The distorted world of dead-dragon slayers

Rhumb Lines and Map Wars
February 4, 2005

The title of this book is somewhat misleading, as aggressive confrontation appears only in the final two chapters, which cover how the Peters map projection found favour with the developing world in the late 20th century. The subtitle, however, is justified, as Mark Monmonier succinctly describes the methods developed over 400 years to delineate a round earth on a flat piece of paper, ever since Mercator's portrayal was a boon to 16th-century sailors.

Clear diagrams show every stage of man's attempts to solve this problem, why it was posed, and how theorists tried to make it more suitable, as means of travel changed. Thus, a projection suited to a sailor seeking to discover what lay across the Atlantic Ocean was unserviceable for airline pilots choosing the shortest route over the North Pole.

Monmonier explains how the capture of a French map by the Germans, "who had little appreciation of map grids" in the First World War, enabled them to direct their guns more efficiently.

After the Second World War, a reliable projection became even more important with the advent of space travel. The story of John Parr Snyder is recounted. A chemical engineer and map enthusiast, he solved the problem of a moving vantage point for a sphere, extending his solution to the ellipsoid. The US Geological Survey had spent $22,000 on consultants' fees with no success, and Snyder offered his solution for free. He went on to full-time employment with the Geological Survey.

The failings of the Mercator projection became ever more apparent in the early 20th century, and there were many attempts to improve on it. Map publishers, however, were slow to encourage new research or to use new theories. Partly the fault lay with the public, who recognised the name of the famous mathematician and trusted in the shape of the world they had learnt at school.

Then in the 1970s, Arno Peters, a German historian, published his "orthogonal" map of the world, which claimed to show every country in true proportion to others. The aim was to highlight colonialism and Western dominance. The world took on a new shape; land masses were elongated, and Greenland no longer appeared to be larger than South America. The prominence given to underdeveloped countries was most appealing to those working to promote their welfare, but the map was denounced by geographers as being based on unsound mathematics.

As Monmonier writes, we must live with distorted maps because it is not possible to reduce a globe to a plane so that it is accurate in all respects. But the distortions acknowledged by Mercator served mankind well, and later developments to accommodate advanced methods of travel are available.

Monmonier condemns the Peters projection, and those who promoted it, commenting: "Among a map-savvy public, Peters' projection would have few adherents... Peters' complaint that the Mercator projection favours northern countries at the expense of the Third World finds favour among post-colonial deconstructionists poised to slay dead dragons."

Susan Gole is international chairman, International Map Collectors' Society.

Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection

Author - Mark Monmonier
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 242
Price - £17.50
ISBN - 0 226 53431 6

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