The Mapmakers: Reading a Classic

The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford tells the story of mapping from the earliest known maps to the turn of the twenty-first century, when the second edition of the book was published. It is recommended for readers interested in any facet of mapmaking.

Wilford draws on his vast experience as a science journalist to present a broad and technical topic in a well-written narrative. It is a thorough historic overview, but given the breadth of the subject and the objective of telling a story to popular audiences, there is not much room for detailed analysis, technical instruction, or many footnotes. Those looking for a more complete understanding of mapping will benefit from reading The Mapmakers, but they should also look at the impressive bibliography in the back of the book or consult academic textbooks or online instruction.

The Mapmakers is limited by its date of publishing, though it is not truly out of date for most purposes. This is not the source for understanding mapmaking techniques that have come into widespread use in the 15 years since the book was printed. The reader will not find the story of the amazing web maps that are almost taken for granted today, nor the lidar technology being used in such varied applications as terrain mapping, building modelling, and archeology. Importantly, however, Wilford does succeed in describing the important changes in mapmaking from the book’s first edition in 1981 to the end of the twentieth century. The transition from drafting table to computer screen and the use of electronic equipment in the field is thoroughly discussed. The book also includes chapters on GPS, geographic information systems, and the mapping of other planets, so the latest technology at the time of the book’s publishing is not neglected.

The book tells the stories of the big names in mapmaking history without neglecting many of the lesser-known and collaborative work in the field. Wilford discusses the contributions of philosophers, mathematicians, surveyors, cartographers, astronomers, tinkerers, and navigators. The sense of discovery energizes the narrative, perhaps especially the chapters about early map projections and pioneers in precision surveying. The chapter on Columbus is an excellent discussion of how the explorer convinced himself that his goal was achievable by calculating that the world was much smaller than it actually was. The later chapters of the book reveal how much of the current understanding of the planet came from technology that only became available in the twentieth century.

The Mapmakers is an excellent overview for those with an interest in mapmaking and the history of discovery, and a great starting point for those who want to gain a detailed understanding of the topic.

The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford
Revised Edition, 2001
Vintage Books
508 pages

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