

What makes a man who never took a course in map projections a respected scientist in the field? An interest in maps which dates back to his childhood!

Background- John Parr Snyder was born April 12, 1926 in Indianapolis, IN. He married Jeanne Kallmeyer (a social worker) May 3, 1952 and had two children: Barbara and Carolyn. In 1948 he received a B.S.Ch.E. from Purdue University and in 1949 a S.M.Ch.E.P. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked for CIBA-GEIGY Corp., in Summit, N.J., as a chemical project engineer from 1956 to 1978. Between 1978 and 1980 he continued to work for CIBA-GEIGY but only part-time. In 1978, he had become a physical scientist specializing in map projections and related cartography with the U.S. Geological Survey where he continues to work.

The Story Unfolds- While in high school, John P. Snyder began a hobby of map projections (mapping the round earth on a flat surface mathematically . . . No small feat for a high school student or a seasoned cartographer!). Overwhelmed by the mathematics of map projections and the required hand computations using logarithm tables, he abandoned the project. Over thirty years later, he bought an $80.00 pocket calculator that would change his life. The seemingly uneventful action would soon renew his interest in map projections. Soon after, this led to a full time profession that would replace his career as a chemical engineer.

In 1976, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) encountered a problem. A system for reducing the amount of distortion caused when satellite pictures of the round Earth were printed on a flat page, had to be developed. This system would also have to correct for the simultaneous rotation of the Earth and the movement of the satellite. The mathematics involved were the stuff nightmares are made off. Mathematicians, cartographers and computer applications were part of the problem-solving team that tackled the intricate project . . . $22,000 in consulting fees later, the USGS was still unable to solve their problem

The USGS decided to appeal for help at a conference in 1976. John Snyder, while on vacation, had attended this conference. The USGS appealed for help and his newly purchased pocket calculator were all he needed to give his old hobby another shot. Working at home, he devised several dozen mathematical formulas that he later submitted, at no charge, to the USGS.

In 1978, two years after the conference, he started a new career at the USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia. Snyder's formulas were used to produce maps from the Landsat 4 satellite launched the summer of 1982.

The Book- What is the connection between John P. Snyder, Keith Clarke (our Chairman of course) and yours truly? Flattening the Earth: Two thousand years of Map Projections. Chicago and London. University of Chicago Press, 1993. Snyder wrote the book. Prof. Clarke made it the required reading for his Spring 1995 Seminar in Map Projections. And, you guessed it, I had to read it.

After the realization that Snyder's book was not filled cover to cover with convoluted mathematical equations as I had expected, I was able to appreciate the tremendous amount of research involved in making this book a reality. In reading this book, one can not help but to appreciate the dilemmas faced by map makers since the first representation of the Earth on a flat surface was attempted. Today, regardless of technological advances, map makers are still trying to determine, and continue to argue over, the most accurate way to depict, two-dimensionally, the many features of the Earth. How a mapmaker elects to do this affects the contents of the map and therefore the map reader's perception of the information being represented.

Over time, many map projections and transformations have been developed by map creators coming from diverse fields; the arts, religion, mathematics and engineering to name a few. The variation in what has been invented is striking and can sometimes be confusing. In reality, for any given map, more than one projection could be chosen. Some choices will serve established goals better than others but it is not unheard of for a poor choice, or bad design, to be popularized.

Snyder's book provides the reader with a broad view of the development of map projections. Diagrams and reproductions of early or original versions, as well as many modern renditions, illustrate how varied the possibilities are for creating maps of the entire world or only large areas.

In earlier times, maps were drawn with geometric tools even when their underlying nature could be expressed by simple equations. With the passage of time, however, maps were developed with more elaborate equations. Formulas were progressively adapted to represent variations on basic, but generally incompatible, characteristics representing either distance, area, local shapes or direction.

Attempting to write about map projections without introducing formulas is not an option if one is trying to provide an accurate rendition of the subject. Snyder introduced formulas throughout his book in a way that even the "mathematically challenged" (politically correct term used to address those who sob uncontrollably when presented with involved mathematical problems), is comfortable with.

The bibliography should be a separate chapter titled "Who's Who in the Mapping Sciences". During Prof. Clarke's projections seminar everyone in the classroom referred to, an treated, Snyder's bibliography as an encyclopedic source of information. The information contained in it transcended national and language boundaries.

Flattening the Earth: 2000 years of map projections is indisputably in a class by itself. It provides an exhaustive catalog that lists projections created from 500 B.C. to the present while concentrating on developments since the Renaissance. This is an awesome accomplishment, given the complexity of the subject and the huge number of projections produced. Snyder's book is a valuable reference for anyone interested in the history of map making and cartographic design. Other Snyder publications address a narrower range of map projections and illustrate practical and analytical techniques.

Other Snyder Publications-

Snyder also contributed articles on map projections to various journals.

Awards & Honors- Sndyder received an award of merit from American Association for State and Local History, 1970, for The Story of New Jersey's Civil Boundaries, 1606-1968; and the John Weseley Powell Award for U.S.Geological Survey, 1978.

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Last updated 9/26/97 by Karen Mulcahy -