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“3 out of 10 American’s cannot distinguish North from South on a map.”
So stated a recent article in Time magazine. In spite of this inability of 30 % of our population to use them, however, maps have been with us for a long time. Mapmaking is, in fact, one of the oldest and most extraordinary forms of communication. Man has used everything from stone to wood, sand to paper, skins to cloth, parchment to snow to show his fellow man the way to navigate this planet of ours.

The oldest known map dates from about 2300 B.C.E and was found among Babylonian artifacts. Cosmography – the mapping of the shape of the known world – didn’t get its start, however, until the time of the Greek geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria in the second century, C.E. Ptolemy’s maps reflected his knowledge of a spherical earth. These maps, however, went largely unrecognised until they were printed in an atlas in the late 1400s. Thereafter, they became much sought after and used by the great navigators of the time, including Columbus, Cabot, Magellan, Drake and Vespucci. While amazingly accurate for its day, Ptolemy’s map greatly exaggerated the size of the Eurasian land mass. It was this mistake that led Columbus to underestimate the distance to Asia as he set out across the Atlantic. Columbus failed to realize that he had not found Asia, but an intervening New World. This New World, named for Amerigo Vespucci, was first added to a world map in 1507.

The next two decades heralded the age of discovery. With it came an ever pressing need for better maps. The cartographer’s job became more and more essential. In fact, their charts, or maps, became strategic documents and have been identified as ‘instruments of state power’ and ‘weapons of war.’ Map makers were extremely secretive about their work and protected their maps on pain of death. Nations jealously guarded their official maps and, in wartime, only a select few were privileged to view them.

In the mid 16th century, Flemish Geographer Gerardus Mercator compiled the first scientific book of maps. It featured the figure of the mythological giant Atlas. Ever since a collection of maps have come to be known as an Atlas.

Map-making techniques advanced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and the quality of maps improved accordingly. Cartographers now used chains to measure distance and transits for angles. They were also able to sound the depths of coastal waters.

But it wasn’t until the 20th century that map-making really got off the ground. Airplanes soon became mounted with cameras and map-makers had the aid of aerial photographs. Then, in the 1950’s another great leap was taken with the advent of orbiting satellites. By the end of the 1980’s, ground surveyors with global positioning receivers could determine geographical locations earth wide in an hour.

Today, computer technology allows map-makers to store trillions of pieces of information. Thus a custom-made made map can be made within minutes. And with a geographic information system (GIS) almost any information can now be superimposed on a map.

The map-makers of former times would certainly marvel at all of this modern technology. It is all to no avail, however, unless people actually take the time to learn how to use the maps that are so readily available to them. Besides, it could be a handy skill to have if they ever get lost.