Monday, March 08, 2010
In 1507, a German cartographer named Martin Waldseemüller drew a map of the world that had two momentous innovations.
Firstly, only a few years after Columbus had sailed to what he always thought was the east coast of Asia, and several years before Europeans are supposed to have first learned of the existence of the Pacific Ocean, the map showed the New World as two continents surrounded by water.
How strange is that possum? How did he know? How could he have known?
The second innovation was that, in honor of the recent voyages of Amerigo Vespucci to this New World, Waldseemüller gave the name "America" to the new lands.
A thousand copies of the Waldseemüller map were printed and the name America caught on all over Europe, but all copies of the map were thought to have been destroyed or lost... until one copy was rediscovered in Germany in 1901. More recently this single copy was bought by the US Library of Congress, where it is now on display.
The story of the Waldseemüller map is recounted at length in a remarkable book: The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester. But Lester's book is more than just the story of one map; it is the account of how Europeans, over centuries, changed and refined their views of the geography of the world and learned how to more accurately represent the world in maps. It's a tale of planetary exploration, and simultaneously the history of European intellectual awakening as seen from the perspectives of geography and cartography. If you have any interest at all in the voyages of the early European explorers or in maps and nautical charts and navigation, you will find this book to be a fascinating read.