Maps That Changed the World
Betrayal. Political turmoil. Bitter rivalries.
No, we’re not still talking about “Game of Thrones." We’re talking about a subject even more dramatic: maps.
Over the centuries, maps have influenced governments, spread propaganda and sparked heated controversies. From the 6th century BC to today, follow along as we chart their captivating and dramatic history — beginning with the map that started it all.
Anaximander World Map, 6th Century BC
Greek philosopher Anaximander may not win points for details, but his map — one of the first known maps in the world, if not the first — provides valuable insight into how people viewed our planet in ancient times. (Hint: They thought it was way smaller).
The map was designed to encourage exploration and trade, to help unify the people of Greece, and to provide a building block for future cartographers.
Ptolemy’s Geography, 150 AD
Often referred to as the “father of geography,” Claudius Ptolemy was the first person to combine math, science and written words to plot areas around the world. Using rectangular and intersecting lines, he introduced the concept of longitude and latitude that we still use today. He was also the first to size countries based on actual calculations, instead of their importance in the world. (Yes, this is how it was done before!)
Ptolemy's map astonishingly depicted over 8,000 locations in Europe, Asia and Africa, making it one of the most detailed maps of its time, and one that encouraged others to see the world in new ways.
Al-Idrisi’s World Map, 1154
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Muslim scholar Al-Sharif al-Idrisi saw a unique opportunity to redraw and unite the world. Under the direction of King Roger II, he created a map that blended Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions.
In contrast to the Christian world maps of this time period, Al-Idrisi put the south of the world on top — a trend consistent in Muslim mapmaking. This was done because many Muslims lived north of Mecca and believed the south was the correct direction in which to pray.
In addition, this was the first map to show Africa in a significant light and to focus more on geographical details than religious allegory.
Richard of Haldingham’s Mappa-Mundi, the 1300s
While Al-Sharif al-Idrisi bucked the trend of representing religion on maps, a clergyman named Richard of Haldingham took religion representation to the extreme with his Mappa-Mundi.
Drawn on calfskin, this world map moved away from proper geography to display biblical images such as The Garden of Eden. It also placed Jerusalem in the center of the world and featured Jesus Christ hovering over all of mankind.
Not in the least bit accurate, but impressively detailed and quite beautiful, this map is good for spiritual journeys only.
The Yu Ji Tu, 1137
Created by an unknown Chinese mapmaker who carved his vision into a three-foot-high stone, this map focused on China’s coastline and collection of rivers. Drawn with remarkable accuracy, it showed China’s advances in geography, a feat that historians believe put the East ahead of the West in mapmaking at that time.
Fun fact: This is the only map on this list that also doubled as a printing press, another example of how Asia was ahead of Europe, which didn’t develop printing methods until 300 years later.
Kwon Kun's Kangnido Map, 1402
This beautiful map, created by a team of royal astronomers in Korea under the direction of Kwon Kun, makes a bold political statement by placing the north unmistakably at the top. That’s because, in South Asian ideology, individuals are expected to look northwards toward their emperor as a sign of respect.
As Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London, told “The Atlantic,” "It's strange because the first map that looks recognizable to us as a Western map is a map from Korea in 1402.” Strange indeed.
Also of note? Although like all early maps, this one has plenty of inaccuracies, it features impressively accurate depictions of Korea and Japan.
Henricus Martellus World Map, 1490
Two years before his infamous sailing to the New World, Christopher Columbus may have used this map to persuade Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to fork over money for the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. Created by German cartographer (and Italian resident) Henricus Martellus, Columbus allegedly used the map to show that distance between Asia and Europe wasn’t all that much, making a trip between them totally doable.
One way we know he may have used this map? When he landed in the Bahamas, Columbus thought he was close to Japan, an inaccuracy reflected in Martellus' rendering of the world.
Also of note: The map was the first to record how the Portuguese sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. This was important because it told European sailors that they wouldn’t have to go through Muslim lands to reach the jewels of the East Indies, launching a new wave of explorations.
Waldseemüller’s Universalis Cosmographia, 1507
In 2003, the Library of Congress purchased this map from a German prince for the bargain price of $10 million. So what makes it so valuable? It was the first map in the world to recognize the Pacific Ocean and a separate continent called “America” (named in honor of explorer Americo Vespucci, who’d first identified the landmass).
Hailed as “America’s birth certificate,” it was created by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. Waldseemüller was especially committed to keeping up with explorers’ many new discoveries, and with his inclusion and detailed depictions of Africa, India, Asia and the Americas, Waldseemüller proved to be a game-changer in mapmaking.
Diogo Ribeiro’s World Map, 1529
This map comes with a scandalous backstory.
In the 1500s, Spain and Portugal were embedded in a bitter rivalry over the spice trade. Both focused their attention on a chain of islands called the Moluccas (located in present-day Indonesia). It was agreed that they would share the land, but then Portuguese cartographer Diogo Riberio turned on his own country (gasp!) by working for Spain (double gasp!).
In his map, he showed the Moluccas in Spanish territory — proving that cartographers can’t always be trusted, as they may blur facts for personal gain.
Mercator’s World Map, 1569
Yes, his projection is filled with loads of inaccuracies, but there’s no denying that Gerardus Mercator literally changed the way we look at the world. Along with Ptolemy, the Flemish cartographer is widely considered the most influential person in the history of maps — mostly thanks to the infamous Mercator World Map (or Mercator Projection) of 1569.
In the 16th century, sailors were in desperate need of a flat map that would allow them to navigate long distances. Mercator answered the call, creating an enormous world projection that mimicked the earth’s curvature on a flat sheet of paper and plotted straight lines that could be used for navigation.
Mercator’s projection was adopted around the world, and went on to become the go-to map in classrooms for teaching geography. With its depiction of a much smaller Africa and much larger Europe and North America, it fostered misconceptions that linger to this day.
Yet remarkably, despite its flaws and age, the map is still widely used, to enduring controversy.
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World), 1570
Not just one map, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is 53 hand-colored, engraved renderings, and is widely considered to be the world’s first true modern atlas.
Created by Abraham Ortelius, a Flemish scholar and geographer, the atlas is often thought of as a summary of 16th-century cartography, as it covered much of the exploration of the world in the century following the discovery of America. It was one of the most successful works of its time with over 7,300 copies printed in 31 editions and seven languages between 1570 and 1612.
The atlas was widely praised for its accuracy and was frequently revised with new geographical insights, making it an important and influential resource in cartography for years to come.
John Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, 1662
Working for the Dutch East India Company, Joan Blaeu created maps that appeared in thousands of atlases over the years. His Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, published in Amsterdam in 1662, was an epic affair that spanned 3,368 pages of texts and contained almost 600 maps!
Though his work was considered more mass-market than cutting edge, in his world map pictured here, Blaeu made some daring choices. Most significantly, he separated himself from classic cartographers such as Ptolemy by endorsing Copernicus’s belief that Earth was part of a solar system orbiting the sun. Copernicus even gets a shout-out in the map; he's shown at the top left. (You can see Ptolemy, too, drawn at the top right.)
Though the Atlas Maior contains some inaccuracies — a consistent theme among these early projections — Blaeu stands out for bringing a real exquisiteness to mapmaking.
Cassini's Geometric Map of France, 1789
Beginning in the 1740s, Cassini de Thury directed work on something unprecedented: a map that surveyed every meter of France. The undertaking was so massive that it involved four generations of the Cassinis and teams of trained surveyors.
After the data was collected, the Cassinis used trigonometry to create a stunning, nearly 200-sheet map. This long labor of love became France’s official map in the 18th century and set the standard for national mapmaking.
Life and Labour of the People in London, 1889
In the late 19th century, an English businessman named Charles Booth heard that about a quarter of Londoners lived in poverty. Skeptical, he set out to prove this figure wrong, launching “Inquiry Into the Life and Labour of the People in London,” an epic survey that would become enormously influential.
In a section specifically devoted to poverty, Boothe studied homes across the city and colored the streets according to their poverty level. For example, black was for the poorest, pink was for mixed poverty levels and gold was for the wealthiest.
Booth’s study proved him right, but not in the way he’d expected — it was more like a third of Londoners lived in poverty. His poverty maps compelled the government into action and became a groundbreaking tool for understanding and addressing social welfare issues.
Sir Halford Mackinder, The Natural Seats of Power, 1904
This map may look modest, but in these simple lines lie an extreme message of power and politics. It was created by Sir Halford Mackinder, an English academic and politician, who believed that Central Asia and Russia held a pivotal position in the world’s political scene, and thought that whoever controlled these regions would have the supreme power to rule the world.
Mackinder’s emphasis on interlinked axes of power suggested that no region was isolated, and that decisions made in one place could have ripple effects around the world. His map influenced the Nazis, Henry Kissinger and George Orwell’s dystopian world of “1984,” and he is often credited with giving birth to the concept of “geopolitics.”
War Propaganda Maps, 1900s
Sometimes, cartographers subtly sneak hidden agendas into their maps, but the messages conveyed in war propaganda maps are anything but camouflaged — they are blatantly meant to convince a nation to unite and fight against a vile enemy.
In the 1900s, a British cartographer named Frederick Rose confronted the “dangers of Bolshevikisms” by depicting Russia as an octopus strangling Poland, Finland, China and other countries. (That over-the-top map is pictured here.)
Showing your enemy as a ghastly beast was adapted by many others, including the Germans, who threw some tentacle shade at Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Taking it a step further, Germany created another map in which other European nations were depicted as animals, while Germany and Austria-Hungary were shown as men. In turn, France created a map showing Germany as a cross between a terrifying bird and, what else, an octopus.
Not to be outdone, Russian designer Dmitry Moor created a series of maps that showed courageous Bolshevik volunteers rallying against its European enemies. Though a bit cartoonish, the maps helped create a feeling of unification within Russia and the Soviet Union.
The London Underground, 1933
How do you show a vast and complex transit system on a sheet of paper? Ask electrical draftsman Harry Beck, who stripped down the sprawling Tube network into a neat diagram of easy-to-read colors and crisscrossing lines in 1933, forsaking geographical accuracy for accessibility to the masses.
Though initially rejected by the Underground’s publicity department, his elegantly simple map went on to become an essential guide for millions of passengers riding the Tube, as well as a cartographic icon and template for transit maps around the world.
Gall-Peters World Map, 1973
In the 1970s, a German historian named Arno Peters challenged the Mercator Projector, which he criticized for being too “Eurocentric.” In doing so, he showed a world based on its surface area that corrected some of Mercator’s distortions, including making Africa bigger and Europe smaller.
The map, which was actually based on a projection from a 19th-century Scottish clergyman named James Gall, was a big hit with progressive organizations and sold millions of copies worldwide. However, though it shows the continents’ correct sizes, many found it visually unappealing.
Still, the Gall-Peters projection remains an important contribution to world maps — just ask the writers of ”The West Wing.”
Blue Marble Next Generation, NASA, 2002
While not technically a map, the Blue Marble takes us to the ends of the earth — literally.
In 1972, astronauts aboard the Apollo 17 snapped one of the most famous photographs of Earth (from 28,000 miles away, no less!). Years later, in 2002, NASA built on that image with the launch of the Blue Marble, one of the most detailed images of the Earth’s surface the world had ever seen.
In 2005, the Next Generation version went even further, using data compiled by satellites to show land surface, coastal oceans, sea ice and clouds in a seamless, photo-like mosaic with amazing clarity and detail.
Google Maps, Present Day
Our current digital age transformed the way we use maps, with Google leading the charge as an undeniable game-changer. These days, more than 150 million people use Google Maps for driving, mass transit, walking directions and more each month.
Google Earth, too, is used widely. And while, yes, there are concerns about Google using us as marketing pawns, where else can you see what it’s like to scale the ocean floor, stroll the Scottish Highlands or visit outer space without ever leaving home?
Now that we have not only accurate and complete maps, but maps that we can interact and engage with to travel the world virtually, the question is: What’s next?