Rhumb Lines and Map WarsA Social History of the Mercator Projection

Rhumb Lines and Map WarsA Social History of the Mercator Projection

Mark Monmonier

Print publication date: 2013

ISBN: 9780226534312

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

This book offers an account of the controversies surrounding Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator's legacy, first taking us back to 1569, when Mercator announced a clever method of portraying the earth on a flat surface, creating the first projection to take into account the earth's roundness. Mariners benefited most from his projection, which allowed for easy navigation of the high seas with rhumb lines—clear-cut routes with a constant compass bearing—for true direction. But the projection's popularity among nineteenth-century sailors led to its overuse—often in inappropriate, non-navigational ways—for wall maps, world atlases, and geopolitical propaganda. Because it distorts the proportionate size of countries, the Mercator map was criticized for inflating Europe and North America in a promotion of colonialism. In 1974, German historian Arno Peters proffered his own map, on which countries were ostensibly drawn in true proportion to one another. In the ensuing “map wars” of the 1970s and 1980s, these dueling projections vied for public support—with varying degrees of success. The author offers interpretations of why well-intentioned clerics and development advocates rallied around the Peters projection, which flagrantly distorted the shape of Third World nations; why journalists covering the controversy ignored alternative world maps and other key issues; and how a few postmodern writers defended the Peters worldview with a self-serving overstatement of the power of maps.