With the evolution of cartography and technology it is possible for us to obtain world maps of any projection and dimension. Thematic maps based on a variety of cultural, political, physical, social, and economic aspects are being developed each day. But as a matter of convention world maps still feature Britain at the center. A number of historic, cultural, and economic factors may have accompanied this convention but is a deviation tenable? Can the world map be centered on some other country?
The Zero Meridian
Till the early nineteenth century most nations followed their own clocks and the world lacked a standardized time. Almost every nation followed its own Zero Meridian for mapping purposes. With the development of international communication networks, the need for standardizing global time and the need for creating uniform time zones became a necessity. Following the resolution passed at the International Meridian Conference held in Washington DC in 1884, the meridian passing through Greenwich near London was chosen to be the Prime Meridian or the Zero Meridian. Of the 25 nations that voted 22 endorsed the choice. This was a momentous decision in cartography as it meant that Britain and Europe would feature at the center of the world maps and the east and west meridians would feature on either side of the Prime Meridian. France, however, had abstained from voting, and continued to map the Paris Meridian as the Prime Meridian for a long time.
Why was the Greenwich Meridian popular?
The British embarked on their policy of colonialism in the late sixteenth century. In about 1938, the British Empire reached its greatest extent. The empire covered over 13 million sq miles, about a fourth of the land and controlled over 500 million subjects. The spread of the English language, British customs, and political and administrative models made the culture a dominant one in almost every continent. When it came to choosing the Prime Meridian, it is no surprise then, that the Greenwich Meridian was chosen.
The economic influence wielded by England due to the spread of the British Empire is perhaps the most significant among the influencing factors. The United Kingdom developed into one of the major economies of the world. The spread of the British Empire and a policy of aggressive mercantilism made Britain the major economic hub of the world till the early nineteenth century.
What are the Alternatives?
Is the time now right to review the standard format for world maps? With Asian countries such as China and India featuring high on the population index it is perhaps wise to center the world map on these countries rather than on Europe (and Britain) as has been traditionally done. Alternatively, the world map could be centered on the United States, given the country’s influence in world politics and economy. Although a number of such maps have been developed for various purposes, this is not yet the standard.
Over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water. Only about 30% is landmass. Cartographers believe that by plotting Europe and Africa to the middle, the undivided landmasses are perfectly visible on the world map. The distortion of the land area in this type of map projection is also the least.
Though maps with different centers are available, the accepted norm is plotting the Prime Meridian to the center. With population mapping becoming popular it is likely that a number of world maps are centered on Asian countries especially China and India. But these maps present a larger view of the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. A map with USA in the center is likely to divide the Eurasia landmass. A 400 year old map with China in the center is on display at the US Library of Congress. It was created by Matteo Ricci and is known as the “Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography”
Is It Time To Change?
One of the major challenges that shall arise from changing the center of the world map is calculation of date and time. Currently time and date calculations around the world are calculated based on the GMT. The International Date Line is the imaginary line roughly along the 180 degree meridian which separates two calendar days. The Universal Time calculation is all likely to be affected if a new Prime Meridian is chosen. We will also need to determine a new International Date Line and the proposition is a daunting one as all global calculations are likely to be affected.
Will the new maps thus created reflect the continents and oceans of the world adequately? Has the development of the Asian and American countries shifted the focus away from Europe? Have the standards of cartography reflected the developments of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries? A change in the focus of world maps may shift political and research focus from Europe to America or Asia. Thematic maps which reflect education standards and socio-cultural may also be affected by such a change. The implications of such a change on navigation, and research also need to be considered. These are some of the issues that require to be addressed. The topic is certainly worth international deliberation.