Magazine article The American Prospect

Map Quest

Magazine article The American Prospect

Map Quest

Article excerpt

I WAS INTRIGUED TO READ IN EARLY OCTOBER ABOUT the sale at auction, for nearly $4 million, of a map. It wasn't, naturally, just any map: It was the first atlas of the world ever printed, from 1477, based on the cartographic calculations of Claudius Ptolemaeus, the chap we call Ptolemy, who lived in Roman Egypt in the second century AD.

I was intrigued to read this for a straightforward reason: I love maps. I can study them for hours. I leave road atlases of the United States strewn around the house--in the bathroom, in the TV room--so that, when the mood strikes me, I can dip in and bone up on the state parks of Oregon, the path of Interstate 70 as it roams from Baltimore to its less distinguished western terminus in central Utah, or the rather elaborate Kentucky parkway system (the Daniel Boone, the Bluegrass, the exotically named Pennyrile), obviously conceived and built in a once-upon-a-time Kentucky that believed in large public expenditure.

That parkway system explains what it is that I find so fascinating about maps. They tell you about history--about how and when places were discovered, how and when things were built; how and when, to be a little more grandiose about it, we humans acquire knowledge. Human triumph and folly are as alive on a map as they are in a history book: To study maps of, say, New York City over the course of a couple centuries, as I have done, is to glean very specific insight into how humans learn about and master, for better (Frederick Law Olmsted) and worse (Robert Moses), our environment.

PTOLEMY FACED SEVERAL CHALLENGES, precisely because of the way he acquired his knowledge: In the second century, all he had to go on were the verbal descriptions given to him by seafaring men returning from voyage. The memory banks of second-century sailors, undoubtedly drenched in mead, proved unreliable: News accounts at the time of the auction noted the huge Scotland and tiny England, the Asia even vaster than Asia actually is, and of course the complete absence of the Americas. But all in all, the newspapers asserted, old Ptolemy acquitted himself pretty nicely. Things were basically in the right place.

I thought of Ptolemy two weeks later, when my friend David gave me my first-ever look at Google Earth. I suppose this is old hat to some of you, but: Wowie Zowie! …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.