Facts That FIgure: Maps

Facts That FIgure: Maps

C.G. Hoffman

Teacher: “George, go to the front of the class and show us where North America is on the map.”

George: “Here it is!”

Teacher: “Correct! Now, class, who discovered North America?”

Class: “George!”

Maps have been around for as long as, er, men have insisted they do not need to ask for directions! The oldest maps have been found painted on cave walls or carved into animal tusks.

The oldest map to be found is not of the land, but of the night sky. A huge map depicting the stars was found painted on cave walls in Lascaux, France, and is said to be thousands of years old.

The Babylonians created the earliest known depiction of what was known of the entire world at the time, and showed the world in a circular shape, with Babylon at its center.

Maps started becoming more sophisticated with the Greeks, who first advanced the idea that the earth was round (or a cylinder, or a flat disk). They also believed the oceans around the known inhabited world were filled with giant sea monsters.

We are accustomed to seeing maps headed by “North” at the top. This wasn’t always so. Medieval European mapmakers would put “East” at the top since that was where the sun rose. In the Muslim world, maps were often oriented towards “South,” so southerly nations would look “up” to Mecca.

One of the first maps to include the newly discovered America, was procured in a sneaky act of espionage. Portugal closely guarded the location of their new territories, and an Italian duke sent his agent, Alberto Cantino, on a secret mission to Portugal. He successfully smuggled out what is now known as the Cantino map.

Don’t assume everything you see on a map is real: Cartographers have long been using the trick of embedding fake towns in their painstakingly drawn maps to discourage counterfeiters. Upstate New York has a “famous” paper town called Agloe, which was invented in the 1930’s and appeared on maps until the 1980’s.

The Waldseemuller map has been called “America’s Birth Certificate” as it was the first map to call the newly discovered continent “America.” In 2003, the Library of Congress purchased the only known copy for an eye-watering $10 million dollars.

The world of maps and finding directions has been forever changed by the release of the GPS navigating system. The mapping technology was originally developed by the US military and was an important tool in the Cold War. It was called Navstar at first, and the first Navstar satellite was released in 1978.

It took a terrible tragedy for the GPS system to be made available to the general public, not just the military. In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air airplane that had mistakenly wandered into its airspace because of a navigation problem. President Reagan decided to make the navigation system available to the entire world, and today, over 3,000 satellites orbit Earth, servicing worldwide navigation systems.

Perhaps by now, we have come to rely on our GPS too much, blindly following our robotic overlords. Take the case of one poor guy who just wanted to drive from New York to Pennsylvania. He blindly followed the GPS instructions, which directed him in the opposite direction and took him over the Canadian border. Unfortunately for the poor fool, he was stopped at the border when he tried to reenter. Turned out, he was an illegal alien, which led to his prompt deportation!

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