Maps and Atlases

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Maps and Atlases


A map is a visual representation or scale model of spatial concepts such as geographical regions, locations, and their attributes. Maps may focus on a few selected characteristics of the region or give an overview of the region under consideration. They may project physical, biological, or cultural features of the region or depict correlation between several features of the region. Maps are made up of several components—symbols, title, legend, direction, map scale, source, and insets.

An atlas is a compilation of maps presented in the form of a print publication or in a multimedia format. The purpose of an atlas is to help the user by providing additional information and analyses of maps. Atlases often contain social, religious, economic, and geopolitical information for a specific region.

Maps and atlases are the primary tools for spatial analysis. From flying airplanes and military planning to forecasting impending natural hazards, these tools have a wide application.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

References to maps can be found in documents pertaining to the Chinese civilization of seventh century BC. However, the earliest specimen of a map can be traced back to Babylon in 1000 BC. Geographike hyphygesis of Claudius Ptolemy (c.AD 90–c.168) is a significant work on world geography. In fact, the earliest known printed atlases were Ptolemy’s editions of this text. The Renaissance period saw the invention of printed maps. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, navigation charts, compass lines, and other navigation aids greatly influenced cartography. Later, in the early sixteenth century, world maps were published. Early examples are Waldseemuller’s world map of 1507 and Rosselli’s world map of 1508.

The earliest historical evidence of atlases being compiled is found in China in the third century. In Europe, however, it happened during the Renaissance period. In 1570, Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) published the first modern atlas, called Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. The term “atlas” appeared after the posthumous publication of Gerard Mercator’s Atlas sive Cosmographicae meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et fabricati figura in 1595. In this publication, Titan Atlas—a mythical king—is depicted holding up Earth on the cover page. The first atlases published in English were Epitome and the Theatrum in 1601.

In the nineteenth century, Europeans applied the metric system for map scale and the Greenwich Prime Meridian was also established. In the twentieth century, computer technology, electronic distance-measuring instruments, inertial navigation systems, remote sensing, and other technological developments led to advanced mapping methods. With the advent of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the use of cartography saw a decline. In the twenty-first century, the output of GIS mapping can be accessed through the Internet as well.

With GIS technology, scientists can study the spatial aspects of issues like climate change, poverty, natural calamities, and shortage of food. GIS maps can be used to identify vulnerable hotspots in a specific region. The vulnerability of a region refers to the extent to which it is at risk from a natural crisis.

Impacts and Issues

A map is merely a visual representation of a given set of information. Hence, the reliability of a map depends entirely on the accuracy of the input data. If the data used are incorrect, incomplete, or misleading, the result-


GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION SYSTEM (GIS): A set of computer-based tools that collects, analyzes, and maps spatial data.

HOTSPOTS: Locations that are at high risk from natural hazards.

MAP SCALE: Portrays the relationship between a distance/size on map and the corresponding distance/size on the land. It is given as a figure having two parts, for example, 1:50,000, meaning 1 unit of measure on the map is equal to 50,000 units of measure on the land.

ing map will be inaccurate. Even with GIS technology, a map is susceptible to errors like human oversight, inconsistent scale, processing errors, or technical errors.

Another drawback with mapping is its inability to represent everything. A map cannot be relied upon as a comprehensive source of information on the world. First, field measurements are error-prone. Even advanced technologies like satellite images are restricted to showing only a portion of the light spectrum. In general, it is impossible to create a map that can represent all of the features (physical, biological, and cultural) of a

specific region. Moreover, all maps are assessments, generalizations, and analysis of geographic conditions. They are produced using basic assumptions. There is also a possibility of changes in the surveyed area due to natural factors or human activities.

See Also Geographic Information Systems (GIS); Geospatial Analysis



Harley, John Brian, and David Woodward. The History of Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Robinson, Arthur H., et al. Elements of Cartography, 6th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 1995.

Web Sites

Emporia State University. “Brief History of Maps and Cartography,” 2004. (accessed April 20, 2008).

MapForum Ltd. “The Earliest Atlases: From Ptolemy to Ortelius.” (accessed April 20, 2008).

Rice University. “What Are Maps?” (accessed April 20, 2008)