Putting the World on Paper- the History of Cartography As It Applies to the United States

(This was my English grade 10 Honors research paper for 2003. The topic was: "Find a part of modern American culture that has its roots in a foreign country, and prove why America has stolen that practice")

With the advent of the jet engine and the Internet, the modern world has found a million more ways to get from point A to point B. The problem is keeping all of these paths organized and useable. In this endeavor, the various forms of mapping have become essential to keeping the world running successfully. The major hub of international business and trade is the United States, and it has grown to welcome that attention and adapted to accept it.

Maps have become an essential part of American culture as a means of expressing relationships. These relationships could be how to get from one place to another, where something is in relation to other things, amounts, and more. Americans have come to rely on maps as a simple and direct form of presenting these relationships.

Maps are a symbol of American informational achievement. They are used everywhere in modern societies. Americans in particular have grown to flourish in international trade and travel only by way of maps. They use maps to drive to work each morning, and maps to figure out the day"s weather. Nearly every American, from west coast to east coast, uses one or more maps daily. Maps are an icon of the amazing wealth of knowledge and data Americans have organized and used to their advantage.

However, maps are not an American creation. The art of cartography has existed for millennia, and was in widespread use even before America was officially declared a continent. Cartography, the art of creating and using maps, has its roots in ancient times. Cartography has provided the modern world with a priceless tool for understanding past civilizations. Maps are part of every civilization, and each has used them to their advantage in different ways. America is only one example of how maps have improved and advanced a society.

America's use of maps dates back all the way to its first inhabitants in the 16th century; namely, the colonists from Europe. Europe found America by way of maps, and so they were the first to lay claim to the land it contained. Since the American colonists got their maps from Europe, the origins of cartography lay not in America, but in the coastal countries of Europe. Therefore, the American use of maps in its modern culture is a nearly completely stolen idea and practice. However, without American innovations in mapping technology in the recent decades, the maps of the world would not be nearly as precise or as complete as they are. The invention of new forms of cartography has led to the advancement of every civilization that has used them, and America is no different.

The Uses of Cartography In Modern Times

As part of the American government's job to the people, they have surveyed and mapped every part of the United States. This was not a simple task, and, before the development of the GPS, was a monumental undertaking. The United States Geological Survey, as a group, has been mapping and remapping the lands since just after the centennial anniversary of the nation's freedom.

The United States Geological Survey was established on March 3, 1879,... when President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the bill appropriating money for... civil expenses of the Federal Government... The sundry civil expenses bill included a brief section establishing a new agency, the United States Geological Survey, placing it in the Department of the Interior, and charging it with a unique combination of responsibilities: "classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain." The legislation stemmed from a report of the National Academy of Sciences, which in June 1878 had been asked by Congress to provide a plan for surveying the Territories of the United States that would secure the best possible results at the least possible cost' (Rabbitt intro).
Since its inception, the USGS has been providing the citizens of America with accurate and detailed maps and appropriate analysis. They now release to the public newly corrected versions of the US topographical and boundary maps yearly. These are open to the public, and are often utilized by various mapmaking companies to keep their products up to date. All types of Americans use these maps for both work and pleasure. As part of the government's agreement with the people, they share all of the non-classified data they have with any citizen that requests it. Therefore, private groups have undertaken very few large-scale cartographic projects on their own, because it is easier to use the government's data.

The use of maps became popular in the United States after the first national survey in 1904. The new maps that became available to the public were published for towns, and quickly became a highly requested item at town halls across the nation (Rabbitt 4). A few entrepreneurs saw the possibility of making a fortune on maps, and raced to get their version of the maps to market. These people, such as Randal McNalton, George Burnice (founder of American Trails Corp.), and others, did not bother going out and mapping themselves, but instead just copied the USGS maps and sold them on street corners to travelers and locals alike. Since that time, the art of cartography has been the source of great inventions for both recreation and retaliation. The latest of them is the Global Positioning Satellite Array, or GPSA. This is a group of 24 satellites launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency that orbit in a definite constellation through Earth's atmosphere. A person standing anywhere on Earth is always able to find at least three of those satellites at any given time. By using the readings from three satellites, it can tell the person their coordinates in three dimensions (Zimmerman 3). The major ones used today are latitude, which is the distance north or south of the equator, and longitude, which is the east or west orientation around the globe based on the prime meridian (Zimmerman 5). 'With this information, as well as the persons' altitude, they can find their exact position on a printed map in seconds' (Trimble 1).

Out of the purely scientific invention of the GPS system has recently grown a new recreational activity- geocaching (pronounced geo-cashing, as in cashing a check (Irish 1)). The basic idea of the sport is to go take a selection of objects, place them in a 'time capsule,' and bury or hide the container in a secret location. Then, using a GPS receiver, find the coordinates of exactly where the capsule is, and post them on the web. Other geocachers now can search for the capsule, and if they find it, they get to keep whatever lies inside. This is essentially 20th century treasure hunting, only not with the intent of profit (Irish 1). This American creation has brought the art of mapping and the science technology together to create a recreational activity for the first time in the history of cartography (other than Where's Waldo?). In addition to the ability to quickly locate coordinates for a specific place, GPSA-type satellites have been used for mapping the world via photography. In the United States alone, over twenty companies have private satellites in orbit that are taking pictures of the Earth's surface to an amazing degree of precision. One of the leading companies, Orbimage, has mapped the world from space down to a resolution of one meter.

These new high quality maps have finally ended the disputes over which map is the most accurate, because they cannot get any more perfect than a photograph. In the course of a few months, starting in 1995, Orbimage mapped the whole globe using their two satellites. This set records for both the speed of completion and the quality of the final maps.

With the advent of the computer, the Internet merged with cartography to create a completely new form of maps- digital directions. With the newfound calculating capability, programmers found a way to teach computers to find directions on a fixed map between point A and point B. This idea, employed by such companies as MapQuest, and YahooMaps, has made getting directions to get somewhere quick and painless. This revolution in the art of cartography is slowly pushing paper maps into the past. The type of maps that Ptolemy drew have been so thoroughly reinvented in the last few decades by American inventions, that the new maps barely resemble what cartography once was. Maps now feature extremely detailed graphics, as well as extensive and accurate data about areas in question to make them more versatile then ever.

However, maps have ancient and extensive roots in world history. The appearance of maps is coincidental with the rise of civilizations around the world. Though cartography is famous for its mistakes in the 15th to 17th centuries, it has a noble beginning in Mesopotamia that set the stage for a faster and more global interest in exploration throughout the millennia to come.

The History of Cartography In Ancient Times

Cartography shares its roots that stretch far back as the invention of drawing. Cartography is actually not restricted to the study of maps (Thrower 1). In Latin, charta signifies 'paper' or 'cloth,' and graph denotes 'to draw.' Using that definition, the word cartography encompasses all forms of drawing (Thrower 2-4). It is only an assumption that cartography is solely mapmaking, mainly because the word cartography is only used to when speaking about it. A more correct way of naming the authoring and employment of maps is geocartography, meaning drawing (graph) the world (geo) on paper (charta).

Then again, to confuse the fact even further, the question must be asked- since when were maps restricted to paper? The need for groups to communicate direction, dimension, and planar coordination precedes the invention of paper in many primitive societies. Map creation is not restricted to a diplanar representation with pen and ink. Map construction can be as simple as sand and stones, and as lavish as silk and emeralds, or everything in between. It all depends on the environment of the area, wealth one is willing to spend, and the purpose the map is going to serve. One perfect example of man's resourcefulness and ingenuity is the creative approach that the natives of the Marshall archipelago took to cartography. References to the Marshallese date back in European history as far as 1803, and their theory on building maps did not change much for the next 200 years. They spent between a week and a lifetime building maps out of 'narrow strips of the center ribs of palm leaves lashed together with cord made from locally grown fibrous plants. The arrangement of the sticks indicated the pattern of swells or wave masses caused by winds, rather than currents' (Thrower 5). To mark landmasses, seashells were tied to the intersection of two sticks at the appropriate point on the map. Without the more modern version of mapmaking Europeans would introduce in the 1870s , they survived quite well on this ingenious version of recording maritime data (Thrower 6-7). The maps that evolved out of this process were so intricate and complex that few can read them without extensive training. Cartography traces its roots back to the earliest Mesopotamian societies. Among the ruins of 24 major cities, inscription of crude maps with legends appeared on 21 clay tablets (Ungar 311). They mapped towns and cities for internal use, as well as exploratory maps that stretched as far as modern Germany, Spain, and Saudi Arabia. The maps were not very precise, but extremely accurate for what they did plot. Each map was between the size of a palm and 12'x14', depending on the purpose it was intended to serve (Thrower 13). Most of the maps were diagrams of farmland, trade routes, or city layouts.

As the Mesopotamian civilization began falling apart, so did its history. Their maps were lost to future times, as well as their culture. Later on, long after the fall of the Mesopotamians, the Romans appeared to take the world by storm. Part of the reason they were so successful was the vast supply of maps available to the rulers. Rome had annexed Greece and Babylon, and with the new libraries available, had nearly tripled the store of maps they controlled (Thrower 16-17). Romans used their maps to plan military endeavors by a grid system that Erastothenes invented. This grid system, similar to the modern global positioning system (GPS), was a new way of precisely mapping land, because it gave landmarks definite lateral and longitudinal coordinates. The Romans used this type of mapping, called Centuriation, on the battlefield as well as in the designing of cities (Kish 233). This gave them an advantage in war, because they had already plotted their opponent's territory down to a few square feet, while their opponents were often fighting blind (Kish 238). All of the maps the Romans accumulated were catalogued and organized in the Library of Alexandria, which was the largest library in the ancient world. Eventually, the Roman Empire fell, and left most of their knowledge to the spawning civilizations to come.

At the same time as the Roman Empire was at its height, around the third century A.D., the Chinese were just beginning to perfect the art of cartography. From the Chinese comes the cardinal system (North, South, East, and West). However, it is not completely their idea. The word north actually has its history in nord, a Viking word for water. South comes from a Chinese word for below (E2 won't let me display chinese characters). East is derived from the Russian word for left (ironic?), and west comes from the mispronunciation of the Twessi tribe of southern Africa. Why those words were chosen is still being argued amongst scholars. The Chinese also developed the same grid system as the Romans, but did it in a more primitive manner. 'The [grid] system was introduced by the astrologist Chang Heng' (Thrower 23) to the ruler Yü Kung of the Han Dynasty. Their idea to establish the grid was to have 483,200 soldiers walk twenty steps apart in a horizontal line, carrying a rope. They kept together in a straight line with the rope. Each one was carrying a backpack full of dowels, and at twenty step increments would place one dowel as a marker in the ground. Then, a royal surveying team came along behind them diagramming and measuring the twenty-by-twenty step segments of land. Though this system took three decades and half of the Chinese army to complete, the result was astoundingly precise. The Chinese were (and still are) very stubborn in sharing their ancient maps and culture, and so their history deteriorates as inspection increases in the following centuries.

In the 1400's, Europeans begin to finally grasp the concept of mapping where they explore, so they can get home. The practice of bringing a cartographer along on an extended maritime voyage was never a big introduction, but a gradual addition to every European ship's manifest. The cartographer was never just a mapmaker. The cartographer was a mapmaker amongst a wide range of scientific tasks aboard the ship. In addition to mapping the crew's passage, they collected specimens of various creatures and plants they encountered. These cartographers, as opposed to the ones that worked in libraries, were rarely skilled at surveying, and so the maps they created were very imprecise. Due to the 'uncontrolled mosaic' that was forming, they were also losing accuracy. Though most were unskilled, a select few had talent, and did an amazing job. Such persons as Martin Beheim, Martin Waldseemüller, Giovanni Contarini, Sebastian Münster, Peter Apian, and Gemma Frisius (Thrower 51).

However, while the quality of the explorers' maps wavered, the librarian cartographers were getting increasingly closer to perfecting a world map. The rediscovery of Claudius Ptolemy's works in England, Spain, Portugal, and France lead to the rewriting of many maps that were previously assumed correct. Ptolemy had not completely mapped the earth, but the small section he had mapped (about the whole eastern world) he had been exquisitely precise. As data poured in from the explorers, the research librarians of Spain in particular were successful in sorting, checking, and appending it to Ptolemy's maps at a rather rapid rate. Eventually, the rest of the European countries caught up, but Spain had already secured itself a place in history for the quality of its expeditions to the new world. They had collected all of their data into one final map in 1507 that was so complete that it remained unedited for 70 years. The only mistakes they made were in the Indonesian islands (mostly because there are so many of them), the Icelandic areas, and the Arctic Circle. In addition, this map was made before the return of Columbus, and did not include anything about the Americas because so little was known. 'At this time (1507), only the east coasts of the New World were known through the explorations of Columbus, Cabot, Cabral, and Vespucci' (Kish 15).

Between the 1400's and the 1700's, the better part of cartography centered on coastline and oceanographic mapping. However, after the early 1700's, the world-mapping attempt slowly died, and the purpose of mapping began to shift to the creation of maps of different themes. Examples of themes are topographical maps, trade route or roadmaps, density maps (for various things), relief maps, and weather maps.

The American use of maps in its modern culture is a nearly completely stolen idea and practice. However, without American innovations in mapping technology in the recent decades, the maps of the world would not be nearly as precise or as complete as they are. The invention of new forms of cartography has led to the advancement of every civilization that has used them, and America is no different. The extrapolation is easy to prove with simple analysis of the foundation American maps are built on, which lies in the ancient maps that come from other areas of the world.

As Thrower stated in his book, 'Civilization is only created by building upon the discoveries of those that came before you' (Thrower 182). In the quote, the 'those' refers to the Mesopotamians, who first invented cartography. In order for Americans to wield the Military power they now possess, the GPSA has been a crucial development. Furthermore, this development could not have come about if George Mynarous (1682) did not graffiti best map with grid lines, and then proceed to name them latitudiens and longitudiens before presenting it to the world as his mark in history (Monmonmier 72). The whole reason the GPSA works is by mapping a series of latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. Those coordinates have become a staple to modern cartography; they even outweigh the nearly perfect map by Ptolemy in their effect on the future of the world.

Maps used in America today are built on concepts stolen from other countries, yet have carved themselves their own name in cartography's history through the innovations they have introduced. Cartography has its roots, both theoretical and practical, in the maps of the Europeans and Asians. They provided the Americans with the ordinal compass (North, South, East, and West), latitude, longitude, and the legend (or key) that still remain on nearly every map printed today. However, the methods of gathering data for the maps have changed drastically. Outdating the archaic system of sailing around to gather less than perfect data has been the invention of aerial photography. The maps are now much more accurate then they ever were, and are catalogued by the satellite itself, removing possible human error.

With the advent of the jet engine and the Internet, the modern world has found a million more ways to get from point A to point B. Now, the Americans have provided ways to figure out exactly how many with the GPSA, as well as aerial photography. In this endeavor, the various forms of mapping have become essential to keeping the world running successfully. The major hub of international business and trade is the United States, and it has grown to welcome that attention and adapted to accept it. Maps have become an intricate part of everyday American life, and since they are based on ideas brought over by immigrants, they are just one of the millions of contributions to the American culture that is completely foreign in nature.

Works Cited:

Baker, Emerson W. American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega. University of Nebraska Press, London, 1994. Brotton, Jerry. Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1998.

Irish, Jeremy. 'About GeoCaching: The GPS Extreme Sport.' http:/www.geocaching.comfaq. All pages. 2003.

Kish, George. 'Centuriatio: The Roman Rectangular Land Survey,' Surveying and Mapping, Col. 22, No. 2, 1962, pages 233-244.

Kish, George. 'The Cosmographic Heart: Cordiform Maps of the 16th Century,' Imago Mundi, vol. 19 (1965), 13-21.

Microsoft. 'Terraserver Global Satellite Imaging Database.' www.terraserver.com. All Pages. 2003.

Monmonier, Mark. How To Lie With Maps. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.

Monmonier, Mark. Drawing the Line. Henry Holt Publishers, New York, 1995.

Orbimage. 'Orbimage: The Future in Satellite Imaging.' www.orbimage.com. All pages. 2003.

Rabbitt, Mary. The History of the USGS. www.usgs.comdocshistory.html. Introduction and pages 28-30. 2003.

Thrower, Norman. Maps and Man. Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1972.

Trimble. 'How Does GPS Work?' http:/www.trimble.comgpshow.html. All pages. 2002.

Ungar, Ekhard. 'Ancient Babylonian Maps and Plans,' Antiquity, vol. 9, 1935, pages 311-22.

Zimmerman, Jacob. 'Global Positioning Satellite.' http:/www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=641584. All pages. 2000. (For all you E2 users, thats TheCustodian)

Car*tog"ra*phy (?), n. [Cf. F. cartographie. See Card, and -graphy.]

The act or business of forming charts or maps.


© Webster 1913.

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