Cartography is the art and science of map making. Being a cartographer requires attention to detail, a talent for visualizing data, and a comprehensive knowledge of geography.
Though most people can’t name one cartographer off of the tops of their heads, let alone a group of them, maps continue to play an influential role in everyone’s lives. Here are just a few of the famous cartographers who established themselves as some of the world’s best known and significant mapmakers.
The first spot has to go to the man who coined the term geography, Eratosthenes who lived between 276 – 194 BCE. Eratosthenes came up with the word geography from the roots “geo” (the earth) and “graphein” (to write).
Eratosthenes was also the first man ever to be able to calculate the size of the Earth (with a remarkably low 2% error) using a measurement known as stades (taken from the length of a stadium, in this case, an Egyptian stadium), the Earth’s axial tilt, and possibly even the planet’s distance from the Sun.
His greatest contribution was the concept of latitude and longitude. He created one of the earliest maps of the known world around 220 BC using parallels and meridians which indicated his understanding that the Earth was round.
The information used to create the map was compiled from early Hellenistic exploration including expeditions by Alexander the Great, Pytheas of Massalia, Megasthenes, Patrocles and Timosthenes of Rhodes. The map was created during his tenure as the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria, which provide Eratosthenes with access to hundreds of thousands of scrolls gathered from around the known world.
The world map was an accompaniment to his three-volume treatise entitled Geography. Unfortunately, the original map no longer exists and only fragments of Geography have been preserved.
Ptolemy wrote his Geographia around the year 150 AD which compiled existing knowledge about the world’s geography at the time. The work refered to a system of latitude and longitude, as well as a means of describing locations on earth based on astronomical observations from those areas.
Ptolemy’s original maps from the work were never found, having presumably been lost over the years, but his work was descriptive enough that cartographers were able to recreate his observations in 1300 AD, and create the Ptolemy map.
His world map is notable for its probable role in the Roman expansion. Ptolemy’s idea of using a latitude and longitude system had a significant impact on the work of later cartographers.
Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani al-Sabti, known simply as al Idrisi or Dreses. He was originally from Ceuta, a Spanish city inside the border of Morocco, and lived at the Sicilian court of King Roger II during the 12th century.
al Idrisi traveled extensively in his lifetime, and visited Spain, Portugal, France, England, and Anatolia while he was still a teenager. al Idrisi created the Tabula Rogeriana (translated as the Book of Roger), which was a description of the world accompanied by a detailed map created in 1154.
Tabula Rogeriana required fifteen years for Al Idrisi to finish, and covered all of Eurasia, and part of northern Africa. In addition to the map, the Tabula Rogeriana included an exhaustive account of the geographical features, ethnic groups, socioeconomic factors, and other features of every area he drew.
His information was gleaned from interviews with visitors to the areas he wrote about, as well as his own travels and inherited classical geographical information. In a time period when few people traveled more than five or ten miles from their homes, he had visited Spain, Portugal, France, Anatolia, and England by age sixteen, and traveled even more extensively later in life.
The Tabula Rogeriana is his most famous work of geography and cartography, and was created for King Roger II of Sicily. The Tabular Rogeriana shows south oriented towards the top of the page. S. P. Scott, who, in 1904 wrote the History of the Moorish Empire, noted that” For three centuries geographers copied his maps without alteration.”
This cartographer inspired Clark University’s Clark Labs to name its GIS software ‘IDRISI’ after him.
The Fra Mauro Map was created by the 15th-century Camaldolese monk Fra Mauro around 1450 AD who maintained a cartography studio at the Monastery of St. Michael in the then Republic of Venice. Fra Mauro’s mappamundi (world map) was created based on interviews with traveling merchants and is considered one of the finest pieces of medieval cartography in existence.
The mappamundi a large round map, around two meters in diameter, painted on vellum and stretched in a wooden frame. The map itself depicts the known world at the time- Europe, Asia, and Africa.
One interesting feature of Fra Mauro’s map is that it is oriented with south at the top of the map, as opposed to the Ptolemy map, another well-known historical map. Fra Mauro chose this orientation instead of Ptolemy’s northern orientation because he felt that Ptolemy’s map was no longer accurate, having been created based on information gleaned from works of Ptolemy dating from long before much of the world had been thoroughly explored.
Gerardus Mercator, the man for whom the Mercator map projection is named, lived during the early 16th century, in Flanders.
The Mercator map projection was created as a navigational tool in 1569. Though it doesn’t give viewers an accurate idea of the relative sizes of countries and oceans, it was the first map projection designed purely to simplify navigation.
Mercator named his map, Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigatium Emendate (new and augmented description of Earth corrected for the use of navigation). Because the Mercator projection map is a cylindrical projection, the map does not have a consistent scale when applied to a round Earth. This means that objects close to the poles become distorted, and appear much larger than they really are.
Gerardus Mercator’s Mercator Map
This map is notable for being the first attempt to make a round Earth look “right” on a flat surface. The problem inherent in representing a spherical shape on a flat plane is that things tend to get distorted. Lines of latitude and longitude, useful for navigating a globe, become warped and useless on a flat map.
Mercator sought to account for this by keeping the lines straight, and distorting the size of objects closest to the poles. The result was the Mercator projection, an invaluable tool for navigation at sea.
Nicolas de Fer
The French cartographer Nicolas de Fer was less a scientist than he was an artist. De Fer lived during the 17th-18th centuries, and is known for producing over 600 very beautiful maps. His father, Antoine de Fer, started the family business of mapmaking and engraving, which Nicolas later took over.
Though his maps probably wouldn’t have won any prizes for geographical accuracy, they were prized for their sheer beauty and decorative qualities. The beauty of his maps was enough to get Nicolas de Fer a royal appointment as the geographer for the French Dauphin, the Duke of Anjou.
Henry Pelham was a Boston-born painter, engraver, and cartographer that lived during the late 18th century. As a staunch Loyalist, he wasn’t able to remain in the American colonies during the American Revolution, and was eventually forced to flee to Britain in August of 1776.
In Britain, Pelham supported himself by teaching and acting as a cartographer and civil engineer. His county and baronial maps of Ireland are considered very important parts of Irish history from that period, and his letters to his family are held in high regard as historical documents from the American Revolution.
His map, A Plan of Boston in New England with Its Environs, is considered one of the best Revolutionary War prints. Pelham created the map of Boston and its surrounding areas for use by British intelligence.
His pass is reproduced in the upper left corner of the map and states “Permission to take a plan of the Towns of Boston and Charlestown and of the Rebel works round these places in doing of which he is not to be obstructed or impeded but has leave to pass and repass to and from.”
The map was etched in London in 1777 by Francis Jukes using the then relatively new method of aquatint.
Though cartographers today don’t usually get the same kind of esteem that they did back when hand-drawn and engraved maps were expensive, prized pieces of art, cartography is still a very difficult discipline that’s equal parts art and science.
Few cartographers are cartographers alone – being a cartographer usually goes hand-in-hand with being an artist, engraver, writer, or other creative professional. One thing all cartographers have in common is a fascination with the world around them.
Al Idrisi turned his travels and interviews with other travelers into one of the greatest historical and cartographic works of his time, and Nicolas de Fer’s maps were just as much art as they were works of geographical research.
Some of their work, like many of de Fer’s antique maps, have been lost to time. Other contributions, like the Mercator map projection, are still in use today.
This article was originally written on June 10, 2012 and has since been updated.