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Discussion: Why is north at the top of the map?

in: Orienteering; General

Jun 15, 2016 1:26 PM # 
Here's an article from the BBC looking at the history of why maps are made with North at the top
Jun 15, 2016 4:06 PM # 
This reminds me of a map in Burlington, Vermont, America that had magnetic east lines (inadvertently, apparently).
Jun 15, 2016 4:25 PM # 
The observation that people associate "up" and "north" is interesting. The UC Berkeley campus is rectangular and on a steep hill. Maps of campus are often produced with east (and uphill) at the top because they fit better on a sheet of paper (and the direction in which you approach campus from downtown and the BART station). People who should know better get their directions confused, even going so far as to say that the "Northside" and "Southside" neighborhoods are west and east of the campus respectively.
Jun 15, 2016 6:20 PM # 
North being up works perfectly for Toronto. The southern border is a lake, an ancient lakeshore runs roughly east-west slightly north of downtown, and a moraine runs roughly east-west slightly north of the city. Downtown Toronto is on a gentle north-south slope. Subject to crossing major reentrants, going north in Toronto is not just going up on the map, it also means going up in the terrain.
Jun 15, 2016 7:48 PM # 
yes that is correct about Toronto but here in Hamilton down the road and at the west end of Lake Ontario the lake is north of most of the city. It confuses a lot of our friends from Toronto. So much so that about 30 years ago a Toronto orienteer drew a map in Hamilton and accidentally put south at the top of the map!! It was caught just before going to the printers (Mylar drawing).
Jun 15, 2016 9:50 PM # 
It certainly gets confusing and disorienting if you've grown up in Toronto and you think about directions while driving past the end of the lake towards Niagara. It can feel like the world is upside down because up is the wrong direction.

Also, in Toronto every north-south street is numbered so that 1 is at the south end, with the numbers always going up as you head north. Yet another way that north means up.
Jun 15, 2016 10:10 PM # 
As someone who grew up on the east coast of Aus and hence daily experienced the sunrise over ocean I found it incredibly difficult to find east or west when visited the west coast where remarkably the sun rose over land and set over water. How'd that happen??? I didn't realise how instinctive it had become.
Jun 15, 2016 10:54 PM # 
@tinytoes, humble-brag much don't you? :)
Not everyone has an oceanfront view everyplace they move
Jun 16, 2016 12:58 AM # 
tinytoes, here in Albany, WA, Australia, Southern Hemisphere, bottom of the globe according to convention, the coast is roughly east-west, but the sun (as viewed from my balcony Nikolay) rises over the ocean because of the big bay and with the various different angles the shoreline runs, I (despite my situational awareness being just a tad better than tRicky's) have to really think about which way is north particularly on gray days. But yes, heading to the east coast of 'Straya, it was disconcerting to be looking out to see the sea but have N on the 'wrong' side.
Jun 16, 2016 1:06 AM # 
I grew up in Perth WA and would be keen to see the 'corrected' map adopted.
Jun 16, 2016 1:55 AM # 
tinytoes, it was only recently a visitor from the east coast tried to tell me the nearby ocean was east of Perth.
Jun 16, 2016 3:10 AM # 
I like Perth because the sun sets over the ocean just as it does in Adelaide :)
Jun 16, 2016 3:21 AM # 
tR the visitor might have been confusing one of those thumb compasses with E on the right - that is when holding it S-up as we know all down-unders do.
Jun 16, 2016 3:51 AM # 
Also on the "instinctive" direction - visiting northern hemisphere (both in China and Europe but these trips were 30 years apart) in the middle of the day with sun overhead what's this "south" business - the sun is"always" in the northern sky.
Nikolay - just visiting the west of Aus - too much talent over there for us to stay.;-)and it's not hard to get a piece of the coast here - us being an island and all!
Jun 16, 2016 9:43 AM # 
Interestingly (to me, at least), the Finnish words for North and bottom are closely (and quite obviously) related.
Jun 16, 2016 10:27 AM # 
North is at the top of the map because you are facing north. Otherwise you're doing it wrong.

So why isn't our sport called septentrioneering? Or possibly bore-eering ;).
Jun 16, 2016 1:18 PM # 
The Hungarian word for north is észak, which makes the north arrows on their maps a little confusing to outsiders.
Jun 16, 2016 1:37 PM # 
jjcote, you have to explain to me why that is confusing, you got me interested in that now...
Jun 16, 2016 1:57 PM # 
But at least occidentering exists...
Jun 16, 2016 5:09 PM # 
It certainly gets confusing and disorienting if you've grown up in Toronto and you think about directions while driving past the end of the lake towards Niagara. It can feel like the world is upside down because up is the wrong direction.

If you've grown up in Toronto, then you know full well that Toronto is the centre of the universe. Thus, the top of the map should simply be determined based on where you are, relative to Toronto. In Hamilton, obviously the top of the map should be west. In Niagara (on the south side of Lake Ontario), the top of the map should be south. Not at all surprising that a Toronto mapper might not use local conventions in places like that :-).
Jun 16, 2016 7:10 PM # 
Mr Wonderful:
RE: hungarian...because eszak abbreviates as "e"?
Jun 16, 2016 8:16 PM # 
Just got home from Japan, where most of the public map boards are oriented with up being the forward-facing direction of the reader.
Jun 16, 2016 11:18 PM # 
Jun 16, 2016 11:44 PM # 
@bshields – Interesting to hear that Japanese culture orients their signage intuitively. (Although some cultures probably use default reference frames that wouldn’t make this practice as intuitive.) There is a pretty large literature on the value of depicting forward as ‘up’ on signs (at least in Western cultures). Dan Montello gives a nice summary of some of it here:

Of course this issue is independent of what direction is depicted as up on a page.
Jun 17, 2016 12:42 AM # 
My take away from the article is that Mercator is responsible for most of the problems in today's society...but as a GIS dev I already knew that.
Jun 17, 2016 12:56 AM # 
@david Waller: it seems like it would be intuitive (and as an orienteer I certainly found them so) but one of the best parts of the Japanese maps was watching all the tourists walk up to one of the exquisitely drawn and perfectly oriented maps, stare at it for a moment, determine where the north arrow pointed, and then contort themselves to look at the map with north "up".
Jun 17, 2016 2:18 AM # 
When I lived in Japan, I found that if I said to a Japanese something like, let's turn south, they would have no clue which way I meant.

Those map boards in Japan are ubiquitous and, at least before gps and smartphones, were very important. Blocks, typically with very irregular shapes, are numbered and then each building within a block has a number. So, on exiting a train station with an address, you'd have to look at the map board to find the block you wanted, plan a route, then do a bit of map memory to get there.
Jun 19, 2016 12:52 AM # 
When I was a child, we always left my parents' house and headed South on any extended trip, as that was where all the highway entrances were located.

To this day my mental road map of anything within a few hundred miles of there is upside down. Once I get far enough away, it's no longer a problem.
Jun 19, 2016 9:40 AM # 
Nothing to do with north being up but our rogaine map over the weekend was scaled at 1:50,000 in the N/S direction and 1:60,000 in the E/W direction. Yep, the map maker somehow managed to 'shrink to fit' in just the one direction. It meant that taking bearings was a bit of an issue (unless you were heading in the direction of one of the compass points) but since I didn't compete, it didn't bother me.
Jun 19, 2016 8:12 PM # 
OMG WARA needs some help at times!
Jun 19, 2016 10:00 PM # 
That's creative, another trick to wheel out at the end of year do. Along with colours switched, mirror image, etc. Come on, chime in with more...
Jun 20, 2016 1:36 AM # 
It was quite annoying recently when I was at Olympic National Park and several of the maps had the top pointing north. However, they were oriented so that you face south while you read them, making everything upside-down.

If I recall, many of the Berkeley campus maps had similar issues of alignment.
Jun 20, 2016 1:45 AM # 
Furlong47 reminds me of another strange directional association.

In my mind, I have always imagined that Dorothy and her friends were walking from south-to-north along the yellow brick road as they travelled to the Emerald City, despite fact that they were actually traveling from east to west.

I suppose it's something intrinsically related to the north-south orientation of the river valley I grew up in, and the northward drive we always took on the freeway to reach the closest large cities.

This discussion thread is closed.