Wednesday’s Book Review: “Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection”


bookcover_rhumb_linesRhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection. By Mark Monmonier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Mark Monmonier has nearly cornered the market for popular discussion of cartographical issues. A distinguished professor at Syracuse University, Monmonier takes on here the fascinating history of the Mercator projection of the globe. This is the standard classroom world map that we have all seen on schools everywhere. It was created by Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator in 1569, a map that successfully took a three-dimensional Earth and presented it on a two-dimensional chart. The real success of this map was that it was useful for navigation. By following the longitude and latitude on the map one may sail to virtually any spot on the globe accessible by water.

This very practical use of the map for ocean-going navigation led it to become the standard for maps, certainly in Europe but also elsewhere, by the eighteenth century. It also has a fundamental flaw, and this is what Monmonier is most interested in. The higher and lower latitudes are stretched to ensure that the projection may be used effectively for navigation and thereby create false impressions of the land masses in those regions. For example, it appears on a Mercator projection that Greenland is as large as Africa. It also privileges Europe in terms of size. Generations of students have been misled by this image of the globe. More importantly, it might be that part of this was intentional. It served a political purpose by underscoring the size of importance of such regions as Europe and North America in relation to other part of the world such as Africa and Asia. It subtly supported colonialism and European civilization as the world leaders.

In 1974 Arno Peters, a German historian, created a different projection that correctly depicted the size of countries. The down side of this projection, however, it was not useful for navigation. It also set off the so-called “map wars” that currently rage over the various projections of the globe. Monmonier detailed these debates and their state as of 2004. The map war is far from over.

This is an interesting, informative, and enjoyable book. Monmonier is not a great writer, however, even as he seeks to reach a broad audience. Check out this run-on sentence as an example: “Perhaps the earliest use of an oblique Mercator projection, or indeed any oblique cylindrical projection, was for maps of Central America and Southeast Asia in a world atlas published by the innovative German mapmaker Ernst Debes (1840-1923) in 1895, a year after American polymath Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914) quietly, and apparently independently, sought a patent for his ‘Skew Mercator’ projection” (p. 112).

One final point, I know this is a popular account but I would have appreciated a work with much more rigorous scholarly apparatus. There is a listing of sources by page at the end of the book but these are a little difficult to follow. I prefer the tried and true system of referencing that I was taught in college.

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