The Style of Technology

Cartography Is Just A Fancy Word For Mapmaking

Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 - upside-down with north oriented up

I have been fascinated by maps since I was a boy. With a map you can travel the world in your living room. With a map you can find your way to far off lands or your new friend’s house in the next county. With a map you can get an idea of where places you hear about on the news are.

Today, the act of mapmaking is pretty straightforward. GPS and laser rangefinders have made mapmaking both instantaneous and extremely accurate. However, until the last part of the last century we didn’t have such high-tech tools. Instead, we had the sun, stars, feet and artistry.

We as humans have a need to know where we are. Otherwise, we feel “lost”. And that’s scary. As such, maps have been made for ages. Some maps have been found from 1600 BC, and other paintings are suspected to be maps from even earlier than that. Mapmaking is important to any group of people exploring our planet, and especially to those who seek to dominate it. The ancient Greeks and Romans and the Medieval Europeans all had highly skilled cartographers.

Bearing compass, 18th century

But how did they do it? Well, at first a map was drawn based on observation. A Bedouin in North Africa may have a map based on what he saw of the terrain and features of the coast. Scale was often determined by estimating how far you could walk in a certain time. Position on the earth could be determined by the position of celestial bodies at night. With the inventions of the sextant and compass, cartography gained in accuracy. Now you could more accurately measure distance knowing time and speed, and position on the globe. Telescopes aided in determining position to landmarks.

Nautical map of the coast of southwest Ireland from Dungarvan to the River Shannon by the cartographer Samuel Thornton circa 1702-1707.

The use of these instruments was specialized enough, but cartographers also had to be able to draw what they saw. They had to be able to sketch out and fill in details of coastlines and mountain ranges. It was as much art and interpretation as it was technical use of tools. Maps such as the lead in photo or the one to the right were all hand drawn. Some could be very simple and show just the outline of a river and coast line, while others could be very ornate with various colors reflecting elevation changes, counties, etc. Cartography truly was a melding of technology, science and art.

The ease of creating maps today has meant an explosion of the types of maps. Maps don’t cost much any more, and anyone can add information to a map to communicate the best places to hunt deer, the racial make-up of an urban area, or even the amount of internet traffic traveling from different regions. Maps no longer just tell us the relative distance between two object, but what is going on around those objects. They are incredibly useful tools for understanding humanity and the world around us.

Technology, science, art, and understanding our world. How awesome is cartography?

[Image Credits: Public Domain, Fanny Schertzer on Wikimedia Commons]

  • tonyola

    I've always loved maps and aerials too. They've been crucial tools with my jobs. Google Maps and Google Earth are amazing resources and wonderful time-wasters. Acme Mapper has topo maps for the US and Canada. I can navigate myself just about anywhere on land with good aerials. If I don't get a window seat on a plane, I'm disappointed.

  • Number_Six

    How the hell did an Arab cartographer living in Sicily know the Caspian and Aral Seas existed? That's something amazing about ancient maps: the shapes were shit, but they knew a surprising amount about where stuff generally was.

  • I am always intrigued by the mistakes that are made by early cartographers based on the knowledge of the time (as this early map of California shows). It is fun to see maps change over time as new information is gathered.

    <img src="; width="300">

    • Number_Six

      Incredible foresight on the part of the cartographer. Was his name Nostradamus?

  • <img src=""&gt;

    In my undergraduate field geology course we had to make our own topographic maps of part of our field area on a blank sheet of paper using only a plane table, an alidade, and a surveyor's rod. Quantitative cartography is as tedious as it is awesome, and it is pretty darned awesome.

    • coupeZ600

      I worked on a couple of big housing developments in Santa Fe, NM back in the early nineties for a contractor who was doing all the excavation work. The surveyor was this old guy who barely spoke any English, but what was truly amazing was how he used merely the site plans, an Inclinometer (an eye-level with a degree bubble in it), a rod-man whose Stick was exactly six feet tall and painted black except for two brilliant orange lines at the top and the bottom, and a slide-rule that like the Inclinometer looked like it came over with Columbus.

      Somehow, looking through the Inclinometer at the top mark on the rod-mans stick and the difference between that and the bottom mark with the slide-rule he could tell exactly how far away/high/low the rod-man was and how that related to the plans. It was incredibly beautiful to watch as they only "spoke" to each other in the vaguest of hand-signals, and the cut/fill stakes were spot-on.

      This was when laser-levels were first catching on, but I was utterly fascinated with how this old-school tech could be so simple yet so accurate. I'd often jump out of my Grader and ask to look through his Inclinometer to try and figure out how it was done (this annoyed the rod-man to no end), but once he whipped out that slide-rule I was toast. Advanced Trigonometry (or whatever the hell it was) would be hard enough in your native tongue, but in a different language it was three kinds of Greek.

  • My upstairs hallway has a couple prints of birds-eye view maps drawn in the early 1900s. One of Fulton, NY where my parents met and Afton, NY a couple towns over.

    A different kind of map sure, but looking close at the great detail and figuring out which buildings still stand that you recognize in the picture is interesting.

    • tonyola

      Bing Maps has rotatable bird's eye views of many urban and suburban areas in the US. Quite cool.

    • Deartháir

      I was unaware there was a city called Afton. That's my sister's name, and it's not one I've encountered very afton… er… often.

      • There was a girl in our High School named Ashton and she transferred from there, lending itself to "Ashton from Afton". I remember the school had to let her try out for football because she requested, though I don't think she made the cut.

        I probably shouldn't tell you how Afton schools had a nasty breakout of Chlamydia, leading to more high school jokes that lasted way too long.

  • highmileage_v1

    My Father is a cartographer, long retired. I remember as a kid Dad bringing home stereoscopic photos of remote regions of Canada, plus the viewing lenses. He would make a rough contour draft and then take a bunch of notes. But for me, the first time he let me use the viewer, it was like magic. A totally 2D set of photos would be transformed into a 3D landscape with outstanding detail.

    • tonyola

      Did you ever learn the trick of viewing stereo maps/photos by crossing your eyes?

      • highmileage_v1

        Err? I'm thinking it would require an inordinate amount of Tequila consumed on my part!

        I've heard Apache pilots are capable of reading two different books at the same time due to the eye gymnastics learned by using the helmet mounted sight/HUD. It could just be a modern myth, but I get a headache just thinking about it.

        • tonyola

          It's not really difficult though I don't recommend doing it for long periods. Just cross your eyes until the two images merge. It takes a little practice, but soon you'll have that "aha!" moment.

  • I just came across this link about an early cartographer/scientist that seems appropriate to this thread.

  • tonyola

    To those interested in unusual maps ands weird uses of cartography, here is a fun site:

    • coupeZ600

      I'm a map junkie, so thankee for the linkee…. Congrats on making the century mark, too!

    • dwegmull

      Excellent link! There goes my productivity for today…

    • Number_Six

      This one is incredible:

  • dwegmull

    If my internet access was somehow restricted to one site only. I would pick Google maps.

    Now here is a fun game to play in Google maps: zoom all the way out, set the display to satellite, remove all labels and roads. Now try to find your house or other familiar location (house you grew in, etc…). Enjoy!

  • CaptianNemo2001