The enchanted era of geographic gaffes is coming to an end.
Tens of millions of iPhone users last week found that they could suddenly leave their homes again without getting either lost or cross. Google was finally able to release an app containing its own mapping system. Google Maps had been sorely missed for several months, ever since Apple booted it in favor of the company’s own inadequate alternative—a cartographic dud blamed for everything from deleting Shakespeare’s birthplace to stranding Australian travelers in a desolate national park 43 miles away from their actual destination. As one Twitter wag declared: “I wouldn’t trade my Apple Maps for all the tea in Cuba.”
There was one potential bright spot, though: Among the many mistakes found in Apple Maps was a rather elegant solution to the continuing dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku islands. Japan controls them; China claims them. Apple Maps, when released, simply duplicated the islands, with two sets shown side-by-side—one for Japan, one for China. Win-win. (At least until the software update.) Call it diplomacy by digital dunderheadedness.
As some may recall, it was not so long ago that we got around by using maps that folded. Occasionally, if we wanted a truly global picture of our place in the world, we would pull shoulder-dislocating atlases from shelves. The world was bigger back then. Experience and cheaper travel have rendered it small, but nothing has shrunk the world more than digital mapping.
In medieval Christian Europe, Jerusalem was the center of the world, the ultimate end of a religious pilgrimage. If we lived in China, that focal point was Youzhou. Later, in the days of European empire, it might be Britain or France. Today, by contrast, each of us now stands as an individual at the center of our own map worlds. On our computers and phones, we plot a route not from A to B but from ourselves (“Allow current location”) to anywhere of our choosing. Technology has enabled us to forget all about way-finding and geography. This is some change, and some loss.
Maps have always related and realigned our history; increasingly, we’re ceding control of that history to the cold precision of the computer. With this comes great responsibility. Leading mapmakers used to be scattered around the world, all lending their distinctive talents and interpretations. These days by far the most influential are concentrated in one place—Mountain View, Calif., home of the Googleplex.
There is something disappointing about the austere potential perfection of the new maps. The satellites above us have seen all there is to see of the world; technically, they have mapped it all. But satellites know nothing of the beauty of hand-drawn maps, with their Spanish galleons and sea monsters, and they cannot comprehend wanderlust and the desire for discovery. Today we can locate the smallest hamlet in sub-Saharan Africa or the Yukon, but can we claim that we know them any better? Do the irregular and unpredictable fancies of the older maps more accurately reflect the strangeness of the world?
The uncertainty that was once an unavoidable part or our relationship with maps has been replaced by a false sense of Wi-Fi-enabled omnipotence. Digital maps are the enemies of wonder. They suppress our urge to experiment and (usually) steer us from error—but what could be more irrepressibly human than those very things?
Among cartographic misfirings, the disaster of Apple Maps is rather minor, and may even have resulted in some happy accidents—in the same way that Christopher Columbus discovered America when he was aiming for somewhere more eastern and exotic. The history of cartography is nothing if not a catalog of hit-and-miss, a combination of good fortune and misdirection.
The story starts at the Great Library of Alexandria around 330 B.C., the place where the study of geography really began. Its first scholars constructed an important proto-map of the world, based largely on the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. His nine-volume “Researches” had been completed a century and a half earlier, but his description of the rise and fall of the Persian Empire and the Greco-Persian wars remained the most detailed source of information on the shape of the known world.
These early scholars got a lot right—and inevitably a fair bit wrong. The map they constructed depicted the world as round, or at least roundish, which by the fourth century B.C. was commonly accepted (dismissing the Homeric view that if you sailed long enough you would eventually run out of sea and fall off the end).
Eratosthenes of Cyrene (in modern-day Libya) was one of the first scholars to marshal the new geographical knowledge into the art of cartography, making fullest use of the Library of Alexandria’s scrolls, the accounts of those who had swept through Europe and Persia in the previous century, and the pertaining views of the leading contemporary historians and astronomers.
His world map was drawn in about 194 B.C., and the shape of the Victorian-era reconstruction of it (the original vanished long ago) resembles nothing so much as a dinosaur skull. There are three recognizable continents—Europe to the northeast, Africa (described as Libya and Arabia) beneath it and Asia occupying the eastern half of the map. The huge northern section of Asia is called Scythia, an area we would now regard as encompassing Eastern Europe, the Ukraine and southern Russia.
The map is sparse but sophisticated, and noteworthy for its early use of parallels and meridians in a grid system (with, bizarre as it seems to us now, the island of Rhodes—then a major trading post—at the center of everything). The inhabited world (something the Romans would later call “the civilized world”) was believed to occupy about one-third of the northern hemisphere and was wholly contained within it.
The northernmost point, represented by the island of Thule (which may have been Shetland or Iceland), was the last outpost before the world became unbearably cold; the most southerly tip, labeled enticingly as Cinnamon Country (corresponding to Ethiopia/Somaliland) was the point beyond which the heat would burn your flesh. There are no poles, and the three continents appear purposely huddled together, as if the huge encroaching oceans and the vast areas of the unknown world are joining forces against them. There is no New World, of course, no China, and only a small section of Russia.
In the second century, the work of Eratosthenes would be one of the templates used to produce what is traditionally regarded as the bridge between the ancient and the modern world: Claudius Ptolemy’s “Geographia.” This contained a vast list of names of cities and other locations, each with a coordinate, and if the maps in a modern-day atlas were described rather than drawn, they would look something like Ptolemy’s work, a laborious and exhausting undertaking based on a simple grid system. He provided detailed descriptions for the construction of not just a world map but 26 smaller areas.
As one would expect, Ptolemy still held a skewed vision of the world, with distortions of Africa and India, and the Mediterranean much too wide. But his projection of the shape of the world is still something we would recognize today, and the placement of cities and countries within the Greco-Roman empire is highly accurate. He gives due credit to another key source, Marinus of Tyre, whose map was the first to include both China and the Antarctic.
But Ptolemy was prone to the biggest and most contagious cartographic vice: Lacking precise information, he just made things up. Like nature itself, mapmakers have always abhorred a vacuum. White space on a map reveals ignorance, and for some this has always been too much to bear.
Ptolemy could not resist filling blanks on his maps with theoretical conceptions, something that plagues exploration to this day. The Indian Ocean was displayed as a large sea surrounded by land, while many of his measurements of longitude (something that was very hard to measure accurately until John Harrison’s timepiece won a famous competition in the 18th century) were way off beam. The biggest miscalculation of all, the longitudinal position of the Far East, would eventually suggest to Columbus that Japan could be reached by sailing West from Europe.
But Ptolemy was at least attempting to map on scientific principles. Not so the wonderful mappae mundi, a collection of large conceptions of the world that filled our imaginations from the 11th century to the Renaissance. These maps, which primarily adorned the world’s churches and other places of power and learning, succeeded in returning mapping to the dark ages, getting much wrong and gleefully so. Their goal was not navigation and accurate knowledge but rather religious instruction. The maps contained places we seldom see on modern charts these days—Paradise, for instance, and fiery Hell—and the sort of bestiary and mythical imagery one might expect to find in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. We can marvel at the mythical bison-like Bonacon, for example, spreading his acidic bodily waste over Turkey, and the Sciapod, a people whose enormously swollen feet were said to make fine sun-shields.
The Renaissance and the golden age of exploration brought forth a stricter regime and hot-off-the-deck maps from Portuguese and Spanish explorers. Cumulatively, these resulted in the famous projection map of Gerardus Mercator in 1569, a plan of the world that still forms the basis of schoolroom teaching and Google Maps. The projection provided a solution to a puzzle that had troubled mapmakers since the world was recognized as a sphere: How does one represent the curved surface of the globe on a flat chart? Mercator’s solution remains a boon to sailors to this day, even as it massively distorts the relative sizes of land masses such as Africa and Greenland.
The catalog of cartographic inaccuracies goes on. Those living in California may be curious to know that for more than two centuries their homeland was not attached to the West Coast mainland but was thought to be an island, drifting free in the Pacific. This wasn’t a radical act of political will, nor a single mistake (a slip of an engraver’s hand, perhaps), but a sustained act of misjudgment.
Stranger still, the error continued to appear on maps long after navigators had tried to sail entirely around it and—with what must have been a sense of utter bafflement—failed. Between its first appearance on a Spanish map in 1622 and its fond farewell in a Japanese publication of 1865, California appeared insular on at least 249 separate maps. Whom should we blame for this misjudgment? Step forward one Antonio de la Acensión, a Carmelite friar who noted the “island” in his journal after a sailing trip in 1602-03.
But my favorite cartographic error is the Mountains of Kong, a range that supposedly stretched like a belt from the west coast of Africa through half the continent. It featured on world maps and atlases for almost the entire 19th century. The mountains were first sketched in 1798 by the highly regarded English cartographer James Rennell, a man already famous for mapping large parts of India.
The problem was, he had relied on erroneous reports from harried explorers and his own imagined distant sightings. The Mountains of Kong didn’t actually exist, but like an unreliable Wikipedia entry that appears in a million college essays, the range was reproduced on maps by cartographers who should have known better. It was almost a century before an enterprising Frenchman actually traveled to the site in 1889 and found that there were hardly even any hills there. As late as 1890, the Mountains of Kong still featured in a Rand McNally map of Africa.
And then there was the case of Benjamin Morrell, who had drifted around the southern hemisphere between 1822 and 1831 in search of treasure, seals, wealth and fame. Having found little of the first three, he apparently thought it amusing to invent a few islands en route. The published accounts of his travels were so popular that his findings—including Morrell Island (near Hawaii) and New South Greenland (near Antarctica)—were entered on naval charts and world atlases. In 1875, a British naval captain named Sir Frederick Evans finally began crossing some of these phantoms out, removing no fewer than 123 fake islands from the British Admiralty Charts. It wasn’t until Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 Endurance expedition, however, that the matter of New South Greenland was put to rest. Shackleton found that the spot was in fact deep sea, with soundings up to 1,900 fathoms. Morrell Island came off maps not long after that.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on the early mapmakers, these pioneers of error. I would argue that Morrell and his misguided fellow adventurers made the world a more exciting and romantic place in which to live. Haven’t we lost something important as mapmaking has become a science of logarithms and apps and precisely calibrated directions?
Though those who gratefully downloaded Google Maps on their smartphones last week might disagree, there is something valuable about getting lost occasionally, even in our pixilated, endlessly interconnected world. Children of the current generation will be poorer for it if they never get to linger over a vast paper map and then try in vain to fold it back into its original shape. They will miss discovering that the world on a map is nothing if not an invitation to dream.
Photo credit: Pacific Standard