Monday, July 27, 2009

Book Review: "The Mapmakers"

The revised edition of John Noble Wilford's The Mapmakers (Vintage, 2001) updates the original edition of 1981, bringing the history of cartography and cartographers into the twenty-first century (of course given the current pace of technological changes, it's certain that it won't take twenty years before more revisions are warranted). This is probably the best single-volume history of cartographic endeavor, and most specifically the best treatment of those Wilford calls "the great pioneers of mapmaking."

From the earliest period of human history, we've been making maps: some good, some bad, some grossly inaccurate. Wilford surveys the historical trends in cartography and profiles those responsible for the greatest breakthroughs (and the greatest blunders). Eratosthenes and Ptolemy, Columbus and the Cassinis, Frémont and John Wesley Powell, all get their due here. Wilford tracks the involvement of governments in cartographic pursuits, and offers in-depth examinations of how changing technology (from aerial photography to laser imaging to GPS) has shaped the field.

While the majority of Wilford's text focuses on historical mapmaking and its difficulties, he also covers more recent efforts to map the still-hidden parts of our own planet (including the deep seas). In the final chapters, Wilford turns his gaze to the skies, focusing on the efforts to create useful maps of the moon, the local planets, the solar system, and even the universe.

Entirely readable and very nicely paced, this is an excellent introduction to the field, and the extensive list of references at the back will be very useful for anyone seeking further information (my one quibble is that there aren't footnotes referencing specific sources; I would have appreciated those).

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