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History of cartography and map making

Ancient points of view

The world of map making, cartography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is both steeped in history and made by the most modern of technologies.

Maps have been made since earliest times to help people get from one place to another or to indicate features in the landscape near and far. Map making is one of the earliest human technologies we know of and goes back as far as human history itself. Map materials (see Map Making Materials in this section) ranged from a sketch in the sand to the use of leather, parchment, cloth, bone, stone and cave walls as well as, of course, human memory.

Early maps depicted settlements, for example, hunting grounds, natural or man made boundaries, and landscape features. Maps of buildings, such as temple complexes and palaces, were also common during the early city civilizations. People just needed to know where they where going and how to get there. It's no different today.

Where the Babylonians saw the world as a flattened disk, a view that was relevant for millennia, it was the Greek geometrician and mathematician Ptolemy that first showed the earth as spherical in his eight-volume encyclopedia on geography in the 2nd Century AD.

The earliest Chinese map was recently discovered by archeologists in China's Northwest province of Gansu. The map, dating back to 239 BC, is carved on wooden plates and depicts a drawing of Guixian County, then part of the Qin kingdom. (See full article People's Daily.)

Return to the top of the page. The center of the universe

During the European Middle Ages most world maps depicted Jerusalem as its center point, following the religious doctrines prevalent in Europe at that time.

It is typical of humans that they have always placed themselves, their civilization or their religion as the center of their maps. This practice continues today where European maps show Europe as the center, American maps show the United States and Australian maps show Australia at the center, for example. Of course, since we are living on a sphere it makes it easier for any point to be depicted as the center. Political fact often comes secondary to wishful thinking or nationalistic indoctrination.

So when Galileo insisted that the world was revolving around the sun instead of the other way around and certainly not the center of the universe he was burned at the stake for his heresy.

The history of cartography and map making

Cartography and map making at Links999.
Map on clay tablet of the city of Nippur, Mesopotamia, ca. 1600 BC.
Babylonians made maps as far back as 2300 BC.

Hecateus world map 6th century BC - cartography at links999.
The world is an island, a flat disk, with Greece as its center, surrounded by the world ocean. The map of Hecataeus - 6th Century BC.

Cartography and map making at Links999 - The history of cartography.
Typical example of elaborate - and accurate - 18th century map making.

Detail of New York City subway system map - Cartography and map making at Links999.
Detail of the New York City subway map showing lower Manhattan and the former World Trade Center subway stations. (c) NYCSubway.org


Only when seamen such as Magellan started on their exploration voyages did more accurate maps of coast lines and continents emerge and did geographic reality supersede religious or political doctrine.

Maps were not limited to earth bound features, however. The earliest civilizations also made many sky maps to depict the placement and movement of the sun, the moon and the stars across the heavens. North American Indians used star maps to guide them during night time travel and the Polynesians used the stars to guide them across the vast ocean that was their home.

The popularity of maps was not limited to navigation and exploration purposes. Many other publications, encyclopedias, magazines and books started using maps to depict events, locations and routes to enhance information and teaching.


For more on the history of cartography and map making

British Library - Map History/History of Cartography
Imago Mundi - the International Journal for the History of Cartography
British Library Map Collection

Famous cartographers and the golden age of cartography

Besides Ptolemy, there have been a number of people that have advanced the art and science of cartography and map making throughout the ages.

Names of the earliest map makers elude us, and, even though the practice of "I was here - with date" goes back at least 4000 years, makers of maps were not prone to signing them.

With the gradual emergence of Europe out of the Dark Ages of religious and knowledge oppression, the sciences flourished once again and technologies such as ship design and construction, the compass, the telescope increased the thirst for exploration and accurate maps.

The great explorers of the age - Columbus, da Gama, Vespucci, Cabot and Magellan - all had cartographers on board their ships to map the new lands and routes. Slowly but surely the world was mapped out in its entirety for the first time in the modern age.

Meanwhile, "back home" in Europe map making studios sprang up all over the continent and Europe itself came under close scrutiny. In Rome, the center of map making, the Danish geographer Clausson Swart made the first known map of Northern Europe in 1427.

Cardinal Nicholas Krebs manufactured the first modern map of Germany in 1491, and Martin Waldseemuller of St. Dié in France constructed an atlas of more than 20 maps in 1513. His best known work however was the first map of "America", a name he used to indicate the new continent as explored by the Florentine seaman Amerigo Vespucci. This huge map, made in 1507, and divided into twelve separate sheets, showed clearly for the first time that "America" consisted of two parts, and that it was in no way connected to Asia.

Map of Southeastern North America, approx. middle 16th Century - map making at Links999.
Early Southeastern North American map from the middle 16th century recently stolen from a collection.

Detail of map of Kansai International Airport - modern cartography at Links999.
Detail of map showing Kansai International Airport, Japan.
(c) Kansai International Airport


And so it went on. In 1524 Petrus Apianus published his Cosmographiae, a treatise of geography, history, the sciences and astronomy, illustrated with maps and illustrations.

This matter was finally settled when Diego Ribero, cosmographer to the King of Spain, received enough information from the survivors of Magellan's voyage of circumnavigation of the world in 1522, to draw up a map of the Pacific Ocean and its coast lines in 1529.

The encyclopedia published by Sebastian Munster in 1544 was even larger than the Cosmographiae and remained the definitive authority for another fifty years.

The new renaissance in Europe triggered a huge interest in the outside world and maps depicting far off lands and peoples were amongst the most popular of printed works of the age. Memories of almost a thousand years of knowledge oppression finally found an outlet in maps of exploration. It also triggered another period of wars within the continent itself.


Modern cartography

Cartography in its present form has roots just a few centuries past.

The fall of Byzantium and the invention of the printing press made a fortunate coincidence for cartography. Many Italian scholars left the city of Byzantium (Constantinople) when it fell to the Turks late in the 14th century and brought with them large parts of Ptolemy's "Geography".

This "re-discovery" of the world caused an enthusiastic renaissance of general discovery and with the aid of the printing press several hundred copies of Ptolemy's work were made and distributed widely by the end of the 15th century, including several German editions.

When Columbus sailed out for East India and found the American continent instead the need for accurate maps of this new found land was acute. The argument or imposed doctrine that the earth was a flat disk rather than a sphere was rapidly losing ground and it was necessary to find a way to transpose the features of a sphere - the Earth - onto a flat surface to aid navigation and exploration.

When the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator came up with his solution for handling the problem of map projection in 1569 map making, and especially marine navigation, benefited greatly.


The development of the telescope to determine the length of a degree of longitude and the tables which the English mathematician Edward Wright devised in 1599 further clarified Mercator's projections and made for more accurate map making and navigation.

Consequently, during the 17th and 18th century the European map making technology and printed maps as a result thereof showed an ever-increasing accuracy and sophistication unknown before, greatly facilitating colonization of the world by the European powers as it was now possible to view far off lands and make strategic and tactical planning before sending off troops or ships.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Modern cartography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) often involves technology such as satellite and aerial photography. Translating this information into maps is called photogrammetry. As before, the use of modern technology increased the accuracy of the map.

Using sophisticated equipment such as satellites to plot charts and maps aids such diverse disciplines as exploration, exploitation, surveillance, urban planning and tourism.



Cartography information and definitions

Cartography, The Journal (AU)
Cartography, the Virtual Geography Department - University of Texas (USA)
EarthSensing - definitions of Cartography
University Library of Texas - Glossary of Cartographic Terms
Cartography (CH) - Swiss Federal Institute of Cartography
University of California, Berkeley - Dictionary of Abbreviations and acronyms in geographic information systems, cartography, and remote sensing
Rice University - Mathematics of Cartography
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