Charles Ernest Riddiford, Cartographer


In 1891, at the intersection of Tunlaw Road and Hartford Street (now New Mexico Avenue and Hawthorne Street), John F. Waggaman built a house that has a fair claim to being the oldest house in Wesley Heights. Between 1906 and 1920 it was owned by Harry A. Orme.

Orme’s successor at this address was Charles Ernest Riddiford, who was hired in 1923 by the National Geographic Society’s Cartographic Division, where he designed the distinctive typefaces that made National Geographic maps models of legibility.



The website of the Geographer of the National Geographic Society relates the development of the typeface, which was copyrighted by the Society in 1946.


Until the early 1930s, most of our maps were hand-lettered––a slow and tedious process requiring great patience and even greater skill. An alternate process––that of setting names in movable type, pulling an impression on gummed paper that was then pasted down on the map––often yielded less than durable or clearly readable type.

The Society’s first Chief Cartographer, Albert H. Bumstead, believed the answer lay in photographic type. Laboring long hours in his home workshop, he discovered that existing typefaces did not lend themselves to Society standards: our map enlargement and reduction factors often caused small hairline letters to break up while larger block letters tended to fill up. To this end, he invented a machine for composing map type photographically that ultimately improved overall type legibility. Once this photolettering process was refined, it was applied to our United States map supplement in the May 1933 National Geographic.

Shortly thereafter, Society cartographer Charles E. Riddiford was tasked with designing typefaces with much improved photomechanical reproductive qualities. He devised a set so attractive and legible that these typefaces are still used (in a digital format) today. These patented fonts were designed with the purpose of reflecting, as well as accentuating designated map features. If you study our reference maps and atlases closely, it’s quite evident that every feature is associated with a specific typeface. Color and typographic weight (from light to bold) further adds to this distinction.

(Juan José Valdés, February 9, 2012:


Riddiford also executed the drawings for The Round Earth on Flat Paper: Map Projections Used by Cartographers, by Wellman Chamberlin (1947): “With its clear text and Charles Riddiford’s superb drawings, this remains one of the most accessible introductions to the subject.” (Robert W. Karrow, Jr., Cartography – Concise Bibliography of the History of Cartography, 1997)


Charles Riddiford: Geographic Specialist in Map-making.––Charles Ernest Riddiford, a retired cartographer who designed the type used on all National Geographic Society maps, died yesterday at Mar-Salle Convalescent Home of a pulmonary embolism. He was 71.

Mr. Riddiford, who lived at 4241 Hawthorne st. nw., came to this country from England in 1923 to join the National Geographic. He was chief research cartographer when he retired in 1959.

A native of London, he studied in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the Geographic he was co-author of a highly successful book, “The Round Earth on Flat Paper,” which tells how maps are made and describes map projections. He also held a patent on a collapsible globe and had designed an atlas for the Oxford University Press.

(Washington Post, May 15, 1968, p.B10)


Diagram of the Navy Dirigible “Shenandoah”, Charles Riddiford, 1925



Carlton Fletcher

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