Tag Archives: map

Meanwhile, in Egypt…

Crescent moon

Crescent roll

I was telling you about the Sumerians and we kind of zoomed ahead to the Persian Empire because I needed to tell you how we are able to translate cuneiform. We skipped over a few thousand years and if I keep doing that this is going to be a really short book. So let’s pause for a moment and drift back to 6,000 bc or so and travel west from Mesopotamia to the northern edge of Africa—to Egypt. Just like the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, people settled along the banks of the Nile River because it was easy to grow food there. In fact, the area that contains all three rivers is known as the Fertile Crescent—where civilization got its start.


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The Big River

The Erie Canal opened travel east-west from New York City to the Great Lakes, Ohio and the American MidWest. What if you wanted to travel north or south? Further west, there was a ready-made natural waterway for travel north-south: the Mississippi River. From Minnesota, The Mississippi flows through Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where she empties into the Gulf of Mexico. From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania you can travel the Ohio River to the Mississippi (as Lewis & Clark did). Likewise, you can start from North Dakota and take the Missouri River to the Mississippi. The Arkansas and Tennessee Rivers also feed the Mississippi.

One big difference between a river and a canal: a canal doesn’t have a current. The Mississippi River flows south, so for a long time most of the travel on it was southbound. Poling your boat north against the current is nearly impossible. Probably teams of animals or humans—slaves—were harnessed to a cable and struggled along a towpath to ‘tote that barge’ northward. It was exhausting, backbreaking labor.

Mississippi River

Paul Robeson—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eh9WayN7R-s
William Warfield—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSzYRo9j7YM

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Creative freedom of the press

I used to own a clamshell press like this one. Steampunky goodness.

For a graphic designer, there are few toys as fun as a printing press. I’m talking about relief printing or engraving. Digital printing doesn’t even come close to the creative satisfaction an artist feels viewing a small run of her poster or book or etching. There’s a hands-on quality that’s part of cutting a woodblock or linoleum block and combining it with metal type to produce a printed work of art.

How exciting it must have been as the Age of Exploration unfolded—when map-makers and printers partnered up to chart continents no European had seen before! That’s the place for an artist to be: right at the front of a new technology, where your work has an audience who’s willing to pay you well for it.

This article conveys the creative energy involved in producing maps back then—and the story of a map that had been missing for centuries. It’s only very recently that Martin Waldseemüller’s map is available for us ordinary shmoes to look at.

Martin Waldseemüller’s map was the first to use the name ‘America’ and show the Pacific as a separate ocean. It was printed in 12 sheets to make a really big map—8’ x 4 1/2’.
The Library of Congress made a composite of the 12 sheets. Click on it to zoom in. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3200.ct000725C/?r=0.35,0.205,0.058,0.029,0


Small Biz Startup: Bedford Creek Press

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We don’t have Ptolemy’s original map. It’s one of those documents lost to history. Lucky for us there’s a copy made by monks centuries after Ptolemy shuffled off the ol’ mortal coil. I drew this version of Ptolemy’s map showing only the longitude lines. He drew them curved to give you the idea that the world is round.

So Eratosthanes and Ptolemy knew that the Earth was round. And it was relatively easy to locate the big latitudes like the Equator and Tropics. To find each degree of latitude was a little more difficult—you need to accurately sight the Sun or moon or a star. Eratosthanes located his latitude in Alexandria by measuring the angle of a shadow at noon of the solstice. After the astrolabe was invented mapmakers used that device to find their latitude.

Latitude lines are parallel, so each degree of latitude is about 69 miles from the next one. On the other hand, longitude lines travel from north to south poles. They join at the poles and are farthest apart from each other at the Equator. There are 360 degrees in a circle; the Earth is round; so there are 360 lines of longitude. If you’ve been following this history from a year ago, you remember that our pals the Sumerians came up with Base 60 method of counting—that’s why there are 360 degrees in a circle.

One of those longitude lines needs to be zero degrees. Which one? There’s no natural starting point for longitude (like the Equator is Point Zero for latitude). Eratosthanes started his system of longitude in Alexandria, where he lived. Alexandria—and every place due north or south of it—was zero degrees: the Alexandrian Prime Meridian. It was also 360 degrees, because it represented the beginning and end of a full circle.

So far, so good. Here’s the kicker, though: how do you measure longitude? How do you know where, say, 87° is on Earth in real life so you can put it on a map?


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Let’s talk about maps. For most of history, maps weren’t particularly accurate for navigation. They were bird’s-eye views of cities or else fanciful drawings that included pictures of weird sea-serpents and bizarre inhabitants of unexplored lands. Maps were expensive because they were hand-drawn works of art.




Old Maps With Sea Monsters


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It’s been a long trip so far

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who’s been hanging with me throughout this little history. I feel like I’ve been telling a year-and-a-half-long joke and I’m just about to get to the punchline.

Since January last year, we discovered how people in the past measured space and measured time. We followed along as travelers ventured further and further from home—traders and explorers became bold enough to make long voyages across the oceans without knowing exactly where they were. To navigate, you need to measure both time and space. Most of the inventions that measure time and space didn’t appear until around the 1500s.

Here’s what you need if you plan to cross an ocean and would like to know where you are going:
1. an accurate map, to know what you’re looking for
2. a compass, to orient the map
3. an astrolabe, to find latitude (how far north or south you are)
4. universal time, to find longitude (how far east or west you are)—Galileo proposed that if you can see the positions of Jupiter’s moons, and you know what time it is locally, you can figure out your longitude. Jupiter’s moons would be a universal clock.
5. an accurate clock, to know local time

The Exploration Age sailors set sail without an accurate map or clock, because those things didn’t exist yet (a pendulum clock doesn’t work on a rocking ship).
Astrolabes or Jupiter’s moons are only useful when the sky is clear. So, even in the 1500s sailors didn’t have all the tools they needed for navigating.

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The next guy to visit the New World was Amerigo Vespucci (vess-POOCH-y) from Florence, Italy. Amerigo was a navigator, a mapmaker, a trader and astronomer. During one of his trips he calculated the circumference of the Earth (how big around at the Equator)—and was off by only 50 miles!

Amerigo Vespucci was also a writer and promoter. If Columbus didn’t realize how big the New World is, Vespucci surely did. He wrote pamphlets (short, easy-to-read) to tell people about the New World and all it had to offer. Vespucci promoted the New World to Europe. Promotion, gang. Amerigo Vespucci did such a good job of promoting the New World that a German mapmaker named the newly-discovered continents for Amerigo—North America and South America—and it caught on.

It’s a tradition to name continents in the feminine form—Asia; Africa; Europe (Europa to the people who live there); India; Australia; Antarctica. So the boy’s name Amerigo became the girl’s name America.

How do people promote nowadays? Writing a pamphlet was the way to go in Vespucci’s time. How would you promote something big that you wanted everybody to know about?

A really long trip and no egg roll

What just happened? Columbus thought he would get to China (the ‘Indies’) by traveling west. He was right, as far as his theory went. But Columbus had no idea there would be two king-sized continents—North and South America—standing in his way. He and his crew spent the next 5 months exploring the islands Cuba and Hispaniola before they went home to Spain.

Columbus was disappointed. He really wanted to reach China. He considered himself a failure for not accomplishing that goal. What he didn’t realize was that the Americas, with all their natural resources (gold, in particular), would become more valuable to Spain than China ever could be.


How to not get lost

Here’s a simple compass

The compass was developed into a compact design. Instead of balancing an iron spoon or floating a piece of magnetized iron in a bowl of water, compass designers suspended a magnetized iron arrow on a thin metal pin over a round card with directions displayed on it. The arrow and card were put in a round brass housing to protect them. Brass can’t be magnetized, so the housing didn’t interfere with the arrow’s attraction to the north pole.

This compass is designed to be used on a boat. Instead of a needle, the entire card spins on an axis to point north. The compass is mounted on gimbals—the outside ring is mounted to the wooden box on the right and left sides. The compass is mounted to the ring top and bottom. This allows it to stay level while the boat bounces around on the waves.

Compass-makers put North, South, East and West (the cardinal directions) on their compass cards, then NorthNorthEast, NorthEast, EastNorthEast, EastSouthEast, SouthEast, SouthSouthEast, SouthSouthWest, SouthWest, WestSouthWest, WestNorthWest, NorthWest, NorthNorthWest and eventually all 32 points of direction.

Compass rose

Mapmakers began to indicate North on their maps so that you could line your map up with the compass’ arrow. This became the lovely compass rose you see on those gorgeous old maps.

This is the kind of compass my pals and I used in the Boy Scouts. The ring is aluminum, I think, and has 360 degrees marked along the bottom edge. The rectangular base is clear plastic so you can see a map through it. It also has a ruler along the side. They make ’em with a magnifying glass in the plastic now.

You’re never lost if you have a map and a compass. Sea-farers were the first to use this technology but it works on land, too! There’s a scene in the movie The Big Country (it’s about a sea captain who decides to settle in the old American West) where sea-captain Gregory Peck goes exploring the countryside for a few days and all the ranchers are worried sick that he got lost in the desert. Everyone is relieved when he rides back to the ranch without a scratch. “How did you not get lost?” they want to know. Greg can’t understand what the fuss is about. “I had a compass,” he says. An epic Western—great soundtrack, too.





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Where In The World Is Western Civilization?

mapWhen I talk about the part of the globe that is Western Civilization, I mean from the Tigris/Euphrates valley to the Mediterranean to Europe to the Americas. Western Civ was born in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the southern part of Iraq. Civilization spread westward from there to lands around the Mediterranean Sea: Egypt, Israel and Phoenicia to the city-states of Europe and northward to the British Isles. From there it extended to the New World—the Americas and Australia.

So, Western Civ is made up of many people and cultures. It grew from the first civilization—the Sumerians in Mesopotamia—to the Egyptians; the Jews; the Greeks; the Romans, whose empire split into east and west; the western half of the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire which reorganized itself into separate European countries. Some of those countries in turn created empires mainly by colonizing the New World. The British Empire includes Canada and Australia. The United States of America declared its independence from Britain in ad 1776.

Of course there are other non-western civilizations around the world today and throughout history. This history is simply about Western Civilization. Most important to me are the ideas. How did ancient people develop an alphabet? Whose idea was it to smelt copper and tin together to make bronze? How did they come up with literature that we still read today? How did they figure out how to measure time, or the circumference of the Earth?