A Brief History of Maps

How did we get to this point we are now, where we are able to create a personalized star map for our customers? Not only has the Earth been mapped, we are even able to track the movements of the stars and recreate them for anyone, at any time in their lives, anywhere in the world.

We pay homage to the many giants whose shoulders we stand upon. Without accurately mapping the earth, it would be impossible to connect the stars with a location. This was, in fact, the same reason that the very first giant of cartography wanted to start mapping the world.

Claudius Ptolemy

Ptolemy was a Greek living in the Roman city of Alexandria, Egypt in the 2nd century AD. He was a mathematician, astronomer and astrologer. He was a star lover and he believed that we could divine much about our future from them. In order to get accurate astrological predictions, however, he had to add another string to his bow: map making.

In the process of creating a map, Ptolemy invented geography and cartography. His maps weren’t a million miles from the maps we use today. He believed the Earth was round (of course this was an issue of contention for a long time) and he found a way of converting the Earth’s spherical, three-dimensional shape onto two-dimensional paper. Now, we take that for granted but it involved some major geographical and mathematical breakthroughs.

Ptolemy collated information from documents and stories from travellers and, by the end, he had around 10,000 locations which he was able to plot onto his map using the lines of longitude and latitude (which he had come up with). His map spanned Europe, Asia and North Africa. It was a realistic map, centred around accuracy and objectivity. At the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, some three hundred years later, his style of map making was abandoned.

The Dark Ages

Appropriately, the next period in history is known as the Dark Ages (or the Middle Ages). Certainly, from the point of view of maps, people were living in relative obscurity. Instead of continuing with Ptolemy’s approach, maps became heavily distorted with the aim of accuracy being replaced by a narrative style of representing the world.

There are countless examples of maps to point to in the Dark Ages which would help travellers and navigators extremely little, although we do learn much about how the world was perceived. One of these is the “mappaemundi”. An English version of the mappaemundi included animals (a little like a child’s map) and barely any of Europe, Asia or North Africa. It has Adam and Eve at the top of the map and Christ’s Second Coming. The land and seas were just a backdrop for what they saw as the really important headline: Christianity.

The Age of Discovery

This was captured on the day after going up the Kala Patthar peak which was 5,550 masl which was the day after reaching the infamous Everest Base Camp 5,380 masl in the afternoon. I was just with my Tour Guide, Raju (who’s leading the pack), but we thought of grouping together with 2 other people, Bishnu (Nepalese Guide) and Derrick (Taiwanese), who were also doing the same trek as we did. The walk we did here in the area took about an hour to 2, however, it was all good since the terrain was just flat.

It wasn’t until the late Dark Ages/early Enlightenment (a period often known as the “Age of Discovery”), more than a thousand years since Ptolemy, that realistic maps came into demand and shifted onto centre stage once again. Nations were relying on successful sea voyages to expand their empires, find new lands and resources, and trade across long distances.

By this time, compasses had become reliable tools for sailors and, coupled with Ptolemy’s ancient calculations, they were able to create a “portolan” map. These added lines connecting ports around the world, alongside Ptolemy’s longitude and latitude lines. This was, in effect, a sailor’s map.

Ptolemy’s calculations had not been perfect, however. He miscalculated the size of the earth, believing it to be 30% smaller than it actually is. You would have thought this mistake would have been ironed out by this time but it even affected Christopher Columbus, making him think his trip to Asia would be much shorter than it was. Mistakes on Ptolemy’s map even played a part in Christopher Columbus discovering America.

In 1569, the Dutchman Gerardus Mercator invented the Mercator map (also called the Mercator projection map). Again, this was a map designed to help sailors. By stretching the lands and the seas north and south of the equator, he made the maps much easier to use. We still use the Mercator map today and the only problem with it is we get a disproportionate sense of country sizes. Countries further from the equator such as Canada and Australia appear larger, while countries nearer the equator (for example, in Africa) appear smaller than they actually are.

The Enlightenment

Ask Better Questions

With science and mathematics allowed to fully flourish, maps became more and more accurate too. “Triangulation” using trigonometry began being used. Lenses were getting better and better, making binoculars more powerful and navigation safer and easier than ever before.

The Industrial Revolution

In 1835, the British mapped every square yard of the United Kingdom to create the British Ordinance Survey Map. Karl Baedeker, a German entrepreneur created city maps of Europe for tourists. Maps also became mixed in with advertising. If your business made it onto a map that would literally put you “on the map”. In the United States, mapmakers would sell map space to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, they couldn’t just drop multiple pins in the same location as they do now on Google Maps.

Maps also began taking on other purposes. Charles Booth created a “moral map” of London which was designed to show where people were born and brought up was directly linked to their odds of becoming rich or poor in later life. Unfortunately, this backfired on him when it started being used by the banks to blacklist people from poorer areas.

The Modern Day

Woman map Gold Coast

Through the First and Second World War maps showed themselves to be absolutely indispensable and their accuracy was of paramount importance. This view has continued into the present day where we have satellites and smartphones which have given the whole world an extremely accurate map in their back pocket. We don’t even need to be able to map read any more. Siri can just tell us where to go. You will probably have seen people walking into lampposts as they follow an arrow on their phone around a city, but this is a relatively small price to pay for a world illuminated by accurate cartography.

The days spent searching for something new.

Using all which has come before us, at Under Lucky Stars, we are now able to map the exact position of the stars to any time and place you have been. We don’t add any confusing narrative over the top (other than a title of your choosing) and the accuracy of our maps has been NASA verified. We couldn’t have done any of this, however, if it wasn’t for that first giant among men: Ptolemy!

Show Comments