Map making – a brief history

Cartography is the art and science of making maps. Evidence of mapmaking suggests that the map evolved independently in many separate parts of earth. Marshall Islanders made stick charts for navigation. Pre-Columbian maps in Mexico used footprints to represent roads. Early Eskimos carved ivory coastal maps. Incas built relief maps of stone and clay. Chinese literature contains references to maps as early as 7th century B.C.  The oldest known maps are preserved on Babylonian clay tablets from about 2300 B.C depicting the earth as a flat circular disk. 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 with Claudius 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.   In spite of his errors (he maintained that the sun revolved around the earth, and calculated the earth as 3/4 its actual size), Ptolemy was far ahead of his time on how scientific research should be conducted. He proposed a system of projections and coordinate systems that are still used today.

During the Medieval period, European maps were dominated by religious views. The T O map was common in which 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.

 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.

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.  He was the first to use the term Atlas for a collection of maps.

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.

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 1993).


Antique Maps


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