All Over the Map: Cartographic Pleasures for World Explorers

Journey over all the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of traveling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.
— Miguel de Cervantes

While I wouldn’t trade real travel for a map, a map is certainly an invitation to adventure.

From the time I was old enough to comprehend them, I used to sit and stare at maps, fantasizing about going to far-flung places that sounded unusual and seductive, from the Yukon Territory to Tuvalu. I’d spend hours on family road trips scanning the big creased pieces of paper we’d pick up from the gas station, or paging through my grandparents’ USA atlas, looking at thin threads of highway that crossed the blank southeast corner of Oregon, or the crenellated coastline of lower Louisiana, or the icebound islands of the high Arctic, picturing myself in each new location.

In lieu of actual travel, a map remains a portal into another world, even another time. A world map from my childhood is a reminder of a very different world, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics sprawled across most of Asia, Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam, Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia and Mumbai was still Bombay. Farther back, the edges of the world were great mysteries: Ultima Thule, and “Here be dragons.” There are few material objects more romantic than the yellowed edges of an antique map used by early explorers to chart voyages into unknown realms.

While today we can survey every inch of the planet with Google Earth apps on our smart phones and never worry about finding our way with the wonders of GPS, maps still hold allure for the traveler. Across culture, geography and time, maps speak a universal language.

Even the most avid global explorers are usually consigned to home for stretches of time, constrained as most of us are by limits to our schedules and finances – but when you’re not out discovering your next dream destination for yourself, embark on a virtual odyssey with a map.

There are all sorts of resources to get you going, beyond the standard AAA fold-up state versions or your basic household globe, though those can be plenty enticing. Here’s a sampling of what’s online, representing journeys into both present and past.

Where better to start than with National Geographic? The venerable Society has a web page devoted to maps, as well as an interactive world atlas. But take a look at the time when you sit down to browse: for serious travelers, this site is “geo crack”! Another great site to browse for a multitude of map links is World Atlas.

National Geographic also sells a wide array of print maps. Our family has a big corkboard wall in our retro ‘70s rec room, and it’s the perfect surface for posting great big maps to ponder and plan our next adventures.

Mercator's 16th c. map of Africa

If you’re a map aficionado or history buff, you don’t need me to tell you how fascinating antique maps are. As genuine world views that capture another frame of experience, they allow us to imagine what it must have been like for Lewis and Clark to ponder an overland route to the Pacific, or for Livingstone to challenge the unknown course of the Zambezi, or for Shackleton and his men to set out on a trans-Antarctica crossing over a fearsome expanse of ice at the bottom of the world less than a century ago.

But those are all relatively recent adventures, when we consider the history of cartography — the art and science of map-making. The oldest known maps are preserved on Babylonian clay tablets from about 2300 B.C., and chances are good that humans were sketching primitive maps well before then.

According to Professor James Aber, head of the GeoSpatial Analysis program at Emporia State University, cartography was considerably advanced in ancient Greece, and the concept of a spherical Earth was widely accepted among Greek philosophers by the time of Aristotle (ca. 350 B.C.). The apex of Greek and Roman cartography was Ptolemy’s (A.D. 90-168) map of the world, depicting the earth from about 60°N to 30°S latitudes. Ptolemy’s monumental work, Guide to Geography (Geographike hyphygesis), remained an authoritative reference on world geography until the Renaissance.

To learn more about this groundbreaking geographer, consult the James Ford Bell Library, a repository of rare maps, books and manuscripts at the University of Minnesota, whose website features details of Ptolemy’s World.

Ptolemy's map of the world -- 2nd century AD

“What made his work so powerful?” the Bell Library website asks, then answers: “In a way, Ptolemy fitted scholars with new glasses, so that they saw the earth as they had never seen it before. Ptolemy’s maps had order, logic, a sense of control in contrast to other fifteenth-century maps. Other maps of their time paled in impact by comparison.” Ptolemy’s map thus remained the standard for centuries.

Distribution of early maps, which we were drawn by hand, remained very limited until the use of wood block printing in the 15th century. This technique, followed by copper plate engraving in the 16th century, allowed for major advances in cartography that accompanied the great Age of Exploration during this period, according to Aber.

By this time, Aber says, “Map makers produced navigation charts, which depicted coast lines, islands, rivers, harbors, and features of sailing interest. Compass lines and other navigation aids were included, new map projections were devised, and globes were constructed. Such maps and globes were held in great value for economic, military, and diplomatic purposes, and so were often treated as national or commercial secrets–classified or proprietary maps.

The first whole-world maps began to appear in the early 16th century, following voyages by Columbus and others to the New World. The first true world map is generally credited to Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. This map utilized an expanded Ptolemaic projection and was the first map to use the name America for the New World.”

The first true map of the world by Martin Waldseemuller, circa 1507

For more history of maps and cartography, including images of old maps, visit these sites:

*  Professor Aber’s Brief history of maps & cartography

*  Map History / History of Cartography, a website maintained by Tony Campbell, former Map Librarian with the British Library in London

*  James Ford Bell Library’s historical maps collection

*  Robert Putnam Antique Maps blog

There are also plenty of places online that you can browse antique maps to purchase.  Here are a few for starters:

*  Gotzfried Antique Maps, an online gallery for valuable antique maps, atlases and illustrated books from the 15th to the 18th century. Stock covers maps of the most famous cartographers, rare atlases and books with maps of high scientific and cultural value.

*  Pinebrook Antique Maps

*  Vintage World Antiques Maps & Prints

If all of the above has piqued your interest, you may want to pursue your intrigue with maps further through a specialty group, such as those found on this list of map-interest societies. The International Map Collectors’ Society is planning an international symposium in Vienna in September 2012 to commemorate Mercator’s 500th birthday.

And what more thrilling destination for map lovers than the annual London Map Fair, held – fittingly – at the Royal Geographic Society. Europe’s largest antiquarian map gathering brings together about 40 leading national and international antiquarian map dealers as well as hundreds of visiting dealers, collectors, curators and map aficionados from all over the world. A large selection of original antique maps is offered for sale, ranging in age from the 15th through the 20th centuries, and priced from $10 to over $100,000. The event provides the perfect opportunity for novice collectors to examine original maps firsthand and speak with well-known experts in the field.

Last but not least, I leave you with an article that makes a strong case for nurturing our collective map skills, even with the advent of GPS, a topic I blogged on earlier in The Adventure Corner. Read about “Global Impositioning Systems” in How GPS Eats Our Brains, which I found via the Map Room Blog, another wonderful archive of information and trivia about maps and mapmaking.

What map will you look at next? I’d love to hear which routes and roads and ridges and coastlines are currently capturing your imagination…

Ever mapping my next adventure,


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