Maps: Fighting Disease and Skewing Borders

A while back, we blogged about a site called Strange Maps, which features all sorts of strange, fascinating, and even influential maps. (Maps in general have since come up on this blog quite a few times.)

Frank Jacobs, a London-based journalist and the creator of Strange Maps, has now published a book, Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities.

He has agreed to answer a few of our questions about maps and why he finds them so compelling.


A recent Economist article reported that maps are one of the most powerful tools that interest groups use to promote their causes. Are maps really as influential as the article claims?

DESCRIPTIONThe wold’s tallest mountains, as they were known in 1831.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. To rephrase that cartographically: a map is worth a thousand statistics. One of the best examples of cartography with a cause are Dr. John Snow‘s mid-19th-century cholera maps. His cartographic juxtaposition of cholera outbreaks and water sources showed the link between a contaminated water supply and the prevalence of the disease. By eliminating certain pumps, cholera cases were reduced dramatically. Dr Snow’s research helped create the discipline of epidemiology. So yes, maps and the particular way in which they present information can be very influential indeed.

Another stark example is Dr. Minard‘s map of Napoleon‘s ill-advised Russian campaign, also discussed in my book. It is a marvel of data presentation, combining six different sets of information. One of those is the size of Napoleon’s army, represented by 1 millimeter for every 10,000 soldiers. The tiny trickle leaking out of Russia compared to the massive arrow going in is as horrifying an indictment as any of the madness and human cost of war.


What, in your opinion, was the most influential map in history?


I don’t think you can point to any single map and say: this is the most important map ever. But there definitely are a few that have determined the course of history. Saint Isidore‘s T-O map, for example, devised in the 6th century, formed the basis for Europe’s world view for most of the next millennium. The O represented the presumed circularity of the then-known world, surrounded by the Ocean, and the T stood for the three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe) conjoined in a single point, the center of the world: Jerusalem.

The “next generation” of maps, for the first time clearly showing that the world was wider than the T-O model, are obviously equally influential. One particular example that springs to mind is the 1507 Waldseemueller map, the first one to show the New World as a separate continent and the first to label it with its present name, “America.” One of the rare surviving copies was sold to the Library of Congress for a whopping $10 million in 2003.

A recent example of a map with a big impact, although the effect was sarcastic rather than serious, was the Jesusland map (also in the book), which became an internet meme overnight after George W. Bush‘s 2004 election victory. It portrays the Kerry-voting states joining Canada rather than suffering another four years of George W. Bush. At a glance, it reflects the despair, division, and bitterness of that particular time.

DESCRIPTIONThe Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World plots “how countries relate to each other on a double axis of values.

What has the advent of thousands of online maps done to cartography? Have online maps affected the credibility of maps in general?

Like anything touched by the internet, cartography has become more widespread, more fluid, and less reliable. I’ve recently been sent an interesting example of this: Google’s portrayal of the Sino-Indian border. Parts of that border are disputed, and obviously national maps in India and China will reflect that. So what’s a global organization like Google to do? Turns out they have made one map for Chinese consumption, including the disputed area of Arunchal Pradesh in China; another one for use in India showing it nicely as part of that country; and an international version, showing the area as disputed!

DESCRIPTIONEurope, if the Nazis had won: Neuropa.

What one organization has or had the most influence on geographical maps?


Again, difficult to pin down a single organization. Throughout history and up to the present, I’d have to say it would be the Catholic Church and NASA — a decidedly odd couple, you’ll agree.

DESCRIPTIONThe “Island of California,” one of the “most famous misconceptions in cartographic history.”

Any strange facts about maps that most people might not know?


I don’t know how obscure this fact is, but the London A-Z contains a
fictional street on each of its pages, in order to catch out copycats. I’d love to write up a story on some of these so-called “trap streets,” but finding them is like playing “Where’s Waldo?” without knowing what Waldo looks like!”

The London A-Z has a delightful origin, by the way. It was conceived by Phyllis Pearsall in 1935, when she got lost due to the inadequate street maps of the time. Ms. Pearsall mapped Central London all by herself, walking the 3,000 miles of the city’s 23,000 streets in 18-hour working days. The pocket version is one of my favorite books, and indispensable for me and any other Londoner who’s not a taxi driver (and thus already possessing the knowledge contained in the A-Z).


We should keep in mind that all maps are necessarily inaccurate: It is impossible to represent direction, size, and shape of a three-dimensional object on an object that has only two dimesions. Something has to be "wrong," a fact known to all cartographers and (I hope) to all geographers. The only question is what will be wrong, and will the "error" be reognized and will it be uniform. A simple comparison of the Mercator map and the Molleweide map confirms this simple reality.

Also, we should keep in mind that maps were once very closely guarded by monarchs and those who drew maps and had responsbilities for keeping them were closely watched. And for good reason!

The Weide map of Russia, for example, was devised from Lyatsky's map, which was taken from Russian acrhives in the early 1500s as Lyatsky fled (possibly for his life) from political turmoil in Moscow. Weide was a German who met Lyatsky in the Baltics, probably saw the maps he had taken from Moscow, and drew his map of Russia based on these maps. I think it is the earliest modern representation of Russia. To the end of the cold war, maps produced in the Soviet Union and other countries were deliberately distorted, both to confuse foreigners and to keep Soviet citizens in the dark about Russia's cities and its border regions. I suspect that a few countries ( e. g., North Korea, Cuba, etc.) still keep accurate and detailed maps from their own citizens and from foreigners.

With "spy-in-the-sky" photos, governments in few countries now closely guard most "ordinary" maps. GPS and other technologies have made geographical knowledge so common to so many people that controling such information is virtually impossible, thank God.


Eric M. Jones

The map of the Island of California is one of my favorites. Santa Fe was occupied by the Spanish for over a century and nobody corrected the cartographers. Maps up to about 1700 were still wrong.

Why California is shown as an island is likely due to the "Endless Sea of Reeds" of the mouth of the Colorado river. A matching "Endless Sea of Reeds" was found in the back of San Francisco Bay. That they were connected pehaps seemed plausible to Cortez.

"California" was named after an island peopled by wild black naked (clothed only in gold jewelry) Amazonian women who consorted with men only for breeding purposes, told in a trashy 1510 Spanish novel. Even today the story is told only sketchily to California school kids. They don't want little Johnnie coming home with drawings of Queen Califia in all her glory...

Mike Mathieu

The fundamental change of online mapping is that now everyone is at the center of their own map - leading to the popularity of sites like Walk Score, and mobile maps that move as you do. Cool!


The "Thomas Guide" to Los Angeles--and I'm sure their other editions as well--also contains intentional errors on each page to thwart copyright thieves. I found one, unfortunately, thinking it was a real street. When I got there I realized it was on the map but not on the ground.

ern malleyscrub

There's a great book called "The Map that Changed the World" about the submerged soils and strata of England. Previous to this map, geology was not considered a science. Sorry, don't recall the author. Just like the creator of this map is forgotten by all except geologists. Worth a look and a google...

Jeff Milner

There is possibly a "trap-street" in Google maps, see the telegraph article linked here:


Aside from the history lesson implicit in most geographic maps, they also offer a sentimental journey down memory lane.

I distinctly (and emotionally) recall the first time I used Google Maps to traverse my steps as a much younger man living in Frankfurt, Germany. I met my wife in this beautiful city and revelled the experience of sharing with my children precisely where I lived...and where I first met their mother.

- Poor Cartophile

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