Map maker David McCutcheon did not expect to land a place in the Guinness World Records. But having spent 18 months working on the world’s largest atlas, that’s exactly where the 53-year-old cartographer from Charlbury should soon find himself.
The huge atlas contains only 128 pages but it weighs in at an astonishing 150kg, measuring six ft by 4½ ft, making it taller than some of its editors.
It may even be the world’s largest published book. With only 31 copies of Earth Platinum being produced and each copy to be priced at $100,000, it must also be one of the most expensive.
Mr McCutcheon has worked as worked as a cartographer for more than 30 years and has been involved in the production of eight other world atlases — but nothing close to this scale.
A call from Gordon Cheers, the larger-than-life boss of Australian publishers Millennium House, introduced Mr McCutcheon to his magnificent obsession.
The two men met up in April 2010 at the London Book Fair, where Cheers shared his vision that he had been thinking about for 25 years and which would cost his company $1m to produce.
“He asked if I wanted to be involved,” recalled Mr McCutcheon, who previously worked for the Long Hanborough map design company Lovell Johns, before going freelance.
“He had with him a mock-up of a page mounted on a board. He unfolded it, it was big — then unfolded it and unfolded it. It practically covered the foyer of the hotel. And this was just a single page.”
The West Oxfordshire cartographer quickly decided to join the Earth Platinum team. “I recognised it as an opportunity to be part of a really groundbreaking project. Part of the appeal was in leaving a legacy for future generations, something of lasting value, providing a snapshot of the world as it was today.”
He learnt that the largest atlas record had been held since 1660 by the Klencke Atlas, presented as a gift from a consortium of Dutch merchants to Charles II to mark his restoration to the throne. It is displayed at the entrance to the maps reading room in the British Museum.
“The first thing I had to do was produce a dummy for the Frankfurt bookfair, with maps of Southern Europe and North America. I soon realised that I needed a faster, bigger more powerful computer. Some of those first files were very unstable and I was losing a lot of work. Once production started it was apparent that there was too much for me to handle on my own.
“Fortunately, I was able to assemble a team of people I had worked with in Cape Town and Delhi.
“My team was really one cog in a huge wheel, with up to 100 cartographers involved, many just like me undertaking specific tasks. I suppose you could say my main task was to tidy the maps up. Cartography is said to be a hybrid of art and science. You could say I handled the art to make the science look beautiful.
“The main production house was in New Zealand but the digital files first went to Boston for processing before being sent to me. After some preparation, I then sent the files to my team in India and South Africa.”
Mr Cheers said his vision was to produce a book that made readers feel “like they were on top of the world”.
He explained: “It is not always easy to get a sense of scale of our planet. This is the closest a book can go to achieve this. This is the closest any of us who are not astronauts can get to obtain a feeling of how the whole world would look from space. Some islands are now seen for the first time at a reasonable size in relation to their nearest continent.
“By using detailed hill shading and coloured relief, the world and its terrain makes more sense. The images we used are so detailed, each image is made up of 1,000 photos.”
The people who came to see the prototype on display at the Frankfurt Book Fair bolstered his confidence in the project.
“They were amazed and wanted to look at every page and search for their home town before having photographs taken with the book. Their enthusiasm made me realise just how popular maps remain, regardless of the advances in electronic availability.”
Mr McCutcheon says his love of maps began at an early age. “I would ask for an atlas every Christmas and spend the next year poring over it until I got a new one.”
The Government is one of the main employers of cartographers, and he trained to become one after joining the civil service.
The gigantic atlas is now being printed in Italy. The publishers hope libraries, museums and galleries will snap up most of the 31 copies.
Mr McCutcheon says he still has not seen the final product.
“I hope to see a copy up close one day. It may be hundreds of years until such a venture is attempted again and my name is included as a contributor.”
Perhaps they will give one to the Bodleian Library?
“Yes, I might suggest they produce an extra one for The Bod,” said the map man.