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These Beautiful and Controversial Maps Changed the World Forever

Picture of Luke Abrahams
Social Content Editor
Updated: 8 August 2017
There’s way more to maps than meets the eye…

Maps aren’t just about plotting data and pretty subject matter. They are important culturally, historically and even artistically. Some have been so influential over the last few centuries that they’ve shaped empires, dynasties, mapped territories and even fuelled bitter political disputes. In a nutshell and for better or for worse, they’ve easily shaped the world as we know it today.

Whatever your thoughts on them, one thing is certain: they tell us about extremely important moments in history. While a map about disappearing languages or one that shows what everyone in America hates in their state may not be groundbreaking, they undeniably catalog and capture discrete and personally subjective moments in time. Deep, we know, but when we’re talking about their cultural cartographic significance, nothing has shaped our planet more than the lines of a border, the thoughts of a nation, or the political geosphere more than…wait for it… a map.

From history making to royal influence and political bust ups, these ten maps really did change the world forever.

Ptolemy’s Geography (150 AD)…

Claudius Ptolemy’s rather beautiful map was the first in the world to use math and geometry to plot geographical locations by using rectangular and intersecting lines. Amazingly, the map described the latitude and longitude for over 8,000 hotspots throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and paved the way for everything we see in textbooks today.

Al-Idrisi’s World Map (1154)…

Working under the Norman King Roger II, Al-Sharif al-Idrisi was the first cartographer of his kind to produce an Arabic language focused geographic guide that concentrated on Jewish, Greek, Christian, and Islamic traditions. The map above actually contains two world maps: there’s a small circular one, and 70 minuscule regional maps. Unlike everything else being produced at the time, al-Idrisi’s map puts the south at the top as Islamic cartographers considered Mecca due south (Africa is the crescent-shaped landmass at the tippy top, and the Arabian Peninsula is slap bang in the middle).

Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (1300)…

This rather grotesque-looking thing depicts what the world looked like to medieval Christians. What makes it so interesting is that it’s governed by time and not space – and if we want to get really specific, its ruling organisational principle heavily relies on biblical time, and not spatial time (tricky stuff). The Garden of Eden is located at the top and at the bottom are the Pillars of Hercules, which are found in Gibraltar.

Kwon Kun’s Kangnido Map (1402)…

Gorgeous and sublime, this Korean map was crafted by a loyal and dedicated team of imperial astronomers that were lead by Kwon Kun. What’s so striking about it? Politics. The entire thing is based on royal ideology and centres the north supremely at the top. The point of it is simple. At the time, and in South Asian and imperial Chinese ideology, you always look up in respect of the emperor, as the emperor looks south – or down – towards his subjects. Makes sense?

Waldseemüller’s Universalis Cosmographia (1507)…

America paid $10 million dollars for this map, so you know it’s important. Bought from a German prince, this was the first map in the world to recognise the Pacific Ocean and the separate landmass and continents of the Americas. It’s so distinct, in fact, that Waldseemüller named it after Amerigo Vespucci, who first identified the Americas as its own rightful landmass.

Ribeiro’s World Map (1529)…

Like Kwon Kun’s map, Ribeiro’s is one of the first great examples of politics basically manipulating geographic sovereignty. Created amid a rather major fall out between Spain and Portugal, the beautiful thing came to be because of a small Island chain in present-day Indonesia called the Moluccas. To cut a long story short, the two countries signed a treaty all the way back in 1494, splitting the world’s newly discovered bits of land in two. When it was made, Ribeiro was working for the Spanish Crown, and placed the ‘Spice Islands’ (as they were once known) on the Spanish side of the map. The problem? They actually belonged to Portugal, but as you can imagine, in those days if you rebelled against the Crown, you normally lost your head.

Mercator’s World Map (1569)…

Without doubt, Gerardus Mercator is one of the most influential map making figures in the history of the whole entire world. Period. He was one of the first cartographers who tried to mimic the earth’s curvature on paper, which allowed him to plot straight lines from east to west and so on. Suspected of Lutheran heresy in his lifetime, he would later be accused of eurocentrism in the 20th century. His map was designed primarily to be used by European navigators and for plotting superpower territories. Some people even still use it today!

Blaeu’s Atlas maior (1662)…

Under the influence and employment of the Dutch East India Company, Joan Blaeu crafted hundreds upon hundreds of pretty baroque maps, which graced thousands upon thousands of exceptionally bound atlases. Described as one of history’s ‘magician-like map makers’, Blaeu’s market-led maps were nothing out of the ordinary, but what does make them extraordinary is that he breaks away from traditional cartographic discourse and places the Earth in the middle of the universe. Back when he was making maps, only five planets were known to man. Here, you’ll notice that the sun is placed at the centre of the cosmos (at the top of the map), whereas today, we know this to be entirely false. Still lovely to look at, though.

Gall-Peter’s Projection (1973)…

This map changed the world and blew Mercator’s out of the universe. Literally. Way back when in 1973, a German left winger who went by the name of Arno Peters decided to challenge Mercator’s ‘alleged’ Eurocentric map. How so? By depicting a world based on its actual surface area; that’s why the African continent looks much bigger (because it is) and Europe much smaller. While it’s definitely not perfect (many complained it was riddled with mathematical distortions) it paved the way for accuracy, and above all honest geographic projections.

Google Earth (2005)…

© Google Earth / Screenshot

Hello, VR! A map that takes you all the way to space and the ocean floor and back. Impressive. From a health app on your phone to ordering a meal on Uber, digital and computerised technology powered by the likes of Google and others have radically shaped the way we live, communicate, interact and travel today. And unlike traditional methods of getting from A to B (shoutout to the old school A-Z maps), ginormous companies now have the power to influence your route based on geodata they’ve collected that you have no access to. Scary, but true.

Want more maps? This one shows you the most popular jobs in America!