Google Earth for the 16th Century Mapmaking Set

Renaissance Geographers Were Silicon Valley-Style Visionaries

iCopernicus: This 1507 map is known as America’s ‘birth certificate’ because it properly depicted the basic features of the new world. That’s a bigger step then seeing Main Street on your cell phone.
library of congress
iCopernicus: This 1507 map is known as America’s ‘birth certificate’ because it properly depicted the basic features of the new world. That’s a bigger step then seeing Main Street on your cell phone.

By Reuters

Published May 18, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

Martin Waldseemuller
wikipedia
Martin Waldseemuller

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.”

This week, Google unveiled a map application that the search engine giant said will customize the known world for every user. This competes with Apple’s iMap app and possibly with Facebook, which is creating a map app of its own, as reported by USA Today.

“We have a universal need to know where we are on the globe and where we are in the world; it’s one of the things that transcends time and space,” said John Hessler, a library map curator and Waldseemuller expert.

OUT OF THE GEOGRAPHIC COMFORT ZONE

That geographic comfort zone was unsettled in Waldseemuller’s day. His best-known maps were made between 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived at what he thought was Asia, and 1543, when astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus rocked the Renaissance with his theory that Earth revolved around the Sun, instead of the other way around.

Waldseemuller chose the name America to honor Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who explored the east coast of what is now known as South America. Because other known continents had feminine endings in Latin - Africa, Asia and Europa - he feminized Amerigo to America, said John Hessler, a curator in the library’s geography and map division.

Also on this map, six years before Vasco de Balboa encountered it and 15 years after Columbus’ seminal voyage, is an ocean east of Asia, now known as the Pacific.

So how did Waldseemuller know? He talked about new Portuguese sailing charts, and according to one theory, may have heard the Chinese claim that they had already discovered the Americas. Hessler discounted this.

“He knows it’s a really radical geography,” Hessler said. A map notation reassures viewers that his was an unusual and forward-looking world view.

Mariners, clerics, scholars and noble folk were the only map consumers in Waldseemuller’s time, and maps were rare because they had to be laboriously printed. Waldseemuller wrote that there were 1,000 copies of his 1507 map; the Library of Congress has the only one known to survive.

Digital technology, satellite navigation and easy data availability now has made maps ubiquitous, said Joseph Kerski, a geographer at Environmental Systems Research Institute in Broomfield, Colorado.

“We’re at a moment in time now where all of a sudden everything we know, everything we touch is being geo-enabled,” Kerski said by telephone. Still, the role of maps is essentially unchanged.

While most of Earth’s terrain has already been explored, Kerski said, mapping continues into such diverse areas as social networks and microbial activity in soil.

“We may not be exploring new lands per se, but we’re still exploring and maps are still powerful, just as they always have been,” the geographer said.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.