Cartography, History of

The ubiquity of maps today is beyond dispute. They are treasured as decoration in private and public places, and enjoyed in exhibitions. Whether in manuscript or print, or on television, maps are the workhorses of weather forecasters, reporters, political and cultural commentators, cartoonists, textbook writers, scientific researchers, administrators, and planners alike. As printed road atlases (or, increasingly, electronic satellite navigation systems), they are used in almost every car owning household. City dwellers use metro maps and street guides. Visitors to the British countryside plan their days out with Ordnance Survey sheets. Consciously or unconsciously, everybody draws or gestures a sketch map in explanation of a route or a location.

At no other time in the history of maps have so many kinds of maps been recognized and used by so many people from so many walks of life. It is all the more paradoxical, then, that in academic geography the use of maps in traditional format has sharply declined, and the study of the history of maps and mapping has almost totally been abandoned by geographers. Geographers still create and use maps, but mainly in electronic format. Instead of the visual comparison of distributions on a series of maps on paper, spatial data are manipulated and stored electronically in geographical information systems (GISs). An increasingly large proportion of maps produced in the twenty first century are impermanent constructions, virtual maps that are liquidated when no longer needed. After 200 years of publication on paper, large scale Ordnance Survey topographical maps are distributed in digital format for printing in a high street shop on a scale specified by the customer, who also selects the point he or she wants to be in the center of the print.

The general heading 'history of cartography' embraces two main groups of maps: those 'compiled' from a sometimes eclectic range of information sources, which may include measured data (such as the coordinates of latitude and longitude for a selection of places); and those 'structured' on modern scientific principles (involving Euclidean geometry and precise measurement) (Figures 3 and 4). The distinction may be implied through the use of words such as 'mapping', 'mapmaker', 'map compiler' (and, for manuscript maps 'artist' or 'scribe'), and the avoidance of 'cartographer' and 'cartography', for nonmodern, scientifically constructed maps, but in practice the 'history of cartography' is widely accepted as incorporating premodern maps and mapmaking.

The history of cartography is no stranger to paradigm shifts. Indeed, it would be surprising were a history that can be measured in millennia, and that goes back to prehistoric times, not to reflect some of great markers of world history. Factors such as changes in the political structure of Europe or of individual countries, the theological implications of the expansion of geographical knowledge, the rediscovery in medieval Europe of the Roman geographer, and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy's text on projections and of the world and regional maps drawn from his coordinates of latitude and longitude, the social impact of printing, the growth of the educated classes, and the invention of a timepiece for the measurement of longitude – all, among many other events large or small, general or local, had a role in accounting for the content or the presentation of contemporary maps. The inevitable variety of early maps, the multiplicity of types and subtypes (genres), and the manner in which one type may seem to have been prominent at one time in the past, invisible at another time, and visible again at a later date, means that the imposition of fixed classifications is doomed to failure. Only when the focus remains on the individuality of each map is it possible to recognize order in that diversity.

Approaches to the History of Cartography

Historical Cartography

The History of Cartography

The History of Maps and Mapping


Cartobibliography: The History of Printed Maps