How Maps Changed the Face of the Earth

ancient mapPhoto: wikipedia

You know the scene all too well. Out for a day trip, to a place you’ve always wanted to visit, and you’ve got the map reading all wrong. No matter how frustrating that is, shouldn’t we really be grateful for the efforts that went into making maps in the first place? After all, at times we really would be lost without them.

Cartography is the now ancient art of map making. Though when you see the embellishments on ancient maps, like the strange beasts and mythical monsters which surround the Mappa Mundi – the largest and most detailed 13th century world map on the planet – you could be forgiven for thinking that ancient map-makers simply made it all up!
Hereford_Mappa_MundiPhoto: via wikipedia

This map, however, tells of the greatest disaster to strike cartography – in 391 AD, when Christian fanatics destroyed the library of Alexandria, in Egypt. Inside it were the collected maps of Ptolemy, whose skill at measurements of the Earth was unsurpassed, and whose recovered works were used by many in the Far East for centuries.

ptolemy mapPhoto: wikipedia

A thousand years followed, in which all ‘new’ maps made were more fantasy than reality, being heavily influenced by Biblical references and symbolism, at the expense of true accuracy. It wasn’t until the 12th century that Christians, fighting a losing battle with the Crusades, ventured to eastern lands in search for the mythical kingdom of Prester John, seeking help.

Since there was nothing to find, they started to come back with more detailed information about the mysterious Orient, including the names of countries and their positions. The curiosity of the Western world was deeply roused, and cartographers itched to get the details down on paper.

By the end of the 15th century, exploration for new lands and possible riches caused a shift in the attitude toward maps. Now they needed to be as accurate as possible. It was only chance that Christopher Columbus found America, for in truth he genuinely believed that if he sailed long enough in that direction, Asia would be his destination!

It was in 1569 that the most important map in history was issued, by a Flemish cartographer named Mercator, whose name still appears today at the bottom of countless maps. It was his sophisticated use of mathematics to solve the problems of ‘projection’ – a method of plotting courses as straight lines – that made navigation so much simpler.

Mercator-projectionPhoto: via wikipedia

His achievement was, for cartographers the world over, quite brilliant. No doubt his methods aided the success of the great voyages of discovery, like the ones undertaken by Captain Cook in the 1760’s and 70’s, and Mercator’s findings were improved upon in 1772, when German Mathematician Johann Lambert came up with his ‘conformal conic projections’, still more accurate, which are used in some cases even today.

Whilst new countries were being discovered and mapped, it occurred to some that more accurate details of the British Islands were also vital, and some people went to extraordinary lengths to get proper readings. Dutchman Willebrord Snell demonstrated how trigonometry could be used to map out distance and position in 1617, while in 1633, Englishman Richard Norwood measured the entire 290 km from York to London by repeatedly laying down a length of chain!

Map-makers have gone from strength to strength since the last century, and the advent of flight meant that that their task was much simplified – even more so after man had conquered space. Global Tracking Systems, using satellites circling the planet, are enabling us to get the most accurately detailed pictures yet of how our planet actually is. Strangely, though, it’s true to say that we have more complete maps of several other planets in our solar system than we actually do of our own!

There are still parts of the South American rainforests, and large parts of the Poles, which are uncharted, so cartographers are still as busy today as they have always been. Believe it or not, 71% of the world’s land surface is under water, and this too has yet to be properly mapped.

The British Isles were, in fact, the first to be completely digitally mapped, in 1995, 26 years after the project began. The resultant ‘master map’, called the National Topographic Database, carries details of over 200 MILLION features, even down to telephone boxes and peculiar road features! This map is constantly updated, and in constant use by utility companies.

Had today’s technology been available in 1912, Captain Scott would no doubt have reached the Pole ahead of his rivals, instead of mistakenly declaring Amundsen’s last camp to be the Pole, when he was really half a mile away! Cartographic bungling let him down.

antarcticaPhoto: wikipedia

There is no doubt that, even though it may be many years before we have a complete picture of the globe, maps today are normally very accurate. This is the result of centuries of hard work by dedicated people and a true blessing for all of us. Next time you think the map might be wrong, think again. Usually, it’s not the map that’s at fault at all, but the reader’s interpretation of it.