The Evolution of the World Map: An Inventive Infographic Shows How Our Picture of the World Changed Over 1,800 Years

For about 190 years, humanity has known what the world looks like. Or rather, humanity has known the shape and size of the land masses that rise up above the oceans, as well as where those land masses stand in relation to one another. For generation upon generation, we've all grown up seeing visual depictions of this knowledge in the form of the standard world map — distorted, of course, usually by Mercator projection, given the impossibility of turning a three-dimensional globe into a two-dimensional image with perfect accuracy. We can call it to mind (or up on our phones) whenever we need it. But what did the world look like before we knew what it looked like? Thanks to a Redditor who goes by PisseGuri82, we can now take in, at a glance, humanity's image of the world as it evolved over the past two millennia.

This Shape of the World infographic begins in 150 AD with the world map used by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, Egypt, "the first to use positions of latitude and longitude based on astronomical observations." Not that those observations produced anything immediately resembling an ancestor of the map we remember from classroom walls growing up, but it certainly must have marked an improvement on the guesswork and pure fantasy used in even earlier times.




World maps from the medieval period, such as the one included on the diagram created by an unknown French monk in 1050, were meant "not to explain the world but the Bible." Hence its focus on such Biblical parts of the world as Jerusalem, the Red Sea, and even the Garden of Eden.

Just over a century later, a map by Italy's Muhammed al-Idrisi employed the more objective method of calculating distances by what travelers and merchants told him about how long it took them to reach the distant lands they visited. Despite its "recognizable and detailed Eurasia and Northern Africa," however, it still makes for a vague (and, needless to say, hardly complete) approximation of the world. Only in 1529, with the empire-minded Spanish Crown's official and secret "master map," updated "by Spanish explorers on pain of death," do we arrive at a world map that would remind any of us of the ones we use in the 21st century.

Subsequent developments came from such advances as the aforementioned Mercator projection, invented in 1569 in the Netherlands and refined in England 30 years later, as well as the invention of the marine chronometer in 1778. The final map in the chart, an 1832 edition by Germany's Adolf Stieler in which "only the unexplored Polar regions are missing or depicted inaccurately," may look almost exactly like the world maps we use today. But the evolution certainly hasn't stopped: with the ever more detailed digital maps and satellite imagery that now feature in our world maps, our ability to perceive the Earth still improves every day. Our descendants 2000 years hence may well place themselves in a world we would hardly recognize. See the full-size "Shape of the World" infographic here. Make sure you click on the image once you open the page, and then you can see it in a larger format.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Download Beautiful Panoramic Paintings of U.S. National Parks by H.C. Berann: Maps That Look Even More Vivid Than the Real Thing

The United States of America's national parks have been inspiring artists even before they were officially declared national parks. That goes not just for American artists such as the master landscape photographer Ansel Adams, but foreign artists as well. Take the Austrian painter Heinrich C. Berann, described by his official web site as "the father of the modern panorama map," a distinctive form that allowed him to hybridize "old European painting tradition with modern cartography."

Berann found his way to cartography after winning a competition to paint a map of Austria's Grossglockner High Alpine Road, which opened in 1934, a couple years after Berann's graduation from art school. "In the following years," says the artist's bio, "he improved this technique, created the modern panorama map and became famous all over the world for his maps that are in a class of their own." Maps in a class of their own need geographical subjects in a class of their own, and America's national parks fit that bill neatly.




Berann's panoramas of Denali, North Cascades, Yellowstone, and Yosemite "were created in the 1980s and 90s as part of a poster program to promote the national parks," writes National Geographic's Betsy Mason. Just a few years ago, U.S. National Park Service senior cartographer Tom Patterson got to work on scanning the artworks in high resolution. When the project was complete, "the National Park Service released the new images on their newly redesigned online map portal, which also has more than a thousand maps that are freely available for the public to download."

Berann's 1994 painting of Denali National Park just above was his final work before retirement. It came at the end of a long and varied career in art that saw him paint not just the Alps, the Himalayas, the Virgin Islands, and the floor of the Pacific Ocean (as well as other impressive parts of the world under commission from the National Geographic society and six different Olympic Games) but travel posters and drawings of everything from landscapes to portraits to nudes.

But it is Berann's panoramic paintings of America's national parks, which you can download in high resolution here, that have done the most to make people see their subjects in a new way. Not least because, with an artistic sleight-of-hand that combines as many landmarks as possible into single vistas rendered with a strikingly wide range of colors, Berann provides them a series of vantage points entirely unavailable in real life. In one sense, these are all real national parks, but they're national parks captured in a way even Ansel Adams never could have done.

via Boing Boing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Meet Emma Willard, the First Female Map Maker in the U.S., and Her Brilliantly Inventive Maps (Circa 1826)

Americans have never like the word “empire,” having seceded from the British Empire to ostensibly found a free nation. The founders blamed slavery on the British, naming the king as the responsible party. Three of the most distinguished Virginia slaveholders denounced the practice as a “hideous blot,” “repugnant,” and “evil.” But they made no effort to end it. Likewise, according to the Declaration of Independence, the British were responsible for exciting “domestic insurrections among us,” and endeavouring “to  bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.”

These denunciations aside, the new country nonetheless began a course identical to every other European world power, waging perpetual warfare, seizing territory and vastly expanding its control over more and more land and resources in the decades after Independence.




U.S. imperial power was asserted not only by force of arms and coin but also through an ideological view that made its appearance and growth an act of both divine and secular providence. We see this view reflected especially in the making of maps and early historical infographics.

In 1851, three years after war with Mexico had halved that country and expanded U.S. territory into what would become several new states, Emma Willard, the nation’s first female mapmaker, created the “Chronographer of Ancient History” above, a visual representation to “teach students about the shape of historical time,” writes Rebecca Onion at Slate. The Chronographer is a “more specialized offshoot of Willard’s master Temple of Time, which tackled all of history”—or all six thousand years of it, anyway, since “Creation BC 4004.”

Willard made several such maps, illustrating an idea popular among 18th and 19th century historians, and illustrated in many similar ways by other artists: casting history as a succession of great empires, one taking over for another. Viewers of the map stand outside the temple’s stable framing, assured they are the inheritors of its historical largesse. Other visual metaphors told this story, too. Willard, as Ted Widmer points out at The Paris ReviewWillard was an “inventive visual thinker,” if also a very conventional historical one.

In an earlier map, from 1836, Willard visualized time as a series of branching imperial streams, flowing downward from “Creation.” Curiously, she situates American Independence on the periphery, ending with the “Empire of Napoleon” at the center. The U.S. was both something new in the world and, in other maps of hers, the fruition of a seed planted centuries earlier. Willard’s mapmaking began as an effort to supplement her materials as “a pioneering educator,” founder of the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, and a “versatile writer, publisher and yes, mapmaker,” who “used every tool available to teach young readers (and especially young women) how to see history in creative new ways.”

In another "chronographer" textbook illustration, she shows the “History of the U. States or Republic of America” as a tree which had been growing since 1492, though no such place as the United States existed for most of this history. Maps, writes Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura, “have the power to shape history” as well as to record it. Willard’s maps told grand, universal stories—imperial stories—about how the U.S. came to be. In 1828, when she was 41, “only slightly older than the United States of America itself," Willard published a series of maps in her History of the United States, or Republic of America.

This was “the first book of its kind—the first atlas to present the evolution of America.” Willard’s maps show the movement of Indigenous nations in plates like “Locations and Wanderings of The Aboriginal Tribes… The Direction of their Wanderings,” below—these were part of “a story about the triumph of Anglo settlers in this part of the world. She helped solidify, for both her peers and her students, a narrative of American destiny and inevitability, writes University of Denver historian Susan Schulten. Willard was “an exuberant nationalist,” who generally “accepted the removal of these tribes to the west as inevitable.”

Willard was a pioneer in many respects, including, perhaps, in her adoptation of European neoclassical ideas about history and time in the justification of a new American empire. Her snapshots of time collapse “centuries into a single image,” Schulten explains, as a way of mapping time “in a different way as a prelude to what comes to next.” See many more of Willard’s maps from The History of the United States, or Republic of America, the first historical atlas of the United States, at Boston Rare Maps.

via The Paris Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Rescue a Wet, Damaged Book: A Handy Visual Primer

How to save those wet, damaged books? The question has to be asked. Above, you can watch a visual primer from the Syracuse University Libraries--people who know something about taking care of books. It contains a series of tips--some intuitive, some less so--that will give you a clear action plan the next time water and paper meet.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Two Animated Maps Show the Expansion of the U.S. from the Different Perspectives of Settlers & Native Peoples

After John Ford, the history of U.S. expansion went by the name “How the West Was Won.” Decades earlier, in his essay “Annexation,” Jacksonian journalist John O’Sullivan famously coined the phrase “manifest destiny.” Historian Richard Slotkin called it “regeneration through violence” and novelist Cormac McCarthy summed up the jagged, ever-moving line of westward expansion from sea to sea with two words: Blood Meridian.

Indigenous versions of the story do not tend to enter common parlance in quite the same way, a fact upon which Vine Deloria, Jr. remarks in his “Indian Manifesto,” Custer Died for Your Sins. Violence is always central to the story. Usually the savagery of Native people is taken for granted. Savagery of settlers may be more or less emphasized. Yet the long history of land theft over the course of the centuries is also one of broken treaty after treaty.

Few tribes were defeated in war by the United States, but most sold some land and allowed the United States to hold the remainder in trust for them. In turn, the tribes acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States in preference to other possible sovereigns.

Caught between warring European empires, Indigenous nations made the best deals they could with the advancing U.S. and its army of Civil War veterans. “From this humble beginning the federal government stole some two billion acres of land and continues to take what it can without arousing the ire of the ignorant public.”




The brutality of the 19th century became professionalized, carried out by regulars in uniform, hence the detached language of “Indian wars.” These were followed by other kinds of violence: institutionalized paternalism, further encroachment and enclosure, and the forced removal of thousands of children from their parents and into reeducation camps.

The two maps you see here, with sweepingly broad visual gestures in gif form, illustrate the 19th century seizure of land across the North American continent from the perspective of a U.S. national history and that of an Indigenous multi-national history. The map at the top traces the story from the country's beginnings in the 13 colonies to the annexation, purchase, and finally statehood of Hawaii and Alaska in 1959.

The above map is more focused, spanning the years 1810 to 1891. As Nick Routley points out in a post at Visual Capitalist, “five of the largest expansion events in U.S. history” took place during the 1800s, though the first one he cites falls outside the timeline above. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase ended up acquiring what now makes up “nearly 25% of the current territory of the United States, stretching from New Orleans all the way up to Montana and North Dakota.”

Other notable events include the 1819 purchase of Florida from Spain by John Quincy Adams, the aforementioned purchase of Alaska from Russia, and the 1845 annexation of Texas. The Mexican-American War of 1848 gets less mention these days, though it expanded slavery and was quite hotly debated at the time by such principled figures as Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay his poll tax over it and wrote “Civil Disobedience” while in jail.

In the so-called Mexican Cession, Texas became a state and “the United States took control of a huge parcel of land that includes the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.” Mexico, on the other hand, “saw the size of their territory halved.” After each seizure of territory, mass migrations westward commenced in wave upon wave.

Routely does not survey these migration events, but you can learn about them in accounts like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous People’s History of the United States and Deloria’s manifesto. When we approach the founding and expansion of the U.S. from multiple perspectives, both visual and historical, we understand why critical historians often use the phrase “settler colonialism” rather than “westward expansion” or its synonyms. And why the overused and limited phrase “nation of immigrants” might just as well be “nation of migrants.”

via Visual Capitalist

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Meandering Mississippi River and How It Evolved Over Thousands of Years Visualized in Brilliant Maps from 1944

Given that Turkey's Büyük Menderes River was historically known as the Meander, you might well imagine how un-straightforward a path it takes through the country. But the English adjective descended from its name describes a fair few other twisting, turning rivers as well, and also a form of river mapping that suits them. "I have long admired the Mississippi River meander maps designed by Army Corps of Engineers cartographer Harold Fisk," writes Jason Kottke at Kottke.org by way of an introduction to his short essay on them at the site of printmaker 20x200.

"In their relentless flow to lower ground, rivers like to roam over the landscape, cutting through solid rock and loamy soil alike, gaining advantage here and there where they can," goes Kottke's explanation of how meandering rivers come to be. "The best and easiest course for a river to take downhill is its current course... right up until the moment when it's not." Each color in Fisk's meander maps of the longest river in North America "represents a new course, a marker of each time a bend had become too bendy and the river 'decided' to take a more direct path." Kottke summarizes these maps' appeal succinctly: "They are time machines."

"Standing before a painting by Hilma af Klint, a sculpture by Bernini, or a cave painting in Chauvet, France draws you back in time in a powerful way: you know you're standing precisely where those artists stood hundreds or even thousands of years ago, laying paint to surface or chisel to stone." Here, thanks to a "clever mapmaker with an artistic eye," we can imagine the Mississippi "as it was during the European exploration of the Americas in the 1500s, during the Cahokia civilization in the 1200s (when this city's population matched London's), when the first humans came upon the river more than 12,000 years ago, and even back to before humans, when mammoths, camels, dire wolves, and giant beavers roamed the land and gazed upon the river."

You can buy prints of three different Mississippi meander maps from 20x200, all of them originally part of Fisk's report "Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River completed in 1944. The study was made to learn about the formation of the valley over time, and about the major factors that dictate its flow and flooding in the modern era." Fisk drew upon data collected through approximately 16,000 borings, and "also found the river's heart in this jumble of loops and purls," producing a reflection of the river's distinctive personality in "this explosive, autumn-colored palette." Regarding these maps, we can't help but wonder in what shape some future team of intrepid surveyors will find the Mississippi a few thousand years hence — and what new words, in what languages, that shape might inspire.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Interactive Map of Odysseus’ 10-Year Journey in Homer’s Odyssey

The Odyssey, one of Homer's two great epics, narrates Odysseus' long, strange trip home after the Trojan war. During their ten-year journey, Odysseus and his men had to overcome divine and natural forces, from battering storms and winds to difficult encounters with the Cyclops Polyphemus, the cannibalistic Laestrygones, the witch-goddess Circe and the rest. And they took a most circuitous route, bouncing all over the Mediterranean, moving first down to Crete and Tunisia. Next over to Sicily, then off toward Spain, and back to Greece again.

If you're looking for an easy way to visualize all of the twists and turns in The Odyssey, then we'd recommend spending some time with the interactive map created by Gisèle Mounzer"Odysseus' Journey" breaks down Odysseus' voyage into 14 key scenes and locates them on a modern map designed by Esri, a company that creates GIS mapping software.




Meanwhile, if you're interested in the whole concept of ancient travel, we'd suggest revisiting one of our previous posts: Play Caesar: Travel Ancient Rome with Stanford’s Interactive Map. It tells you all about ORBIS, a geospatial network model, that lets you simulate journeys in Ancient Roman. You pick the points of origin and destination for a trip, and ORBIS will reconstruct the duration and financial cost of making the ancient journey.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in December, 2013.

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