Cartography—A Key to Knowing the World
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN CANADA
“Paradise is somewhere in the Far East. Jerusalem is the centre of all nations and countries, and the world itself is a flat disk surrounded by oceans of water. So the monks, map-makers of the Middle Ages, saw the world they lived in.”
THOSE words were used by the editors of The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas in its introduction. Such a religious belief, which finds no support in the Bible, partly explains why cartography, or mapmaking, made little progress during the early Middle Ages.
Maps are basic to a knowledge of geography, which in itself is essential to understanding the world around us. Yet, for many, geographic literacy has not advanced much since medieval times. About a hundred years ago, the writer Mark Twain used his fictionalized character Huck Finn to show the problem in his day. Aloft in a balloon, Huck assured his friend Tom Sawyer that they had not yet reached the state of Indiana because the earth was still green. Huck had noted that on a map Indiana was pink.
In more recent times, an American high school teacher would open his geography course by asking a student to point out the United States on a world map. For a period of ten years, he began his class this way. He reported that not once during that time had the first student—or the second—ever succeeded in pointing to the United States! Perhaps more surprising than that, “3 out of 10 Americans cannot distinguish north from south on a map,” according to Time magazine.
A Chronicle of Mapmaking
Mapmaking is one of the most ancient and extraordinary forms of communication. Maps have been carved on stone and wood; drawn on sand, paper, and parchment; painted on skins and cloth; and even hand shaped on snow.
The World Book Encyclopedia dates the oldest known map from about 2300 B.C.E., describing it as “a small clay tablet from Babylonia that probably shows an estate in a mountain-lined valley.” The Babylonians used similar clay drawings of city walls in an early effort at community development.
The Greek geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria of the second century knew that the earth was round, even as the Bible revealed in the eighth century B.C.E. when it spoke of God as the “One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth.” (Isaiah 40:22) According to the magazine Equinox, Ptolemy’s drawings are “among the first recorded attempts at cosmography—the mapping of the shape of the known world.”
Few knew about Ptolemy’s maps until they were printed in an atlas in the late 1400’s. Thereafter, they became the source of geographic data for such navigators as Columbus, Cabot, Magellan, Drake, and Vespucci. Even today, Ptolemy’s globelike map of the world resembles modern maps, although on his map the Eurasian landmass is exaggerated in size. The Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World notes that this exaggeration “led Columbus to underestimate the distance to Asia as he set out across the Atlantic, and thus he failed to realize that he had discovered the intervening New World.” This so-called New World, America, named after Amerigo Vespucci, was first added to a world map in 1507.
Voyages that followed during the age of discovery, between about 1500 and 1700, equipped cartographers with more accurate information. Their charts, or maps, became strategic documents and have been identified as “instruments of state power” and “weapons of war.” Mapmakers were sworn to secrecy, worked in isolation, and protected their maps on pain of death. If an enemy boarded a ship, the maps, kept in a weighted sack, were thrown into the sea. For a long time, nations carefully guarded their official maps, and in wartime, only a very few people could view them.
As new lands were discovered, old boundaries needed to be redefined. Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) responded by drawing the first scientific book of maps. In his book, Mercator used the figure of the mythological giant Atlas the Titan, and since then the word “atlas” has come to be applied to a collection of maps.
As geographic knowledge grew, the quality of maps improved. New mapping techniques played a major role in this development. Canadian Geographic describes the daunting role of surveyors during the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th: “Through heat and cold, by horseback, canoe, raft and foot . . . , they surveyed cities and homesteads, forests and fields, mud-laden roads and bug-infested bogs. They used chains to measure distance and transits for angles. They established benchmarks by the stars . . . and sounded the depths of coastal waters.”
In the 20th century, mapmaking literally got off the ground. Airplanes mounted with cameras began taking aerial photographs. Then, orbiting satellites of the 1950’s propelled mapmaking into the space age. By the end of the 1980’s, ground surveyors with global-positioning receivers could determine geographic locations earth wide in an hour, something it took months to accomplish a few years earlier.
Today cartographers draw with the aid of electronics. They update their maps by using instruments that have been placed in orbit, complemented by sophisticated instruments on earth. Computer hardware with specialized software programs allows mapmakers to store trillions of pieces of information, cartographic and otherwise. Thus, a custom-made map can be produced within minutes, without time-consuming hand scribing.
With a geographic information system (GIS), almost any information can be superimposed on a map. A GIS can produce an up-to-the-minute city street map to help with traffic flow during rush hour. It can also track and direct transport trucks that race across a nation’s highways, and it can even manage hay production for dairy farmers.
Maps—A Reflection of Reality?
“A map may lie, but it never jokes,” wrote poet Howard McCordin. For example, when a hand-drawn map sketched on a piece of paper fails to indicate the correct exit ramp to your intended destination, it is not a laughing matter. We have come to expect all maps to be truthful and to reflect reality. But the fact is that not all are truthful, nor do they all reflect reality.
An archivist acquired a colorful wall map of Quebec, Canada, and later discovered what appeared to be a flagrant mistake. “All of Labrador was included as part of Quebec,” he explained. “When I pointed out the problem to a colleague, I was astounded when he said it was probably not an oversight but a deliberate misrepresentation.” It seems that Quebec never was happy with a 1927 decision about the placement of the border between Labrador and Quebec, and so the map did not reflect this unwanted reality.
The colleague of the archivist pointed out additional examples of maps that were intentionally deceitful. The archivist later wrote an article in Canadian Geographic entitled “Maps That Deceive,” which emphasized that “cartography can easily be manipulated to support a particular point of view.” He wrote: “I had always been taught that maps were faithful representations of reality and yet here were maps that were full of lies!”
In 1991, The Globe and Mail, of Toronto, reported that “a delegation of Japanese officials, whose government claims ownership of the Soviet-controlled Kurile Islands, asked the [National Geographic Society] to designate the disputed territory a different hue.” Why did they want the change in color? National Geographic’s chief cartographer, John Garver, Jr., explained: “They wanted the colour changed to green, because Japan is green on the map.”
Therefore, colors on maps can be used to make certain associations or emphasize a particular feature. For example, in 1897, with the discovery of gold along a tributary of the Klondike River, maps were particularly useful in promoting the stampede of an estimated 100,000 gold seekers. Map producers colored Alaska and the Yukon deep yellow to suggest great potential for success.
Other attitudes may affect the appearance of a map in a much more dramatic way. For example, in 1982 a “Turnabout Map” was produced, which placed the Southern Hemisphere at the top. Why? Because it was felt that being at the top implied superiority and dignity and that such a map would have a positive effect on poorer countries of the world that are located in the Southern Hemisphere.
A Challenge to Mapmakers
Even when a cartographer wants to reflect reality, creating a map on a flat surface presents a problem. This is because drawing the surface of a sphere on a flat plane results in distortion. It is like trying to flatten a whole peel of an orange. The shapes of the continents may be accurate, but the sizes are out of proportion. Thus, John Garver, Jr., said: “The only accurate map is a globe.” But since globes are difficult to carry around, a flat, colorful world map is appreciated and beneficial.
In 1988, National Geographic released a new world map. Reporting on this event, Time explained the problem facing mapmakers: “The images on maps often do not reflect the actual shapes and relative sizes of continents and seas.” You can easily recognize this fact if you compare the world map issued by the National Geographic Society in 1988 with world maps produced by this same society in earlier years.
Discussing the radical differences in such maps, Time said: “On the new map of the world that the [National Geographic Society] is sending its 11 million members, the Soviet Union has lost 18 million sq. mi.—more than two-thirds of the territory it appeared to encompass on the National Geographic’s maps for the past half-century.”
Since the time of Ptolemy, cartographers have struggled with the problem of presenting relative sizes of areas of the world. For example, in a projection that National Geographic used for 66 years, Alaska is five times its real size! Such problems with distortion can help you understand why Arthur Robinson, who is considered by many to be the dean of U.S. cartographers, said: “Mapmaking is as much an art form as a science.” The map adopted by the National Geographic Society in 1988, according to Garver, was “the best balance available between geography and aesthetics.”
What Does the Future Hold?
Clearly, there is much more involved in mapmaking than many people realize. The more knowledge there is of the earth, the more accurate maps can be. Yet, that knowledge may not be easily available. Thus, as author Lloyd A. Brown said years ago, “until the time when all men can sail up to a neighbor’s shore without fear, and can ride or fly over any country without being shot at or stopped, the great map of the world that men have dreamed about for centuries must wait. Some day it may be finished.”
Happily, according to Bible prophecy, the entire globe will eventually be united under the rulership of God’s appointed King, Jesus Christ. Of him a Bible prophecy proclaims: “He will have subjects from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Psalm 72:8) When territorial boundary disputes and political rivalries are finally removed and conflicting national sovereignties no longer exist, a perfect map of the world may then be produced.
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Ptolemy and his world map
Ptolemy and Mercator: Culver Pictures; Ptolemy’s world map: Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis; globe: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.; background on pages 16-19: The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck