Most people who use maps do not take the time to wonder about where the maps came from and how they are produced. However, there is a segment of the population for whom maps are more than just a tool for obtaining directions.
What is Cartography?
Many people believe that cartography refers to the making of maps. While this is a basic definition that can be used to describe the science it does not fully encompass everything that cartography is. In fact, cartography is more than just a science. True cartography is both a science and an art and cartographers are those who are charged with developing maps that are both accurate and useful. Maps are basically a tool for humans to understand, measure, and make concrete information about the world that surrounds them. Additionally, many maps include more than just a physical representation of an area. Some maps include population numbers and density, political development, cultural data, and other socio-economic information that is useful to measure.
Cartographers face many difficulties including how to accurately represent a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional plane. Since it is impossible to perfectly represent a three-dimensional world onto a flat expanse many cartographers have had to develop different types of map projections, each with pros and cons.
The History of Cartography
The history of cartography is a long one and its true roots may never be known. Cartography is an ancient practice and some of the oldest known maps, including world maps, date back to the Babylonian period. Maps from Ancient Greece, Rome, China, and India have also been found, but there may be many other maps from these and other ancient civilizations that will never be found.
Most ancient maps can no longer be considered an accurate representation of the world. However, cartographers that produced these maps believed that they were creating maps that were precise and truthful to the world that surrounded them. As such, the study of ancient maps is a fascinating one which gives historians an insight into ancient civilization and its beliefs.
Many cartographers not only used older maps to develop their own, but some outright copied the older works and then published them as their own. This makes it hard to tell what work was that of a specific cartographer during any given time.
The Evolution of Cartography
Today cartography relies largely on technology to print more accurate representations of the world to paper. The first tools that became commonly used in cartography during the beginning of its evolution were the compass and the telescope. Later, the printing press allowed for reproductions that were faithful to the original map.
With the advent of electronic technology maps became updated through the use of satellites and aerial photography. Additionally, software has brought a new degree of professionalism and precision to a cartographer’s work. All cartographers use specialized software to develop and store the maps they create as well as the aerial photographs and satellite imaging which they use when creating their maps.
Another big change in the cartography industry is the mapping of other planets. With the help of satellites accurate maps have now been created for the Earth’s moon and several other planets.
The art and science of cartography has changed greatly from its ancient roots. Cartographers now have more tools than ever at their disposal. However, it is important to remember that although the tools and outcome have allowed for more detail and accuracy the basic act of creating a map remains the same. Cartography is still a basic tool used by humans to understand the world around them and how it relates to humankind.
Stages of Cartography
Although cartography is defined as the study of maps and the subsequent process of creating them, it is not as easy as it appears at first glance. In order to create a good map, it has to go through the following stages:
Map Editing : In this phase, the various elements of the map are defined and set. These would be particular to the type of map being produced; thus, while in one map the editing process could be concerned about roads, rails, and physical boundaries, in another there might be abstract elements to be defined and enumerated (remember that after all, a map is just a representation, and it could represent abstract entities as well).
Map Projections : As already defined above, projections are the representation of actual terrain on the viewing media. The simplest example is that of a physical map on a flat sheet of paper. The terrain of, let's say, a country can include water bodies, mountains, plains, etc. How do you show this information on paper? These are the concerns of map projections.
Map Generalization : Not all the features of the object need to be represented on a map, or can be represented. For instance, along with its boundaries, a country may have a large number of buildings as well. If the maps is purely physical, these details are unnecessary for the map. Another example is that in a political map, the physical features are left out. All this falls under map generalization, which weeds out (so to speak) any details that are not of use to the final map.
Map simplification : Another process that generalization carries out is simplification. Consider the coastline of a country, for example. Fractal geometry tells us that there is an infinite detail in the coastline, and one could as well spend his whole life in chasing the perfect mapping and not arrive at it. What is to be done, then? Simplification. The coastline has to be approximated and plotted on the map, with just enough detail to make it accurate for the defined use. Of course the simplification levels vary from place to place. A coastline map for home use would be lot simpler than the one used for plotting surveying data.
Map Design : And finally, map design fuses all these processes and brings out a map that is useful and elegant. It can be easily said that map design is the holy grail of cartography. Sure, good research and reduction have their value, but if the design is anything less than excellent, the map will lose its value. Colors, layout, orientation, all this and much more comes under this process.