Cartography: brief history by a French teacher of
physics. ( Didier Hottois Merlimont France)
Cartography and Physics
"Three hundred francs for this antique map of the
town of Hesdin ? Isn't there any connoisseur in the room ?" The decreasing bidding
had been going on for a few minutes and yet no customer showed any interest in it.
"Two hundred and fifty francs ?"
A finger then raised timidly, causing the ivory gavel to bang
And the auctioneer, relieved, added:
"Here is my connoisseur ! Sir, you are making a good
Having come here to furnish my house, I was not going back
completely empty-handed and my collection of antique maps of the County of Boulogne, of
Picardie and of Artois started that very day.
I must say that " the man with the gavel" was half
right. I now know that the object sold was a "Braun Hohenberg", dating from
1580, therefore I had made an excellent deal, but not as a connoisseur.
I might have become one by studying the vast amount of
literature on the subject that I have collected ever since. I take the path of
the amateur who sees in the evolution of cartography close links with the evolution of
physics and who also sees in it perhaps a possible way of practising interdisciplinarity
in his high-school teaching.
Caesar who conquered Gaul from
58 to 51 B.C. have maps ?
Agrippa's Orbis terrarum dating from that period has now
disappeared but we know that it was more of a travel itinerary than a map in the sense
that we understand it today.
It is possible to have a close enough idea of it by
observing the republished editions (some dating from the 17 th. century) of the
"Antiqua Tabula". The towns and villages are joined in a linear fashion.
The documents from the roman period must have been presented as
"In order to go from Lyon ( Lugdunum ! ) to Paris (
Lutecia), you will have to stop by Macon and then by...."
The distance between two stops was also indicated.
Claude Ptolemy ( 2 nd. century A.D.)
It seems that Ptolemy ( we also know him for his
geocentric vision of the world) was not really a cartographer but his data have helped to
produce the very first maps which were distributed. In our Greek physicist's
"Geography" are gathered astronomical measurements ( 350 "fixed"
points ) and excerpts from travel logs (8000 places).
Historical accuracy requires us to mention that Ptolemy's
work came to us only through rare ancient manuscripts ( the oldest dating from the
10 th. century).
Gutenberg (Johannes Genfleisch alias)
During the 12 th.century, the Chinese were producing
printed maps (Liu Ching Thu encyclopedia). It would be better to call Gutenberg (in 1440)
the inventor of typography rather than printing.
To the reader who would question this jump of twelve
centuries in history, I would point out the fact that the very first map to be widely
published (500 copies in Bolonia in 1477) was, as you must have guessed, the
transcript of the "Geography of Ptolemy".
I would however have some regret for not
mentioning the "Portulans". "Portulans" are nautical charts ( with
compass ) realized between the end of the 13 th . century and the 17 th . century.
Over that period, the portulans kept the same aspect of "intermingled
segments" but it is certain that the meaning of these segments evolved
towards a system of graduated data with the rediscovery of the Geography of Ptolemy.
The invention of printing did not mean the end of
handwritten maps. For more than two centuries, many printed maps were "polished
up" by hand (annotating and colouring).
Mercator ( Gerhard Kremer alias) 1512- 1594
Certainly the most famous cartographer, he owes his reputation
to the projection which bears his name and also to both the quality and quantity of his
He was the first to publish an "atlas" in 1585.
We must remember that the projection of Mercator ( still in use
today ) keeps relative angles but not surface aeras.
As far as aesthetics is concerned, as a collector, I much prefer
Ortelius. Ortelius was the
cartographer of Philip II of Spain and he produced his "Theatrum orbis
terrarum" in 1570 ( 15 years before the atlas of Mercator).
If you do not wish to collect maps of Japan ( record prices
!) with a limited budget you can still find good maps dating from that period.
It is quite interesting to know that some maps of Mercator do
not bear his signature; some of the latter's plates were acquired by Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612
) a cartographer and manufacter of instruments.
I also have a preference for Blaeu who acquired some plates of Ortelius and Mercator .
Willem Blaeu settled as a scientific apparatus maker in
Amsterdam in 1599 and, after training with Tycho Brahe, he started printing in 1605. The
Blaeu's house and his " treasure" disappeared in a fire on February 23rd, 1672.
Mercator (map dating from the beginning of the 17th.century)
Once again, physics is not far away :
Cassini I (1625-1712) studied Venus, Mars and Jupiter and he
also discovered two satellites of Saturn. He is one of the three Cassinis to have
been the manager of the Observatory of Paris.
We owe the famous map to Cassini III (1714-1784) and Cassini IV
Louis XV kept saying that this map had caused him to lose
more territories than he had ever gained in all his wars. France was suddenly losing two
degrees in longitude and 3/4 of a degree in latitude.
The physicist in me sees in this meticulous triangulation the
very first significant operation of measurements ordered in France.
The triangulation and astronomic surveys needed to elaborate the
map of France lasted about half a century - until 1789 .
The general cartography was only published as a whole in
The plate below, from the encyclopedia of Diderot and
D'Alembert, presents various surveyor's instruments used in those days.
Nowadays, marketed maps and Cassini's maps are still much alike (the only basic
difference is due to the printing in colour).
We must not conclude, however, that cartography has not made any
progress; once again this scientific branch has gained from the advance of technology.
The importance of aerial surveys during W.W.II is well
The satellite image
maps are very popular ( the program SPOT among others.) To know more
about the new techniques in cartography, you can visit Jean-Marie Nicolas's page.
Besides satellite image maps, rapid progress is to be expected
from its mathematical processing. However, although there is no denying that the theory of
fractals allows the creation of virtual coasts and reliefs, and even if self-similarity is
evident in the case of the coasts of Brittany, I can't yet see them being equated.
I thank Annie Chatel for translating this page.