Monday, March 08, 2010

The Waldseemüller Map: The Strange Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name

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.


Zen said...

Wow, how strange is that!?

Brass said...

Could you put a bit of semantic context around the phrase

How strange is that possum?

Is it referring to to a known strange small mammal?

Or is 'possum' used as a vocative diminutive (like 'honeybunch'), as here

Tillerman said...

I am indeed channeling Dame Edna these days. Probably something to do with having an Australian mother-in-law.

How spooky is that, possum?

Brass said...

Thank you.

One likes to know these things.

O Docker said...

One thing you didn't mention about this map is the price the Library of Congress paid for it - $10 million.

I was listening to Glenn Beck explain that this is a good example of how big government is driving up the deficit. Ten million bucks, yet they turn around and let anyone download the digital chart versions for free. Multiply that ten million by the number of chart plotters out there, and that's half the federal deficit right there.

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