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Visualising ships’ logbook data

April 17, 2012

Today I came across some great work done by Ben Schmidt who has taken positional data from ships’ logbooks and visualised them to show the voyages of British, Dutch, Spanish  and other ships over a period of 100 years (1750-1850).

This visualisation uses positional data which were transcribed as part of the CLIWOC project back in 2001-2003 and include data from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) logbooks, a source we are continuing to work with as part of ARCdoc project.

In this visualisation you will see that the HBC ships start to appear from 1760  (further data are available and being transcribed as part of ARCdoc) travelling from the UK over to Hudson’s Bay.

Two interesting points to note are the small seasonal window in which these ships operated as they left the UK in June and returned in September or October in order to avoid the worst of the ice in the David Straits and the Bay and that although generally they would voyage north from the Thames up to the Orkney’s before heading west to Hudson’s Bay they would, on occasion, take a southerly route though the English Channel.

Visualisations such as the one above are an extremely useful tool for us, for several reasons:

  • Quality control: they can show us where there are errors in the data. For example where positional data is plainly incorrect, e.g. a ship voyaging on land!
  • Analysis: The ship’s progress in time and space and any instrumental observations recorded on board  can be compared against various modern climatologies such as wind direction and strength, temperature, air pressure and  extent and timing of sea ice.

A nice example of the latter is this visualisation created by one of the ARCdoc team Philip Brohan which shows the progress of HMS Hecla on its voyage to the Arctic in search of a NW passage from 1819-1820 with modern climatolological sea surface temperatures (SST) and sea-ice overlain:

As we collect more data we hope to make more visualisations, and in particular, it will be interesting to see the whaling logbooks represented.

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