Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries
Maps are hugely important tools in our everyday life, whether it’s guiding our journeys from point A to B, or shaping our big picture perceptions about geopolitics and the environment.
For many people, the Earth as they know it is heavily informed by the Mercator projection – a tool used for nautical navigation that eventually became the world’s most widely recognized map.
Mercator’s Rise to the Top
With any map projection style, the big challenge lies in depicting a spherical object as a 2D graphic. There are various trade-offs with any map style, and those trade-offs can vary depending on how the map is meant to be used.
In 1569, the great cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, created a revolutionary new map based on a cylindrical projection. The new map was well-suited to nautical navigation since every line on the sphere is a constant course, or loxodrome.
The vast majority of us aren’t using paper maps to chart our course across the ocean anymore, so critics of the Mercator projection argue that the continued use of this style of map gives users a warped sense of the true size of countries – particularly in the case of the African continent.
Mercator’s map inadvertently also pumps up the sizes of Europe and North America. Visually speaking, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s surface, when in reality they occupy a mere 5%.
As the animated gif below – created by Reddit user, neilrkaye – demonstrates, northern nations such as Canada and Russia have been artifiically “pumped up” in the minds of many people around the world.
Greenland, which appears as a massive icy continent in Mercator projection, shrinks way down. The continent of Africa takes a much more prominent position in this new, correctly-scaled map.
Despite inaccurate visual features – or perhaps because of them – the Mercator projection achieved widespread adoption around the world. This includes the classroom, where young minds are first learning about geography and forming opinions on relationships between countries.
Getting Reacquainted with Globes
Google, whose map app is used by approximately 150 million people per month, recently took the bold step of overlaying their map onto a globe. This change sidesteps projection issues completely and displays the world as it actually is: round.
Greenland’s projection is no longer the size of Africa.
– Google Maps team
As people become more accustomed to equal area maps and seeing the Earth in its spherical form, misconceptions about the size of continents may become a thing of the past.
The Shape of the World, According to Old Maps
What did ancient maps look like, before we had access to airplanes and satellites? See the evolution of the world map in this nifty infographic.
The Shape of the World, According to Ancient Maps
A Babylonian clay tablet helped unlock an understanding for how our ancestors saw the world.
Dating all the way back to the 6th century BCE, the Imago Mundi is the oldest known world map, and it offers a unique glimpse into ancient perspectives on earth and the heavens.
While this is the first-known interpretation of such a map, it would certainly not be the last. Today’s visualization, designed by Reddit user PisseGuri82, won the “Best of 2018 Map Contest” for depicting the evolving shapes of man-made maps throughout history.
AD 150: Once Upon A Time in Egypt
In this former location of the Roman Empire, Ptolemy was the first to use positions of latitude and longitude to map countries into his text Geographia. After these ancient maps were lost for centuries, Ptolemy’s work was rediscovered and reconstructed in the 15th century, serving as a foundation for cartography throughout the Middle Ages.
1050: Pointing to the Heavens
The creation of this quintessential medieval T-and-O Beatine map is attributed not to an unknown French monk, but to the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana. Although it shows several continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe—its main objective was to visualize Biblical locations. For example, because the sun rises in the east, Paradise (The Garden of Eden) can be seen pointing upwards and towards Asia on the map.
1154: The World Turned Upside Down
The Arabic geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi made one of the most advanced medieval world maps for King Roger II of Sicily. The Tabula Rogeriana, which literally translates to “the book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands”, was ahead of the curve compared to contemporaries because it used information from traveler and merchant accounts. The original map was oriented south-up, which is why modern depictions show it upside down.
1375: The Zenith of Medieval Map Work
The Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques created the most important map of the medieval period, the Catalan Atlas, with his son for Prince John of Aragon. It covers the “East and the West, and everything that, from the Strait [of Gibraltar] leads to the West”. Many Indian and Chinese cities can be identified, based on various voyages by the explorers Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville.
After this, the Age of Discovery truly began—and maps started to more closely resemble the world map as we know it today.
1489: Feeling Ptolemy and Polo’s Influences
The 15th century was a radical time for map-makers, once Ptolemy’s geographical drawings were re-discovered. Henricus Martellus expanded on Ptolemaic maps, and also relied on sources like Marco Polo’s travels to imagine the Old World. His milestone map closely resembles the oldest-surviving terrestrial globe, Erdapfel, created by cartographer Martin Behaim. Today, it’s preserved at the Yale University archives.
1529: A Well-Kept Spanish Secret
The first ever scientific world map is most widely attributed to the Portuguese cartographer Diego Ribero. The Padrón Real was the Spanish Crown’s official and secret master map, made from hundreds of sailors’ reports of any new lands and their coordinates.
1599: The Wright Idea
English mathematician and cartographer Edward Wright was the first to perfect the Mercator projection—which takes the Earth’s curvature into consideration. Otherwise known as a Wright-Molyneux world map, this linear representation of the earth’s cylindrical map quickly became the standard for navigation.
1778-1832: The Emergence of Modern World Maps
The invention of the marine chronometer transformed marine navigation—as ships were now able to detect both longitude and latitude. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, a French geographer, was responsible for the 18th century’s highly accurate world maps and nautical charts. His designs favored functionality over the decorative flourishes of cartographers past.
Finally, the German cartographer and lawyer Adolf Stieler was the man behind Stieler’s Handatlas, the leading German world atlas until the mid-20th century. His maps were famous for being updated based on new explorations, making them the most reliable map possible.
Is There Uncharted Territory Left?
It is worth mentioning that these ancient maps above are mostly coming from a European perspective.
That said, the Islamic Golden Age also boasts an impressive cartographic record, reaching its peak partially in thanks to Muhammad al-Idrisi in the 11th century. Similarly, Ancient Chinese empires had a cartographic golden age after the invention of the compass as well.
Does this mean there’s nothing left to explore today? Quite the contrary. While we know so much about our landmasses, the undersea depths remain quite a mystery. In fact, we’ve explored more of outer space than we have 95% of our own oceans.
If you liked the visualization above, be sure to explore the world’s borders by age, broken down impressively by the same designer.
Animation: How the European Map Has Changed Over 2,400 Years
The history of Europe is breathtakingly complex, but this animated map helps makes sense of 2,400 years of shifting borders and nations.
How the European Map Has Changed Over 2,400 Years
The history of Europe is breathtakingly complex. While there are rare exceptions like Andorra and Portugal, which have had remarkably static borders for hundreds of years, jurisdiction over portions of the continent’s landmass has changed hands innumerable times.
Today’s video comes to us from YouTube channel Cottereau, and it shows the evolution of European map borders starting from 400 BC. Empires rise and fall, invasions sweep across the continent, and modern countries slowly begin to take shape (with the added bonus of an extremely dramatic instrumental).
Below are nine highlights and catalysts that shifted the dividing lines of the European map:
146 BC – A Year of Conquest
146 BC was a year of conquest and expansion for the Roman Republic. The fall of Carthage left the Romans in control of territory in North Africa, and the ransack and destruction of the Greek city-state of Corinth also kickstarted an era of Roman influence in that region. These decisive victories paved the way for the Roman Empire’s eventual domination of the Mediterranean.
117 AD – Peak Roman Empire
The peak of the Roman Empire is one of the more dramatic moments shown on this animated European map. At its height, under Trajan, the Roman Empire was a colossal 1.7 million square miles (quite a feat in an era without motorized vehicles and modern communication tools). This enormous empire remained mostly intact until 395, when it was irreparably split into Eastern and Western regions.
370 AD – The Arrival of the Huns
Spurred on by severe drought conditions in Central Asia, the Huns reached Europe and found a Roman Empire weakened by currency debasement, economic instability, overspending, and increasing incursions from rivals along its borders. The Huns waged their first attack on the Eastern Roman Empire in 395, but it was not until half a century later – under the leadership of Attila the Hun – that hordes pushed deeper into Europe, sacking and razing cities along the way. The Romans would later get their revenge when they attacked the quarreling Goths and Huns, bouncing the latter out of Central Europe.
1241 – The Mongol Invasion of Europe
In the mid-13th century, the “Golden Horde” led by grandsons of Genghis Khan, roared into Russia and Eastern Europe sacking cities along the way. Facing invasion from formidable Mongol forces, central European princes temporarily placed their regional conflicts aside to defend their territory. Though the Mongols were slowly pushed eastward, they loomed large on the fringes of Europe until almost the 16th century.
1362 – Lithuania
Today, Lithuania is one of Europe’s smallest countries, but at its peak in the middle ages, it was one of the largest states on the continent. A pivotal moment for Lithuania came after a decisive win at the Battle of Blue Waters. This victory stifled the expansion of the Golden Horde, and brought present-day Ukraine into its sphere of influence.
1648 – Kleinstaaterei
The end of the Holy Roman Empire highlights the extreme territorial fragmentation in Germany and neighboring regions, in an era referred to as Kleinstaaterei.
Even as coherent nation states formed around it, the Holy Roman Empire and its remnants wouldn’t coalesce until Germany rose from the wreckage of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Unification helped position Germany as a major power, and by 1900 the country had the largest economy in Europe.
1919 – The Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire – a fixture in Eastern Europe for hundreds of years – was in its waning years by the beginning of the 20th century. The empire had ceded territory in two costly wars with Italy and Balkan states, and by the time the dust cleared on WWI, the borders of the newly minted nation of Turkey began at the furthest edge of continental Europe.
1942 – Expanding and Contracting Germany
At the furthest extent of Axis territory in World War II, Germany and Italy controlled a vast portion of continental Europe. After the war, however, Germany again became fragmented into occupation zones – this time, overseen by the United States, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Germany would not be made whole again until 1990, when a weakening Soviet Union loosened its grip on East Germany.
1991 – Soviet Dissolution
In the decades following WWII, the political boundaries of the European map remained relatively stable – that is, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Almost overnight, the country’s entire western border splintered into independent nations. When the dust settled, there were 15 breakaway republics, six of which were in Europe.
Bonus: If you liked the video above, be sure to watch this year-by-year account of who ruled territories across Europe.
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