Visualization of 19th Century Ship Routes from Publicly Available NOAA Data Set

Ben Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, has visualized the routes of 19th Century ships using publicly available data set from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The resulting image is a hauntingly beautiful image that outlines the continents and highlights the trade winds. It shows major ports, and even makes a strong visual case for the need for the Panama and Suez Canals.

For Schmidt, this was an exercise in working with datasets and its context to history and humanity.

Ship’s logs can illustrate what it might mean to build this historical expertise on a digital source base.

Ben Schmidt Uses ICOADS Maury Data Set of Ships' Logs to Visualize 19th Century Shipping Routes

The data that Schmidt used was originally created by 19th Century oceanographer Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury from ships’ logs. Maury was one of the first to take a large collection of “analogue” information and “digitize” it. Schmidt noted, in a blog post that Maury did this before the advent of computers.

…the essence of digitization is abstraction. Abstraction necessarily entails loss; but it also enables new connections by making things directly comparable that weren’t before.

Maury took the “analogue” stories and experiential nature of the ships logs and abstracted it to something that is useful as an aggregate set.

The whaling ship logbooks I’ve been looking at started as incredibly detailed, analogue, accounts of a voyage. They were written without any standard forms… They included, for example, hand-carved stamps made by the sailors themselves, saying whether a whale was seen, wounded, or killed…

The result of Maury’s work, though lacking its original humanistic richness, was now standardized and abstracted. They all can be viewed within a context of other entries. Maury had used the logs to chart ocean currents and track the migration patterns of whales. This lead to his advocacy for the Northwest Passage.

For further reading on the digitization and abstraction of data, visit Ben Schmidt’s blog, Sapping Attention.

Tate Srey - Tate Srey is an artist and an engineer. He is a nerd who likes to lift heavy things and put them back down again. He loves to run and swim and build things. He makes his own wine and beer, and dies a little inside when he has to pay more than $5 for draft. He has a natural affection for people with a teacher's spirit-- those who will share their knowledge and experience with others. Some men just want to watch the world learn. Tate can be found on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.


  1. good grief hipsters.. - 03/12/2014 reply

    cool.. but considering the timeframe how can this article mention the Northwest passage while not even mentioning the MIDDLE passage or slavery..?

    • Teresa Maldonado - 03/13/2014 reply

      Good point. Probably the middle passage routes are not as apparent because the slave trade was abolished in Great Britain in 1807 and the U.S. in 1808. It was abolished (very ineffectively) in Brazil in 1831 and more definitively in 1850. Slaves continued to be funneled into Brazil and Cuba (the last two slave states in the nineteenth-century to abolish slavery) but much of the nineteenth-century slave trade was illegal, persecuted (primarily by the British Navy), and therefore clandestine. It looks like this map was primarily constructed by data from whaling ships. It would probably look different if somehow the slave ship logs could be added in…

  2. […] a Nemzeti Óceán- és Légkörkutató Hivataltól (NOAA) szerezte be az adatbázist, a Matthew Fontain Maury 19. századi polihisztor által gy?jtött […]

  3. This is a great dataset indeed! Let me point to the CLIWOC dataset gathered by EU program of British, Dutch, French and Spanish ships captains’ logs from 1750 – 1850 – I only mapped ships locations but it had also all the climatological data recorded then – I wonder if this data set has it too (must go look LOL).

  4. It’s a beautiful image. Is it available as a print?

  5. Dave Dooling - 01/05/2014 reply

    I’d love to see this broken into decades, or an animation by years, since the 1800s were a century of transition as chronometers gradually became affordable for shipowners, thus letting them find longitude accurately. This would explain some of the N-S and E-W tracks. Also, some of the North America-Africa track probably were slave ships in the early 1800s, and tracks around Cape Horn were for the California Gold Rush until the transcontinental railroad opened. A lot of history can be illustrated here. Great work!

    • Dave Dooling - 01/05/2014 reply

      Ahh — looking at the animation I see a lot of the tracks were generated by whalers. So, a version with whaling subtracted would be neat to see.

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