A Brief History of Cartography

Think that land surveying and topography and cartography are modern concepts? Think again.

Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: July 2019

Cartography, or map-making, has existed for several thousand years, from cave paintings of stars in France dating to 16,500 BCE to clay tablets in Babylonia (present-day Iraq). Long before Google Earth was snapping our mates at the bus stop, maps were an integral part of human culture.

Today we might think of a traditional paper atlas or wooden globe as something to decorate our houses or bookshelves, but maps have first and foremost existed for practical purposes. Just take this map, made by the London Fire Brigade in 1899 (credit to gaubertgenealogy.freeola.org). And who hasn’t pulled up Google Maps on a night out?!

Multiple blue and white cartography maps of Isle of Wight, Ventor, Ryde, Cowes

Cartography Throughout History

Famous Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with proving the earth is spherical. Greco-Roman mathematician Claudius Ptolemy is thought to have concluded that, by applying astronomy and mathematics, the earth could be mapped accurately. In fact, Ptolemy revolutionised representing the spherical earth on a map with a type of drawing called ‘perspective projection’ –  using latitude and longitude lines. But he miscalculated that Eurasia covers 180 degrees of the globe. Several hundred years later, Christopher Columbus used Ptolemy’s calculations to sail west from Europe. He was hoping to reach Asia but landed in the Americas instead…

Historically, maps have reflected the intent of the people who draw them. The 13th-century map Mappa Mundi, found in Hereford Cathedral, depicts how Medieval Christians viewed the world, with Jerusalem in the middle. In 1973, left-wing historian Arno Peters produced a map depicting countries according to their actual surface area, which distorted them slightly; northern continents appeared far smaller than Africa and South America, which went against the Eurocentric tradition of map-making. Gerardus Mercator, a 16th-century Flemish-German cartographer, tried to mimic the earth’s spherical surface on a flat piece of paper and represented sailing courses as straight lines. His innovation is still used in nautical charts today.

Politics has influenced cartography too: during the 15th century, Portugal and Spain divided the ‘new world’ into two, claiming half each. Portuguese cartographer Diego Ribeiro worked for the Spanish crown, and, mindful of who paid him, placed the highly lucrative Moluccas islands inside the Spanish half of his map.

Read more about these cartographers at The Atlantic’s 12 Maps That Changed the World, which explores all these maps and their history in more detail.

Do you still use paper maps? Do you have an atlas or a globe to chart where you’ve been? We won’t judge if you’ve got a favourite map, promise!

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