19th Century Atlas Creatively Visualizes the Expansion of Geographical Knowledge Over 4000 Years of World History: From the Biblical flood to the Industrial Revolution

The age of the “uni­ver­sal his­to­ry” has come and gone. The genre flour­ished in times when it seemed pos­si­ble to assume a van­tage point out­side of time—to see pur­pose and pat­tern in thou­sands of years of human action. “It might be pos­si­ble,” wrote Immanuel Kant, “to have a his­to­ry with a def­i­nite nat­ur­al plan for crea­tures who have no plan of their own.” The view assumed by such a his­to­ry tends to exclude the cir­cum­scribed per­spec­tive of the view­er, or—in Ralph Wal­do Emerson’s famous, and oft-par­o­died, phras­ing, “all mean ego­tism van­ish­es. I become a trans­par­ent eye­ball; I am noth­ing; I see all; the cur­rents of the Uni­ver­sal Being cir­cu­late through me; I am part and par­cel of God.”

Few his­to­ri­ans today assume such a gods-eye-view, for bet­ter or worse, but with­out it, we would nev­er have seen the devel­op­ment of its visu­al ana­logue: the time­line map, an info­graph­ic form espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar in the 18th to the ear­ly 20th cen­turies, when thinkers from Schiller to Herder to Kant to Hegel to Marx to Weber pro­duced uni­ver­sal accounts of human his­to­ry that, to vary­ing degrees, pur­port­ed to account for vast his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments as the move­ment of imper­son­al forces toward some def­i­nite goal.

From the per­spec­tive of the time­line map, civ­i­liza­tions grow nat­u­ral­ly from each oth­er like branch­es from a tree, or flow one into anoth­er like a river’s trib­u­taries, or pro­duce, as in John B. Sparks “His­tom­ap,” col­or­ful puz­zles in which every piece has its neat­ly-assigned place….

We’ve fea­tured sev­er­al such maps here, like the His­tom­ap and Eugene Pick­’s 1858 Tableau De L’His­toire Uni­verselle, both from the exten­sive map col­lec­tion of David Rum­sey. In the ver­sion you see here, we have a very unusu­al vari­a­tion on the theme—rather than a his­tor­i­cal time­line map, Edward Quin pro­duced in 1830 An His­tor­i­cal Atlas; In a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Dif­fer­ent Peri­ods.

The ques­tion, “as known by whom?” seems entire­ly rel­e­vant. The per­spec­tive of Quin’s atlas is god­like, gaz­ing down at the world through the clouds, but unlike Emerson’s trans­par­ent view, it does not “see all”—those clouds occlude the vision, restrict­ing it to indi­cate, as the Rum­sey col­lec­tion notes, “the expan­sion of geo­graph­i­cal knowl­edge over time.” You’ll have to read Quin’s text—avail­able here—to under­stand how he accounts for the chronol­o­gy and per­spec­tive.

The atlas begins in 2348 B.C. with “the Del­uge,” the myth­i­cal Bib­li­cal flood. Bib­li­cal his­to­ry inex­plic­a­bly gives way to the sec­u­lar. In a descrip­tion of the atlas by Don­ald A. Head rare books, this strange doc­u­ment “intend­ed to car­to­graph­i­cal­ly depict polit­i­cal change from the time of cre­ation to the year 1828,” when it reveals “the enlight­ened world in the midst of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion…. Divid­ed into twen­ty-one peri­ods… the clouds ful­ly dis­ap­pear at the nine­teenth peri­od: ‘A.D. 1783 at the sep­a­ra­tion of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, from Eng­land.” In his pref­ace, Quin explains his project in the typ­i­cal terms of uni­ver­sal his­to­ry, as illus­trat­ing “by the changes of colour the empires which suc­ceed each oth­er.”

Quin’s descrip­tion of the unchang­ing per­spec­tive he adopts might remind some mod­ern read­ers of cer­tain com­ic book char­ac­ters as much as of the vision of a god or a trans­par­ent, detached eye: “Like the watch­man on some bea­con-tow­er, he views the hills and peo­pled val­leys around him, always the same in sit­u­a­tion and in form, but every chang­ing aspect of the hours and sea­sons….” View Quin’s com­plete His­tor­i­cal Atlas, scanned in high res­o­lu­tion detail, at the David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion.

On our page here, see indi­vid­ual pages from the His­tor­i­cal Atlas. Or, up top, see an ani­mat­ed gif that lets you view all 21 maps in the atlas in chrono­log­i­cal order.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

4000 Years of His­to­ry Dis­played in a 5‑Foot-Long “His­tom­ap” (Ear­ly Info­graph­ic) From 1931

Ground­break­ing Map from 1858 Col­or­ful­ly Visu­al­izes 6,000 Years of World His­to­ry

10 Mil­lion Years of Evo­lu­tion Visu­al­ized in an Ele­gant, 5‑Foot Long Info­graph­ic from 1931

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

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