Maps Essay

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Maps are graphic representations of the natural world and of culture and society. General definitions of maps typically include references to “simplified depictions of space” or “flat representations of some part of the earth’s surface” that include “graphic representation of features.” Maps are, however, a much more complex phenomenon. Maps are among the most successful forms of visual communication invented by humankind and arguably a critical element of human cognition. Maps are a key way of recording and illustrating information. They enable people to visually comprehend how space is organized. The power of maps to shape opinions, communicate ideas, and influence decision making has ensured their central role in economic and political life for millennia. Maps find uses in a wide variety of areas such as: environmental management, humanitarian aid, urban and regional planning, logistics, travel, trade, business, and war.

In addition to providing basic information about the relative location of places, maps help people to identify complex spatial relationships and distributions. In this way, maps assist humans to imagine, conceptualize, and make decisions about their environment. Maps relate to many aspects of everyday life and can be a central tool in the decisions people make about their mobility. They can be casual aids to navigation, high technologies essential to the function of modern life, or priceless cultural artifacts that have changed the ways in which people see the world and interact within it. Originally, maps were made almost exclusively by skilled scientists and draftsmen known as cartographers, but recent innovations in information technology and publishing has ensured that maps can now be created and used by a much broader constituency of people.

Maps are incredibly diverse in their forms and purpose and have changed dramatically over time and between societies. Throughout history, the production of maps was controlled by powerful elites, monarchies, or the state. Special mapping agencies, such as the British Ordinance Survey, were established to survey national territories. The development of new mapping technology was often closely associated with the military. For instance, satellite data, which first emerged from space surveillance technology developed during the cold war, is now commonly used in map production.


The work of mapmakers from the ancient to the modern world-among them Ptolemy, Mercator, Muhammad al-Idrisi, Zheng He, John Speed, and Mason and Dixon-has emerged as a major area of study for geographers and historians. While some of the oldest maps can been seen on Babylonian clay tablets dating from about 2400 B.C.E., it was the ancient Greeks who made the first clearest advances in cartography in terms of technique and geographical range. These advances were preserved and developed further in the Arab world during the so-called Dark Ages.

In the West, the production of maps grew quickly during the Enlightenment. New techniques in land surveying, navigation, geometry, projection, graphic design, and printing technology eventually facilitated cheaper and wider circulation of maps, atlases, and globes. Indeed, cartographic knowledge was one of the basic building blocks of societal progress during this period. Between the 14th and17th centuries, mapmakers were heavily influenced by European voyages of discovery during an “age of reconnaissance.”

Early European cartography involved mapping seas, coastlines, and new found lands. Maps from this time are cherished for their artistic qualities, and often depict fantastic images of beasts and sea creatures, as well as elaborate cartouches celebrating the cartographer’s patron. As well as assisting navigation, early European maps supported both facts and myths about faraway places, new worlds that the majority of people would never witness first-hand. Increased demands for accuracy from navigators, however, ensured that maps became increasing reliable and realistic representations of the world. In terms of European expansion, maps also proved to be important tools in the exploitation of natural resources, the development of trade, and the governance of colonies. The growth of literacy, travel, and tourism during the 19th and 20th centuries also created new roles for maps and ensured their continuing relevance to modernizing societies.

Modern Maps

Over time, cartography became more scientific and standardized, while at the same time maps became more specialized and thematic. This trend continues in the present day where we see maps for almost everywhere in the world and specialized to assist almost every economic and social activity. There are currently many classifications of maps. For example, orthophoto maps identify land features using photographic images; physical maps identify the earth’s landforms and bodies of water; political maps identify boundaries that divide one political entity from another; relief maps identify relief data using contour lines and shading to evidence the elevation; raised-relief maps are three-dimensional portrayals of physical features; road maps assist travelers in moving from one location to another; online road maps often calculate different routes and distances; and thematic maps-such as heritage or tourist maps-provide an artistic element and entertainment and are often commercial products. Other types exist, and some fall into more than one category.

In recent years, the production of maps has been revolutionized by the emergence and development of Geographical Information Science (GIS), which links hi-tech computer mapping with spatial analysis. GIS is used for managing, storing, retrieving, analyzing, and displaying spatially referenced data. Because GIS systems digitize data, it can be manipulated into easily accessible and aesthetic forms. Broad areas of application include mapping environmental data, land use, social phenomena, and economic activities or attributes. GIS can be used from the scale of satellite images of countries to the scale of small towns. Typical categories of plotted information include densities and clusters, rates, and single point distributions of both social and natural phenomena.

Maps continue to evolve as the nature and use of this information technology develops. Maps can be found in mobile navigation systems, e-commerce internet sites, and in the technology supporting advanced mobile phone services. Map production has become a significant area of business, as companies with investments ranging from real estate to telecommunications appreciate the value of an exact knowledge of the geography of their markets. Maps are increasingly also produced by community-based groups with interests in issues related to heritage, identity, and environment. These new uses illustrate the ongoing significance of maps in shaping both the human imagination and man’s relationship to the environment.


  1. Peter A. Burrough and Rachael A. McDonnell, Principles of Geographical Information Systems (Spatial Information Systems) (Oxford University Press, 1998);
  2. John Noble Wilford, The Mapmakers (Knopf, 2001).

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