In Search of a World Map

This week I finished the second draft of book two in my post apocalyptic fantasy, Terra Incognita, series. It wasn’t easy because it required a fairly major rewrite of much of my major character’s attitudes and motivations because I hadn’t mapped my character out from book one to book three. As I get started on Book Three, I’m thinking about how the importance of a consistent road map across a series of books is just as important as a consistent map of the world.

My last post spoke of the work done to standardize measures in mapmaking that led to the creation of the scientific metric measuring system. But the creation of the metric system was only the start in a venture to create of a consistent set of maps of the world. This might not seem sexy, but think about traveling to a different locale and finding the maps you are using don’t use consistent measurements and contradict each other. You end doing a mass of translations to make the maps work or you might end up throwing the maps out because they are so inconsistent it’s easier to simply start from scratch. That was the situation for many explorers because the maps they had might have used a consistent measurement scale (but not always), but were also based on measurements started from different starting points. In other words the Prime Meridian had never been agreed upon.

The trail turns upwards (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The trail turns upwards (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

After the agreement about the metric system, there were still disagreements in the cartographic world. One of the major ones was the position on the earth from which meridians (the imaginary lines drawn on the earth from pole to pole that connect all spots along the longitude) should be referenced – in other words where was the zero point on the globe from which all other distances would be measured. To this point in time, where measurements began depended upon the nationality of the scientist conducting the measurement.

The need for a Prime Meridian had existed for all Cartographers. Ptolemy had chosen the Fortunate Islands – at his time the westernmost extent of the world. But the age of politics had national sentiment taking precedent with the French recommending the zero point’s location in Paris, the Spanish recommending either Toledo or Cadiz, the Italian Pisa or Rome, and Americans wanting Washington or Philadelphia etc. It took the International Meridian Conference in 1884 to settle on Greenwich as the Prime Meridian which gave us our zero longitude, and also set our clocks and time zones with Greenwich Mean Time.

Venice's Grand Canal (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

A later conference of the International Geographic Congress realized the mapping issues I mentioned above meant that there was a need to revise the world’s maps to create a consistent map of the world. It led to a proposal for an International Map of the World that would all be drawn to a single scale – 1:1,000,000 (1 centimeter =10 kilometers or 1 inch equals 15.78 miles) – leading to the name of the project being the Millionth Map. It would also be drawn using standardized symbols and colors. The project was debated for a period, but after examples of the maps were produced, in 1913 an agreement was reached. Maps were to be created for each 4 degrees of latitude and 6 degrees of longitude, not paying attention to national boundaries. All place names had to use the Roman alphabet.

Little Uigher girl, Sunday Market, Kashgar, Western China (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

It was a slow process. Between 1913 and the start of the First World War only eight maps were produced out of a total of 2,500 required to map the world. Between 1921 and 1946, the American Geological Survey produced the 107 maps that comprised the map of Hispanic American (North and South America). By the 1930s 405 maps had been produced in total, but the central repository of the maps (in Paris) was largely destroyed during the Second World War. In 1953, the United Nations assumed responsibility for oversight of the project, but by the 1980s only 800-1000 maps had been completed and many were not completed using exactly the same standards. Since then the U.N. has stopped even reporting on the project, so after all this work the Millionth Map languishes and who knows when you’ll fall right off its edges when you visit another country and have to work with maps that don’t mesh.

This suggests that I had better get busy and piece together the latitudes and longitudes of book three in my series, so that all of the books provide a complete and consistent picture of Terra’s world.