||Brief History of Maps|
ES 551 -- James S. Aber
What is a Map?
A map is a graphic representation or scale model of spatial concepts. It is a means
for conveying geographic information. Maps are a universal medium for communication,
easily understood and appreciated by most people, regardless of language or culture.
Incorporated in a map is the understanding that it is a "snapshot" of an idea, a
single picture, a selection of concepts from a constantly changing database of geographic
information (Merriam 1996).
Old maps provide much information about what was known in times past, as well as the
philosophy and cultural basis of the map, which were often much different from modern
cartography. Maps are one means by which scientists distribute their ideas and pass
them on to future generations (Merriam 1996).
Cartography is the art and science of making maps. The oldest known maps are
preserved on Babylonian clay tablets from about 2300 B.C. Cartography was
considerably advanced in ancient Greece. The concept of a spherical Earth was well
known among Greek philosophers by the time of Aristotle (ca. 350 B.C.) and has been
accepted by all geographers since.
Greek and Roman cartography reached a culmination
Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy, about A.D. 85-165). His "world map" depicted the Old World
from about 60°N to 30°S latitudes. He wrote a monumental work, Guide to
Geography (Geographike hyphygesis), which remained an authorative reference on world
geography until the Renaissance.
Ptolemy's map of the world.
(ca. 150, republished 1482)
During the Medieval period, European maps were dominated by religious views. The T-O
map was common. In this map format, Jerusalem was depicted at the center and east
was oriented toward the map top. Viking explorations in the North Atlantic gradually
were incorporated into the world view beginning in the 12th century. Meanwhile,
cartography developed along more practical and realistic lines in Arabic lands,
including the Mediterranean region. All maps were, of course, drawn and illuminated
by hand, which made the distribution of maps extremely limited.
Vesconte's world map (1321).
Hereford mappamundi (1290).
||Northern regions map from S. Munster's Cosmographia (1588). North
Atlantic region is essentially a Viking view dating from the 12-14th centuries. One of the last
wood-engraved maps, done in the style of copper-plate engraving. Published
posthumously by H. Petri (son in law) in Basle, Switzerland. Original map in
the collection of the author.|
al-Idrisi's world map (12th century).
The invention of printing made maps much more widely available beginning in the 15th century. Maps were at first printed using carved wooden blocks (see above). Among the most important map makers of this period was Sebastian Münster in Basel (now Switzerland). His Geographia, published in 1540, became the new global standard for maps of the world.
Printing with engraved copper plates appeared in the 16th century and
continued to be the standard until photographic techniques were developed. Major
advances in cartography took place during the Age of Exploration in the 15th and 16th
centuries. Map makers responded with navigation charts, which depicted coast lines,
islands, rivers, harbors, and features of sailing interest. Compass lines and other
navigation aids were included, new map projections were devised, and globes were constructed. Such maps and globes were held in great value for economic,
military, and diplomatic purposes, and so were often treated as national or
commercial secrets--classified or proprietary maps.
The first whole-world maps began to appear in the early 16th century, following voyages by Columbus and others to the New World. The first true world map is generally credited to Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. This map utilized an expanded Ptolemaic projection and was the first map to use the name America for the New World--see Waldseemüller's world map.
Heart-shaped projection by Sylvanus (1511).
Fully expanded Ptolemaic projection.
Gerardus Mercator of Flanders (Belgium) was the leading cartographer of the mid-16th century. He developed a cylindrical projection that is still widely used for navigation charts and global maps. He published a map of the world in 1569 based on this projection. Many other map projections were soon developed.
Mercator's world map (1569).
Mercator's polar projection (1595).
Maps became increasingly accurate and factual during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with the application of scientific methods. Many countries undertook national mapping programs. Nonetheless, much of the world was poorly known until the widespread use of aerial photography following World War I. Modern cartography is based on a combination of ground observations and remote sensing.
||Map of the Danish Kingdom, 1629, by Janssonius. A high level of geographic
accuracy is demonstrated along with marginal illustrations that enhance the map. Reproduction
of original map from the Geodetical Institute of Denmark. |
Geographic information systems (GIS) emerged in the 1970-80s period. GIS represents
a major shift in the cartography paradigm. In traditional (paper) cartography, the
map was both the database and the display of geographic information. For GIS, the
database, analysis, and display are physically and conceptually separate aspects of
handling geographic data. Geographic information systems comprise computer hardware,
software, digital data, people, organizations, and institutions for collecting,
storing, analyzing, and displaying georeferenced information about the Earth (Nyerges
What is a Map?
Are maps realistic representations of the actual world? No--never! Field
measurements are subject to errors of accuracy and precision. Aerial photographs
and satellite images portray only certain portions of the light spectrum, as filtered
through the atmosphere and detection instruments. No map can depict all
physical, biological, and cultural features for even the smallest area. A map can
display only a few selected features, which are portrayed usually in highly symbolic
styles according to some kind of classification scheme. In these ways, all maps are
estimations, generalizations, and interpretations of true geographic conditions.
All maps are made according to certain basic assumptions, for example sea-level
datum, which are not always true or verifiable. Finally any map is the product of
human endeavor, and as such may be subject to unwitting errors, misrepresentation,
bias, or outright fraud. In spite of these limitations, maps have proven to be
remarkably adaptable and useful through several millennia of human civilization. Maps
of all kinds are fundamentally important for modern society.
||The fool's cap world map, about 1590. Ptolemaic projection on the face of a jester. Maker, date, and place of publication are unknown. Maps are human representations of the world, as seen through the eyes of a clown in this example. Widely reproduced to depict the human element of cartography. Image adapted from Dalhousie University, Canada. |
- Merriam, D.F. 1996. Kansas 19th century geologic maps. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 99, p. 95-114.
- Nyerges, T.L. 1993. Understanding the scope of GIS: Its relationship to environmental modeling. In Goodchild, M.F., Parks, B.O. and Steyaert, L.T. (eds.), Environmental modeling with GIS, p. 75-93. Oxford Univ. Press, 488 p.
Return to mapping schedule.
ES 551 © J.S. Aber (2008).