20th Century Maps
Maps of the World

20th Century Maps

Thousands of years ago our ancestors embarked on a long experiment to figure out how they fit into the world. The result of that effort was a bold new tool: maps. They remain one of humanity’s most important inventions which have allowed humans to explain and navigate their way through the world for millennia. Maps example The earliest surviving examples of maps include cave paintings and etchings on stone and tusk depicting the stars, not the earth. Dots found on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France dating back to 14,500 B.C. map out part of the night sky. In Spain, the Cueva de El Castillo contains a map of dots outlining the Corona Borealis constellation from 12,000 B.C. Perhaps the oldest known map of all time dates back to 25,000 B.C. Carved on a mammoth tusk is a map-like representation of a mountain, river, valleys and routes around Pavlov in the Czech Republic.

More intricate and extensive maps were produced by the ancients in Babylon, Greece, Rome, China and India, even though accuracy wasn’t the objective of early map-drawers. The intent was more of an expression of art, or a way of declaring one’s power and control. Today, the power of maps can be seen in apps that help people navigate.

The Babylonian Map of the World, a tablet of clay dating back to around 700 to 500 B.C., is one of the world’s oldest maps approximately the size and shape of an early iPhone and it doesn’t include much detail. This map wasn’t intended for navigational use but rather meant as a tool to help the map-holder grasp the idea of the whole world.

The second century A.D. saw the first real attempt at making a more realistic map. Claudius Ptolemy, Greek mathematician, astronomer and geographer, gathered documents detailing the locations of towns and information with the tales of travelers. By the time he had finished compiling all of this information, he had created a system of lines of latitude and longitude and plotted some 10,000 locations—from Britain to Europe, Asia and North Africa. Even though he knew the earth was round, as did most Greeks and Romans, he figured out a way to flatten the earth and make a two-dimensional map. He dubbed his new system “geography”.

Century graphic

Ptolemy’s geography went by the wayside after the fall of the Roman Empire and did not make an appearance again in the West until about a thousand years later when Byzantine scholars began making projections using his coordinates. Maps once again became a form of storytelling, as shown in the famous 12th-century map made by the renowned Islamic scholar al-Sharif al-Idrisi, and commissioned by his protector and patron, King Roger II of Sicily, a Christian. His map, the “Tabula Rogeriana” seamlessly blended Islamic and Christian cities together, all the while centering the world on the King’s landholdings (surprising, right?). It must be said that the Tabula Rogeriana remained among the world’s most accurate maps for several centuries.

Accuracy was not of import for other Christian maps either. The mappaemundi (Latin for maps of the world) were designed to show the story of Christ in the world. The most famous of these is the massive 5- by 4-foot Mappa Mundi which hangs in England’s Hereford Cathedral. It represents what the world looked like to medieval Christians. Most of Europe, Asia and North Africa is unrecognizable and the focus is not on space, but rather on time, biblical time to be exact. The intent of this map was not to get you from town to town. It was designed to guide you to heaven.

By the Renaissance, maps had begun to improve, mostly because it had become a commercial necessity to have more accurate maps as ships were crossing the oceans and kings were busy building their empires. “Portolan maps”, which showed lines crisscrossing the sea from port to port, launched a new era of mapmaking and oceanic exploration. These allowed Europeans to accurately visualize their continent in a way which enabled them to improvise new navigational routes instead of simply sailing from point to point. Ptolemy’s thousand-year-old calculations were once again in use to draw these new and improved maps.

An interesting historical note: Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America was in part due to Ptolemy—and mistakes he made in his cartography. Columbus had with him a map influenced by the ancient astronomer’s work. 20th imageThe problem was that Ptolemy thought the world was 30 percent smaller than it actually is and, worse yet, the mapmaker used Arabian miles, which were longer than Italian ones, in his calculations. It was these errors which led Columbus to believe the voyage to Asia would be much shorter.

After 1569, sea voyages became easier when Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish polymath and cartographer, introduced the greatest innovation in mapping since Ptolemy: the Mercator Projections. Prior to this, most cartographers were using Ptolemy’s system of latitudes and longitudes which resulted in more descriptive rather than functional maps. Mercator figured out how to represent the surface of a globe on a two-dimensional map by gradually widening the landmasses and oceans the farther north and south they appear on a map. This was very useful for navigational purposes, but it had the disadvantage of massively distorting size and distance as you near the two poles. This misrepresentation has influenced our view of the world until fairly recently when in 2010 graphic artist Kai Krause created a map to illustrate the enormity of the African continent which can hold the United States, India and much of Europe inside the outline of the continent!  

Maps: Drawn, Printed and Digital

What perhaps began as sketches made in sand using sticks or engravings on clay tablets eventually made their way to paper when the printing press enabled maps to be printed and distributed by the thousands. Until the late 1960’s, many gasoline stations were still distributing free road maps as an advertising courtesy to their customers.

The 1990’s saw the advent of the internet which enabled maps to be distributed online, and the economics of map distribution were forever changed. These days, how far would we get without GPS? Our maps are guided by satellites and mapping companies like Google, Waze, Bing and Mapquest. We live in an increasingly cartographic age where more unique maps are produced online every day than were made in across the entire history of mapmaking, from pre-history until about 1992.