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Waldo R. Tobler (1930 – 2018)


With the recent passing of Waldo R. Tobler, the twin disciplines of geography and cartography have lost one of its giants. Waldo Tobler was born in Switzerland in 1930, and passed away on 20 February 2018, with 87. Tobler was a professor in the Geography Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, teaching geography, computational cartography, and statistics from 1977 until he retired in 1994. He was an active professor emeritus at the University of California until his death. One of his most notable accomplishments is the First Law of Geography, which he formulated in 1970:

“Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things”.

Later, in 1999, he formulated the Second Law of Geography:

“The phenomenon external to an area of interest affects what goes on inside”.

As a student in the Department of Geography at the University of Washington, Seattle, Tobler was one of Professor William Garrison’s “Space Cadets”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a group of students who were part of the quantitative revolution in geography that took place in the 1950s. This was a paradigm shift in the foundations of geography from descriptive regional geography to a scientific discipline studying the spatiality of physical, economic, social, and political processes through the increased use of technique-based practices, including spatial analysis, mathematics, statistics, and computers. After receiving his PhD in Geography, Tobler taught at the University of Michigan before moving to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he held the positions of Professor of Geography and Professor of Statistics.

Tobler was one of the principal investigators and a senior scientist in the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. He was an innovator in the early use of computers in geographic research emphasizing mathematical modeling and graphic interpretations. A prolific writer, with more than one-hundred and forty publications (books and articles), he pioneered the use of computers in cartography for 3D modeling and graph interpretations. His first publication on the subject while still a student was titled “Recording Map and Monument Information on IBM Cards” (1956). He also developed several computational geography software programs, and invented some map projections.

We of the Medea-Chart Project feel a particular loss with his passing because of two of Waldo Tobler´s contributions in the field of computer analysis of old maps:

  • The determination of the geographical graticules implicit in old charts, such as presently used in MapAnalyst.

“Medieval Distortions: The Projections of Ancient Maps” (1966).

  • The numerical simulation of the geometry of portolan charts.

“Numerical Approaches to Map Projections” (1977).

A significant part – the noblest! – of the PhD research of Joaquim Alves Gaspar, Principal Investigator of the Medea-Chart Project was to develop and generalize Waldo Tobler’s ideas on these two aspects.


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