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The history of cartography
The book The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford reviewed by Michael Borop
Article added on January 13, 2003
  
When was the last time you looked at a map? Earlier today? Yesterday? Last week? Whether it’s for business or travel, science or hobby, many people use maps on a nearly daily basis. In fact, “maps” is consistently one of the most popular search terms on the web. But the precise and versatile maps of today are the result of centuries of extraordinary theories, discoveries, and advances. John Noble Wilford’s book The Mapmakers is a comprehensive look at the “story of the great pioneers in cartography, from antiquity to the space age”, as the book’s subtitle suggests. First published in 1981, it has been revised to take into account the rapid changes in cartography brought about by digital technology.
 
The Mapmakers appropriately begins its survey of the evolution of cartography at its origins. Actually, we don’t know anything about the first map, since it was certainly thousands of years ago, but early cultures all over the world used simple ones. The author explains that ancient maps have been found in China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and that educated Greeks believed the Earth to be spherical in shape. Eratosthenes was able to rather ingeniously estimate the circumference of our planet in the 3rd century B.C. and his maps were the first to show horizontal and vertical lines. Ptolemy further developed the concept of latitude and longitude, as well as the necessity of projections to represent the round Earth on a flat plane.
 
In one of the most interesting chapters, entitled “The Topography of Myth and Dogma”, Wilford explains how legend came to eclipse accuracy in the mapmaking trade. As in other fields, religious doctrine and popular belief prevailed over objective fact, and it was common for Paradise and mythical beasts to be depicted on the often very schematic maps of the Middle Ages. But the Age of Exploration changed all that: as Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, and others travelled the globe and ‘discovered’ new lands, they not only provided valuable geographic information, but also highlighted the fact that accurate maps are essential for successful navigation, exploration, and conquest.
 
Cartography had entered a new phase. In order to make accurate maps, difficult questions had to be resolved: What are the dimensions of Earth? Is our planet perfectly round or is it ellipsoid in shape? How deep are the oceans? What is the distance of one degree of latitude? And how can a degree of longitude be accurately measured, since it is constantly changing? While we take some of this knowledge for granted when we look at a map today, courageous and astute people had to design techniques and tools to answer those questions. Wilford explains it all in great detail, from the problems posed by map projections to the marine chronometer invented by John Harrison.
 
The 20th century witnessed a revolution in cartography. The development of airplanes eventually allowed for aerial mapping, vital reconnaissance in both world wars and useful for engineers and developers in times of peace. In the second half of the century, satellites improved on that, as they are able to systematically photograph large and even remote areas. The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses satellites to compute the user’s exact location in terms of latitude, longitude, and altitude at a given time. But the greatest contribution of the last century has most certainly been the computer. With digital technology, huge amounts of geographic data can be stored and processed, tasks can be automated, time and costs reduced. Inexpensive computer software can generate maps of any part of the world instantaneously and customize them to show specific information with a wealth of symbols and colors. Nowadays, computer-generated maps are used to depict toxic spills, election returns, earthquakes, customer locations, weather conditions, battlefield movements, traffic jams, or recent news events. And thanks to the internet, these dynamic maps and geographic data are quickly available to those who need them.
 
Unfortunately, the author does not linger much on the most recent and exciting applications of cartography. For example, some of today’s cars have navigational systems incorporated into them, thanks to GPS and digital cartography; soon your car will be able to drive you to work instead of the other way around. Three-dimensional maps, such as those used in some televised weather forecasts, are a realistic way to represent terrain, but cartographic applications in virtual reality and terrain modelling are providing even more realistic ways to represent the world, complete with 3D bushes, buildings, and people.
 
Wilford dedicates the last three chapters of his book to an often forgotten branch of cartography: extraterrestrial mapping. While ancient stargazers saw beasts, gods, and other constellations when they charted the stars, today’s cosmic astronomers, equipped with ever more powerful telescopes, are mapping new galaxies. And maps of the Moon and Mars have improved just as dramatically.
 
While surprisingly easy reading given the technical nature of its subject, many will find this book to be somewhat dry and slow at times. There are rather few maps and illustrations; it is disappointing to see such a valuable book on a form of graphic art be so lacking in visual aids. Nevertheless, The Mapmakers is an informative and well-researched work and its 16-page bibliography is a good guide for those who would like to investigate the subject further. In short, this is an ideal book for anyone interested in the long and tumultuous story of how mapping has evolved through the centuries.
 
John Noble Wilford wrote for the Wall Street Journal and Time before joining the New York Times in 1965. He has been a science correspondent there ever since, and won two Pulitzer prizes for his reporting in the 1980s. Wilford has authored books on a wide range of scientific and historical topics, including The Riddle of the Dinosaur, Mars Beckons, and The Mysterious History of Columbus.
 

John Noble Wilford: The Mapmakers: The Story of the Great Pioneers in Cartography – From Antiquity to the Space Age. London: Pimlico, 2002. 508 pp. Get it from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de or Amazon.fr. Get The Mapmakers in its US edition of the year 2000 (Knopf) from Amazon.com or Amazon Canada.



John Noble Wilford: The Mapmakers: The Story of the Great Pioneers in Cartography – From Antiquity to the Space Age. London: Pimlico, 2002. 508 pp. Get it from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de or Amazon.fr. Get The Mapmakers in its US edition of the year 2000 (Knopf) from Amazon.com or Amazon Canada.