As online titans compete to deliver instant maps to smartphones, the Library of Congress in Washington is focusing attention on an antique “cosmology” printed in 1507 that serves as America’s birth certificate.
The black-and-white map created by Martin Waldseemuller, a French cleric, was the first time the name America had appeared on any map.
Waldseemuller was prescient enough to show the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean at a time when no one else in Europe thought they were there.
The map, purchased a decade ago at a cost of $10 million, is the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Library of Congress running through June 22 that features a collection of artifacts from Waldseemuller and his colleagues.
It includes later maps that lose faith in Waldseemuller’s vision of America. In a 1516 world map, the Americas are called “Terra Ultra Incognita” - a faraway unknown country.
Still, the Library of Congress had pursued Waldseemuller’s mammoth map for more than a century.
It shows two continents across the ocean from Europe, with a skinny isthmus between them, an embryonic Florida peninsula, a western mountain range on the northern continent, and on the southern continent, a clearly lettered name: “America.”
These maps are essential for the same reason a smartphone is better with satellite images of Earth, according to Ralph Ehrenberg, chief of the library’s geography and map division: people want to know where they came from.
Waldseemuller’s maps came at a time of geographic exploration, technological advance, societal ferment and expanding communication - a time much like our own, Ehrenberg said in an interview.
The new way of communication in 1507 was printing with mechanical type, he said, while “now we have Google Earth, which is a new way of looking at the world today.”