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Map Making History and Development Essay

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Updated: Jul 4th, 2020


Starting off with sets of lines carved on a flat stone to modern-day digital maps that are created through satellite imaging, map creation as we know it has gone through numerous iterations over several hundred years due to new techniques and methods of observation that have been developed. Maps, in essence, were created as a means for easy navigation over land and sea and have been around for a significant portion of human history. While they are taken for granted in 2015, maps used to be the prized possessions of sailors and merchants due to their necessity in being able to go from one region to another. What is interesting to note though, is that maps, as society knows of them today, are actually quite far from their original iterations.

While most of these changes can be attributed to modern-day technology, some of their differences are in part due to changes within present-day society. Globalization has made the world interconnected at a level that was unprecedented in the past resulting in people thinking of the world and the various countries and societies within it in a way that is distinctly different than how they did in the past. It is due to these changes in perspective that the manner in which maps have been designed and created today is distinctly different than how they were in the past. It is based on this that this paper will examine how to map creation has evolved over time and what factors influenced its creation into how we view maps in the present. It is the assumption of this paper that developments in map creation are inherently impacted by changes in the society that the maps originated from.

Understanding Map Creation

What would you say if someone told you that a standard world map that you bought at a local bookstore and believed to be accurate was wrong? It is doubtful that you would actually believe them at first since modern-day world maps have been in use as teaching tools decades and, with the advent of modern-day technology, something as important as a potential inaccuracy in a world map sold to students is unlikely to have gone uncorrected. However, inaccuracies do exist, which can be easily identified by virtue of a simple observation of the sizes of Greenland and Africa in your standard world map that can be bought in a local bookstore.

What is immediately obvious is that both landmasses appear to be almost the same size on the map; this is rather strange considering the fact that Greenland has a total landmass of 836,300 square miles while Africa is well over 11.67 million square miles in size. The same can be said about comparing the relative sizes of Europe and South America wherein Europe (depicted as being larger) is only 3.8 million square miles in size while South America is well over 6.9 million. The reason behind this apparent distortion in size is due to many of these maps utilizing what is known as the “Mercator Projection” when it comes to the depiction of landmasses.

Developed by Gerardus Mercator during the mid-1500s, the Mercator Projection was originally utilized as a means of navigation due to how it was able to preserve the linear scale of geographical points of reference when it came to navigation. However, one problem with its use as a general teaching tool is that the projection’s linear scale actually increases with the latitude of landmasses resulting in considerable distortions in geographical perception regarding the size of particular regions the farther they are away from the equator.

This helps to explain why some world maps bought at a local bookstore show inaccurate projections regarding the scale of particular areas. The maps are not necessarily “wrong”; rather, their purpose was originally meant as a means of navigation and not necessarily as a teaching device to explain the relative size of different countries. However, what the bookstore example does show is that assumptions can be developed quite easily, especially in cases where these assumptions are utilized as a tool to emphasize the importance of particular regions or countries.

Size and Importance in Map Creation

Potter explained that distortions in relative sizes and even at times the location of certain countries (Germany being depicted as being more central in Western Europe when in reality it is located more towards the North West) have their basis on the concept of social equality (Potter 16). Even before the original inception of world maps within Western Europe, the correlation of size with power and importance has been present. Basically, the idea is that the larger and more well represented the object, the more people think how important it must be.

This is one of the reasons why, during the age of European imperialism, the ruling class in paintings were often depicted as being larger than life than their more “ordinary” contemporaries who were in the background of the paintings (Potter 16). Going back to the development of world maps, it is theorized that the distortion in sizes created by early cartographers is in part based on how they perceived the importance of particular countries, with maps originating from certain cartographers often showing their country to be distinctly larger or more well represented as compared to other countries within the same region. This shows a trend in visualization based on socio-cultural influences rather than geographical accuracy.

Centrality and Map Development

Map development based on socio-cultural influences is an important starting point in understanding how the creation of maps evolved over several hundred years. For example, from 600 BCE to at least the 6th century, map creation had a distinct “central” style in their development. This means that, depending on the region, the map depicted the country of origin as being in the center of the map with outlying regions expounding outward. Evidence of this can be seen in one of the earliest examples of maps created from Babylon in 600 BCE, as well as a more elaborate example by Eratosthenes in 276 BC. Both maps showed the countries of origin as being the central focal point of the map and depicted and expanding landmass and bodies of water from the central location. The basis behind why maps were developed this way was due to the socio-cultural influences of societies that the map makers belonged to at the time wherein both the Babylonians and the Ancient Greeks looked at their respective countries as being the “centers” of their respective worlds.

This means that, regardless of actual geographical positioning, there is a societal belief that their country is at the center of the known world. This particular attitude is actually quite prevalent among many past societies and influenced the manner in which cartographers created their respective maps with this cultural notion in mind. For example, 200 years after the initial work of Eratosthenes, Ptolemy created a similar map in 100 AD that detailed the expansion of the Roman Empire, also with the same centralized theme, but much more detailed and had lines indicating longitude and latitude. In fact, from the 1st century onward, maps became more detailed as more cartographers built upon the work of those that came before them. This resulted in maps showing rivers, towns, mountains, etc.

However, it was also during this period that more “philosophical” thought was placed into map development resulting in design choices that reflected notions and ideas that were prevalent at the time, many of which were not necessarily accurate. For example, in 14th century China had extensive maps of both its interior as well as various surrounding countries and bodies of water. Despite the fact that China was aware of the presence of Europe, Africa and various regions in South East Asia, most of the country’s maps still depicted China as being in the center of the “world” and showed other countries and regions to be much smaller than they really were. This shows that visualization of landmasses and the influence of socio-cultural influences are not limited to European cartographers, but also extends to Asian ones as well. This shows a cross-border societal tendency to believe that their country/region is at the center of everything with everything else merely being outliers.

Challenging the Idea of Centrality

The concept of centrality in map making and design continued from the 1st century all the way to the 12th century AD. This is despite improvements in visualization and detail by cartographers such as Muhammad Al-Idrisi, who helped to create a map of the Eurasian continent via information from explorers and merchants. Even the “Mappa Mundi” (one of the most detailed ancient European maps) created during the 1300s continued to express the same centrality that was noted in other iterations that came before it. This is despite the fact that explorers at the time already had a fairly accurate approximation of the position of different landmasses and the location of various regions resulting in the development of the idea that the world was round instead of flat. Simon helped to answer this question by explaining that the idea of centrality in map design and visualization was in part due to the lack of interconnections between civilizations prior to the 1400s (Simon 241).

Yes, there was trade, war and some aspects of cultural exchange; however, cultures at the time still lacked the idea of an “expansive” global environment and still clung to the notion of the world being contained within a specific sphere of influence with everything outside of it being labelled as “strange”, “savage” or “uncivilized” (Simon 241). There are of course counterarguments to this perspective with researchers such as Manhard stating that the centrality evident in early maps was due to the fact that early travelers were primarily confined to specific regions (Manhard 2).

Ship design prior to the 14th century lacked the capacity to make the long distance trips needed to circumnavigate continents and had limited stores of food. Thus, travel was primarily isolated to distances close to ports and colonies that could provide the necessary supplies. As such, Shiga stated that this helps to explain why maps tended to be more focused on depicting particular countries as being at the “center” of the world since, for all intents and purposes, the distance people were capable of traveling within particular regions were set based on the limits of the maps that were created (Shiga 47).

It was only during the late 1400s to the 1500s onward that map design came to resemble what it looked today. The “oceanic” map developed by German cartographer Heinrich Hammer showed a distinct deviation from centrality in design wherein it started incorporating the seas, oceans and helped to show distinct delineations between the position of different countries. The map, despite being German in origin, showed Germany in its appropriate position as being towards the North West of the European continent instead of being at its center.

From the early 1500s onward, a literal “explosion” in map development within Western Europe occurred wherein map designs such as the Mercator map, the Ricci map and the Theatrum Orbis (known as the first atlas that is the most similar to modern designs) were created which depicted continents, the oceans, seas and other details in their accurate positions. This “movement” into a less centralized and more “globalized” depiction of the world will be discussed in the next section.

Map Development and the Age of European Colonization

Improvements in map design and the divergence from the trend of “centrality” to a more “global” depiction of the position of countries coincided with the initial waves of European colonization into different parts of the world. Starting with the invasion of Ceuta by Portugal in the early 15th century, this set off a trend in colonization by various European powers as seen in the case of Spain conquering the Philippines, Britain conquering India and the initial colonization attempts in North and South America. Carhart stated that it was this era of colonization that helped to improve the creation of maps since the European powers thought of this period as a time of imperial expansion wherein colonization and conquest paved the way for more riches (Carhart 102). The creation of the “Galleon Trade” between Spain, Mexico and the Philippines, the Spice Routes of India and the mines of South America created an influx of wealth that made the concept of expansion and colonization more appealing. It was due to this that a change occurred within European society at the time resulting in people becoming more open towards the concept of global trade, of the potential riches they could attain should they become a colonist as well as the opportunities that the new spice and galleon trade presented.

Carhart stated that this sort of thinking had an influence on the development of maps during this period wherein they became more expansive, detailed the world more so than their country of origin and focused more on showcasing proper sea routes and points of navigation (Carhart 106). Thus, it can be stated that the age of European colonization actually created the needed societal consensus as well as created a necessity for the development of maps that diverted away from the idea of their country being at the center of the world and acknowledged its proper geographic position based on its proximity to other land masses. This was also due to increased demand for proper maps for navigation due to merchants and opportunists seeing the value in international trade and exploration (Keski-Säntti 122). As such, map designs became more standardized based on set rules and production methods making them closer to what can be defined as “modern day” standards when it comes to positioning locations based on longitude and latitude.

Modern Day Map Creation

Modern day map creation has taken the form of realism over artistry. For instance, map creation from the 14th century to around the 16th century utilized materials such as velum, wood blocks and special paper in order to create maps that were artistic as well as practical. While map creation became far more refined and expedient through the use of brass molds in order to create repeatedly accurate initial sketches on materials, the fact remained that they were often finished by hand with a wide variety of different artistic flourishes. This made maps during that period of time a valuable navigation tool as well as pieces of art that could be admired for their attention to detail as well as their general uniqueness. However, present day map making has undergone numerous technological advances through developments in satellite imaging and GPS positioning. Map data can now be updated in real time with various iterations such as Google Maps and Google Street View allowing an average individual to access images of a particular locations whereas in the past the ownership of specific maps was limited due to their inherent cost.

Modern day map designs focus more on realistic depictions of locations and due to present day advertising and social media technologies, digital maps now come with more information than ever before ranging from the location of particular shops to knowing where the most interesting places are within a particular region. In fact, through the use of GPS positioning, a person can literally know where they are in virtually any location on the planet. This has enabled people to more accurately determine their proximity to their intended location. What this shows is that while present day maps have lost their artistry, they more than make up for it when it comes to their accuracy, effectiveness and wide spread usage in many different applications for people across the planet.


Based on everything that has been presented so far in this paper, it can be stated that developments in map creation are inherently impacted by changes in the society that the maps originated from. This can be seen in the gradual changes that occurred in various parts of European society, such as developments in technology and a more globalized societal consciousness, that resulted in a shift away from centrality in map design to are more “globalized” depiction of country locations. All in all, what this paper has revealed is that the evolution of map creation has been influenced by a myriad of factors, both technological and societal, and shows that cartographers were often highly influenced in map visualization and creation based on the society that they were a part of at the time.

Works Cited

Carhart, George. “The 24Th International Conference On The History Of Cartography, Moscow, Russia, 2011.” Imago Mundi 64.1 (2012): 101-107. Print.

Keski-Säntti, Jouko. “The Drum As Map: Western Knowledge Systems And Northern Indigenous Map Making.” Imago Mundi 55.1 (2003): 120-125. Print.

Manhard, Manuel. “The Challenge Of Historical Cartography.” H-Net Reviews In The Humanities & Social Sciences (2012): 1-4. Print.

Potter, Jonathan. “History In The Map-Making.” Geographical (Campion Interactive Publishing) 74.3 (2002): 16. Print.

Shiga, David. “The Hipparcos Chronicles.” New Scientist 205.2748 (2010): 47. Print.

Simon, Jesse. “Antiquity Without Cartography? Some New Approaches To Roman Mapping Traditions.” Imago Mundi 64.2 (2012): 241-242. Print.

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