Waldo Tobler (1930-2018)

Colette Cauvin-Reymond, March 10th, 2018, analyzes the contribution of one of the greatest creators of scientific cartography.

From 1956, when he first published, to his passing on 20 February 2018, the teaching and publications of this Professor Emeritus had a major impact on several generations of geographers and cartographers. His work lives on since he is currently being rediscovered by some researchers and we can only wish for it to continue for a long time as Waldo Tobler has profoundly renewed and transformed cartography. He truly contributed to making cartography a full-blown scientific discipline, a status that was acknowledged at the Vienna conference in 1975.

Waldo Tobler graduated from Washington University in Seattle. He did his Master Thesis on hypsometric colours in 1957 and his Ph.D. on projection systems in 1961. It is worth noting that very early on he developed an interest in computing as shown in an article entitled ‘Automation and cartography’ published in 1959. This interest for both computing and projection systems characterised Waldo Tobler. Actually, two fundamental publications almost frame his whole work, namely his Ph.D. thesis Map transformations of geographic space (1961) and his collaborative publication from 2000, Map projection transformation. Both publications, as well as the ensuing articles and presentations given over the last few years, express and summarise a large part of his way of thinking.

Indeed, Waldo Tobler’s entire work was dedicated to cartography but it was cartography that went far beyond the mere illustration of a textual document as it made full use of digital tools. It always integrated mathematics and computer, and relied on the bases identified during his research on projection systems with the goal to understand geographic phenomena —particularly the movements— by explicitly integrating spatial components. The principles of the projection system were to be found both in comparison of shapes and cartograms. Cartographic generalisations were considered as functions that modified the data and not as approximate graphical simplifications.

Waldo Tobler’s inventions are numerous and more topical than ever since they are used in GIS, interpolations and projection systems. Several broad lines of research emerge from the numerous publications of this ‘geo-cartographer’ or ‘carto-geographer’.

  • Cartography as a whole and computer-assisted cartography, both best summarised by the expression ‘analytical cartography’ penned by the author himself [Tobler, 1976]. It globally covers all matters relating to cartography such as resolution, aggregation, data and discretisation but also, of course, the other fields the author more specifically worked on and developed.
  • Hence, the cartographic generalisation of spatialised data includes transformations such as interpolation, the smoothing and filtering that can be classified into cartographic transformations of state. As of the projection systems and anamorphosis, they are also cartographic transformations albeit of position. This grouping is explained by the fact that most of such anamorphosis are explicitly built on the principles of projection systems.
  • At last, his work on movement, its modelling and representation, deserves a special place as it was of great significance, even fundamental, for the author. It is exemplified in the first sentence— Geographical movement is critically important— of his presentation entitled ‘Movement talk’ [2004].

Waldo Tobler was always happy to share and discuss his research during the appointments he granted so easily. He also very generously passed on and handed out his publications and software, even during those last few years. He welcomed visiting researchers, whatever the length of their stay, in a direct and pragmatic way, showing them himself where the most useful places in the university were. He was particularly fond of taking people to the library where, in the 80s, he encouraged them to delve into the shelves of all subjects. The remarkable and inspiring interest he had in transdisciplinary matters, from biology to physics and psychology, shows throughout his publications.

His work, the richness of which marked the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, will continue to impact the development of cartography and geography. May his open-mindedness and his constant curiosity about everything guide researchers in those subjects through the transformations that are a feature of our time.

KRETSCHMER I. (ed.), 1975-1977, Studies in Theoretical Cartography, F. Deuticke. Wien, 303 p.
TOBLER W.R., 1957, An empirical Evaluation of hypsometric Colors, M.T of Arts, University of Washington, Seattle, 86 p.
TOBLER W.R., 1961, Map Transformations of geographic Space, Ph.D. University of Washington, Seattle, Microfilm, 183 p.
TOBLER W.R., 1976, “Analytical Cartography”, The American Cartographer, vol. 3, n° 1, pp. 21-31.
YANG Q., SNYDER J.P., TOBLER W.R., 2000, Map Projection Transformation. Principles and Applications, Taylor & Francis, London, New York, 367 p.
TOBLER W.R., 2007, “Movement Talk”, Présentation Powerpoint, Tobler-Space-Talk, UCSB, Santa Barbara Cal., www.csiss.org/SPACE/workshops/2007/

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