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Cartography Collection

History Archive - Cartography Collection

Cartography is the study and practice of making maps. Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively. The words map and chart are derived from mappa and charta, the former being the Latin for napkin or cloth, the latter for papyrus or parchment. Maps were thus named after the material upon which they were drawn or painted, and it should be noted that even at present maps intended for use in the open air, by cyclists, military men and others, are frequently printed on cloth.

In Italian, Spanish and Portuguese the word mappa has retained its place, by the side of carta, for marine charts, but in other languages both kinds of maps are generally known by a word derived from the Latin charta, as carte in French, Karte in German, Kaart in Dutch. A chart, in French, is called carte hydrographique, marine or des cotes; in Spanish or Portuguese carta de marear, in Italian carta da navigare, in German Seekarte (to distinguish it from Landkarte), in Dutch Zeekaart or Paskaart. A chart on Mercator's projection is called Wassende graadkaart in Dutch, carte reduite in French.

Lastly, a collection of maps is called an atlas, after the figure of Atlas, the Titan, supporting the heavens, which ornamented the title of Lafreri's and Mercator's atlases in the 16th century. See our atlases collection for bound books of maps.

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Types of Maps

Maps differ greatly, not only as to the scale on which they are drawn, but also with respect to the fullness or the character of the information which they convey. Broadly speaking, they may be divided into two classes, of which the first includes topographical, chorographical and general maps, the second the great variety designed for special purposes.

Topographical Maps

Topographical maps and plans are drawn on a scale sufficiently large to enable the draughtsman to show most objects on a scale true to nature.[2] Its information should not only be accurate, but also conveyed intelligibly and with taste. Exaggeration, however, is not always to be avoided, for even on the British 1 in. ordnance map the roads appear as if they were 130 ft. in width.

Chorographical Maps

Chorographical (country or region) and general maps are either reduced from topographical maps or compiled from such miscellaneous sources as are available. In the former case the cartographer is merely called upon to reduce and generalize the information given by his originals, to make a judicious selection of place names, and to take care that the map is not overcrowded with names and details. Far more difficult is his task where no surveys are available, and the map has to be compiled from a variety of sources. These materials generally include reconnaissance survey of small districts, route surveys and astronomical observations supplied by travelers, and information obtained from native sources. The compiler, in combining these materials, is called upon to examine the various sources of information, and to form an estimate of their value, which he can only do if he have himself some knowledge of surveying and of the methods of determining positions by astronomical observation.

A knowledge of the languages in which the accounts of travelers are written, and even of native languages, is almost indispensable. He ought not to be satisfied with compiling his map from existing maps, but should subject each explorer's account to an independent examination, when he will frequently find that either the explorer himself, or the draughtsman employed by him, has failed to introduce into his map the whole of the information available. Latitudes from the observations of travelers may generally be trusted, but longitudes should be accepted with caution; for so competent an observer as Captain Speke placed the capital of Uganda in longitude 32&176; 44' E., when its true longitude as determined by more trustworthy observations is 32&176; 26' E., an error of 18'.[3] Again, on the map illustrating Livingstone's"?Last Journals?"the Luapula is shown as issuing from the Bangweulu in the north-west, when an examination of the account of the natives who carried the great explorer's remains to the coast would have shown that it leaves that lake on the south.

The second group includes all maps compiled for special purposes. Their variety is considerable, for they are designed to illustrate physical and political geography, travel and navigation, trade and commerce, and, in fact, every subject connected with geographical distribution and capable of being illustrated by means of a map. We thus have (1) physical maps in great variety, including geological, orographical and hydrographical maps, maps illustrative of the geographical distribution of meteorological phenomena, of plants and animals, such as are to be found in Berghaus's"?Physical Atlas,"of which an enlarged English edition is published by J. G. Bartholomew of Edinburgh; (2) political maps, showing political boundaries; (3) ethnological maps, illustrating the distribution of the varieties of man, the density of population, &c.; (4) travel maps, showing roads or railways and ocean-routes (as is done by Philips' "?Marine Atlas?"), or designed for the special use of cyclists or aviators; (5) statistical maps, illustrating commerce and industries; (6) historical maps; (7) maps specially designed for educational purposes.


1911 Encyclopdia Britannica, Volume 17. pg 629-663

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