Tomorrow the world

Note: This map DOES NOT show real air routes, from 1920 or any other year! They are purely imaginary.

While writing the post on old maps, I happened upon the following example, which is labelled 'The world -- principal air routes' and dated to 1920 by the host site, Hipkiss' Scanned Old Maps:

Principal air routes, 1920

The only other information given is that it is from The People's Atlas and produced by the London Geographical Institute.

Now, this is interesting, because it most certainly does NOT show air routes in 1920: there were very, very few, and they certainly didn't criss-cross the world as this map suggests. Many of these routes had not been flown at all, let alone by regularly scheduled services. For example, here's a close-up of the North Atlantic:

Principal air routes -- North Atlantic, 1920

There are 8 or 9 international routes leaving Britain, 5 of them out over the Atlantic, which had only first been flown in 1919. And I think the only overseas air routes operating from Britain in 1920 were London-Paris, London-Amsterdam and London-Brussels. It's possible that the date given is wrong, but all evidence points to the early 1920s at the latest, most likely 1919-21. The map shows Petrograd, which was renamed Leningrad in 1924. The 'Bristol Bomber' shown would be the Bristol Braemar, which last flew in 1921, and the 'Handley Page' is the Handley Page V/1500, withdrawn from RAF service the same year. Most significantly, perhaps, the British airship R34 occupies pride of place, and this was written off in 1921 after being damaged in strong winds, therefore the map was probably printed before this embarrassing accident.

So this map does not show actual air routes; it can only be a prediction of future ones.

More than that, I think it's a blueprint for British domination of the world's civil aviation industry. Firstly, note the colours. These show the distance an aircraft could fly from London in one (yellow), two (pink), three (green), four (light green) and five (brown) days, given a (ground?) speed of 100 mph. London is shown as the primary hub for flights to North America and a major European hub.1

Principal air routes -- aircraft, 1920

Also, as noted above, R34 is featured prominently, and its primary claim to fame was its two flights across the Atlantic in 1919 -- first east-west and then west-east. Although considerably slower than the 100 mph assumed on the map, only an airship could stay aloft for the longest hauls shown, such as the 57 hour flight from Auckland to Valparaiso.2 In 1920, Britain was one of the few countries with the capability to build large rigid airships (even if they were largely copied from captured Zeppelins): the other main contender, Germany, was initially prevented from doing so under the Versailles treaty, and so Short Brothers built R38 for the US Navy in 1921. And although the aircraft of several nations are depicted below the R34, the British ones are the most impressive, particularly the V/1500.3 The next largest are the German Gotha and Zeppelin-Staaken,4 which again were now illegal for Germany to build. It seems to me that by emphasising the size of the aircraft shown -- and by not-always-the-case inference, their long range -- and in noting the long-duration flights needed to fly international air routes, the map maker was suggesting that the future of civil aviation belonged to the nation which possessed the longest ranged aircraft, and further, that this nation was Britain.

This all suggests a more optimistic British take on the aviation age than I generally see. And the time was perhaps right for this. The war was over, the economy was booming and everyone was busy demobilising, reconstructing and beating swords into ploughshares. A country with a near-monopoly of large airship construction, experience with building the largest long-range aircraft then flying and which could lay claim to the first three non-stop flights across the Atlantic would seem to be well placed for the coming era of international air travel.

But it didn't work out this way. For a start, the British 'airship moment' was brief. R38 broke up in mid-air over the Humber before it could be flown to America, and this put an end to military airship development. The 1924 Labour government initiated a civilian airship programme, with the aim of binding the colonies and dominions closer to the mother country. This eventually produced the successful R100, but also the less-fortunate R101, the crash of which put finally an end to Britain's airship ambitions.

Aeroplanes turned out to be a better bet, but not necessarily a safe one. In February 1921, Britain's international services were briefly suspended, because they couldn't compete with subsidised European routes, and only re-opened when they received (smaller) government subsidies of their own. This aside, British civil aviation was generally expected to "fly by itself" and this attitude came in for severe criticism by P. R. C. Groves in 1922, particularly since he saw civil and military aviation as mutually dependent. The RAF's big V/1500s were scrapped and no civil aircraft with comparable range and payload left British factories until the late 1930s (the Armstrong Whitworth A.W.27 and De Havilland D.H.91). Of course, given the tiny potential market for air travel in the 1920s, gargantuan airliners would never have been profitable to operate, but smaller British civil makes generally didn't fare well against German and American competitors either. Commentators continued to bitterly lament the sorry state of civilian aviation into the 1930s, Imperial Airways' lumbering H.P.42 biplanes coming in for particular criticism. Then came the war, the Brabazon, the Britannia and the Comet -- but that's a story for another day.

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  1. However, that the colours aren't bounded by ellipses shows that whoever drew the map was not assuming non-stop flights, but ones which would refuel at major hubs where possible. []
  2. Of course, seaplanes could rendezvous with ships in mid-ocean to refuel, a technique Lufthansa used on its South American routes. []
  3. It's odd that the one aeroplane which had flown the Atlantic non-stop -- the Vickers Vimy -- isn't shown; but maybe this is because it was a specially modified aircraft operating at the very limit of its endurance, and was not suitable for carrying passengers. The Vimy Commercial airliner variant had a much bigger fuselage, and a range of only 450 miles. []
  4. Though it's not the huge R.VI which is shown, or, if it is it's been shrunk to flatter the V/1500, which had a somewhat shorter wingspan than the German bomber. []

26 thoughts on “Tomorrow the world

  1. There was a degree of "Empire of the Air sentiment" - parties of MPs flown around the world, and such (there was only one non-British stop, at Johnson Island or Hawaii).

  2. Christine Keeler

    Yes. That Auckland - Valparaiso route is a bit of a hop for 1920. An Australia-South America route wasn't surveyed until 1950 (by the fascinating PG Taylor).

  3. Post author


    Yes, there was an idea that the Empire could be the basis of an All Red (Air) Route, which would give British airlines an advantage. Probably by the time that international air travel became significant, the colonies were gone or going, and longer-ranged aircraft meant that fewer stops were needed anyway.


    Also, the first flight (non-non-stop) across the Pacific was not until 1928 anyway (involving one of Taylor's future fellow crew members, as it happens). Thanks for reminding me about Taylor, I used to be well up on the Australian aviation pioneers but have forgotten most of it!

  4. Post author

    I'm not sure I can see what you mean here, Chris ... though by the same token I can't claim to have checked that they are actually all elliptical arcs etc, so I will happily defer to somebody more cartographical knowledgeable than myself.

  5. Kurt Niehaus

    Yeah, I noticed the same principle with a lack any "Great Circles." But by then I was half way into the article.

  6. Post author

    OK, I think I understand now ... but the map you've got there is a different projection to this one (which I think is Mercator) -- if you look at Alaska and Greenland on the missile range map they are much smaller than on the air route map. So as the maps use different projections, curves might not curve the same way, if you see what I mean ...

    There might also be other factors coming into play -- for example, the cartographer may have assumed that air routes would not travel over the polar regions (which aren't actually shown on the map -- it goes to about 75°N and 60°S). But maybe you are right and they didn't properly understand how projections work ... I didn't until after I wrote this post :)

    By which I mean that what I said about the range circles being ellipses in projection is wrong. Well, it's true in general, but for some projections, including Mercator, they are actually still circles (a special kind of ellipse), with radius increasing closer to the poles. That is, Tissot's indicatrix is dependent upon the map projection used, that for Mercator can be seen on the Mercator Wikipedia page. (Though the indicatrices (?) are infinitesimally small, so real circles projected onto a Mercator map would actually be distorted, squashed on the side closest the equator and stretched on the side closest to the pole. I think.)

  7. Actually the map is Plat Carée, as is mine (one degree of latitude covers the same distance on the paper at any latitude). Here's roughly the same map, replotted correctly; the differences are: (a) no replication of the area around 180°W at the left and right edges; (b) contours are at intervals of 2,000km distance from London, rather than flying time. (A 1920s dirigible could make, what, 100km/h? So I guess each contour is roughly another day's flight by airship, ignoring winds; though to do so would be a very bad decision for the captain of an airship!)

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  9. Orbits can get a bit complicated but to start with let's imagine circular orbits. The orbiting spacecraft always travels in a plane which passes through the center of the earth, and that's also the center of the circle it follows (for a general elliptical orbit it would be one of the foci). For simplicity let's also assume that the spacecraft's orbital period is much shorter than a day, so that the rotation of the earth beneath the spacecraft may be ignored. So the plane of the orbit divides the earth into two arbitrary hemispheres; the orbits therefore trace out great circles on the earth's surface. The Glenn orbit maps show a roughly circular orbit inclined by about 30 degrees passing over the United States (not surprisingly given where he started).

    Life is harder if you want to plot arbitary other trajectories (for instance highly elliptical orbits, orbits with periods ~24 hours, parabolic trajectories as of missiles, etc.) and the above discussion doesn't apply in full. However, the plane of the orbit must still pass through the center of the earth and therefore still divides the (notionally spherical) earth into two equal hemispheres.

  10. Post author

    Firstly, please note that an earlier comment of Chris's has been rescued from SpamKarma and should be read for the straight dope on the map projection used in the air route map. I'll defer to him as he is clearly much more of a map geek than I am!

    On Chris's answer to CK's question, yeah what he said. I think the key point is that Glenn's orbit was inclined to the equator (as are most orbits), which, when projected onto the map of the Earth, explains the apparent "waviness" of the orbital ground trace. Also, as the Earth was rotating beneath Glenn as he orbited, the traces don't match up but shift along with each orbit.


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  12. Hi,

    I'm so glad that me uploading my map generated this discussion. I'm afraid I can't confirm the date of the map exactly because, as was very common in those days, they never dated the atlas. However, on reading through it there is mention of statistics " the end of 1919 ..." but no later, so I'm guessing it was written if not published in 1920.

    I would never have questioned the map, as I'm not into air travel, I'm amazed that it is so inaccurate, I suspect there is some post war propoganda going on.


  13. Post author

    I wouldn't say it's inaccurate, really, more that it's predictive, or aspirational perhaps ... an attempt to forecast what the routes will be, given the world's geography. But I take it the atlas doesn't really explain what the map is supposed to show?

    Btw, thanks for putting the map online!

  14. The atlas is entitled "The Peoples Atlas - The World Transformed" and is clearly an attempt to layout the current state of the World post the biggest war ever seen at that time. It has the full Peace Treaty in it and the articles of the League of Nations. It has various commentaries of the future by notable people of the time King George, Lloyd George, President Wilson, Archbishop of Cantebury .... and thewn it just dives into a load of maps showing economic and commercial geography as you can see from my site. No where does it suggest that these maps are visionary, the map you've commented simply has a title of "The World: Principal Air Routes; Types of Aircraft". As I said, it smacks of propaganda. The British ruling classes never really levelled with the masses, they were never considered "up to the job" of understanding the complex issues in the World. They soon paid the price as the massive change in Britain post WWI which saw a lot of change.

    BTW, I'm going to be cheeky now because the website hosting costs me a good deal each year, not in storage but bandwidth in excess of 200Gb per month, so any donations by your readers would be most welcome, just click the "Donate" button on my site.



  15. Post author

    No worries, once you've got images up they really eat up the bandwith. Thanks for the context ... it seems to be a very rare book, the British Library seems not to know of it!

  16. Hi there Brett i have just been sorting out my house before i move and have have a book passed down to me from my grandfather via my belated mother an old Alas Named THE PEOPLES ATLAS THE WORLD TRANSFORMED
    The book is old but still intact i have just googled the title and your site and blog came up and i noticed some one said it could be a rare book so i wanted to know what youi thought regards Jayne Ciancia

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