Looking at maps through the ages, it is apparent that maps have become closer and closer to representing the locations and shapes of the Earth's features with increasing accuracy over the centuries. What significant events affected this, and when did maps become significantly close to what we now know?

Specifically, it seems to me that aerial photography and satellite imagery probably contributed significantly to mapmaking. What other developments were significant?

  • 2
    "significantly close" is way too vague: as you point out, it was a long process. I'd suggest removing that bit.
    – o0'.
    Jul 11 '12 at 11:50
  • It also depends on where. European maps on Europe were very good by the 1700s euratlas.net/antique/cartography/index.html, but maps of Asia were not as good geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/Asia-martineau-1700 It also depended on the cartographer. An other map of Asia from the same period by a famed cartographer Guillaume de L'Isle is far better than the one above. worldmapsonline.com/historicalmaps/kr-1700-asia.htm To answer your question, it depends, but I'd tend to agree with your statement on satellites.
    – Russell
    Jul 11 '12 at 13:06
  • Thank you. I considered editing the question, but decided to leave the "significantly close" part for two reasons: 1) I had assumed that technological progress would affect mapmaking worldwide and the revelation that this is not so is significant, and 2) The fact that different parts of the world were mapped with different accuracy despite the technology is actually an important historical fact that should be emphasised.
    – dotancohen
    Jul 11 '12 at 14:08
  • I just found another terrific relevant Wikipedia article: Early world maps.
    – dotancohen
    Jul 25 '12 at 9:46

The main significant contribution to map making before satellites were triangulation.

The first world maps that I would call reasonably accurate turn up at the beginning of the 19th century, like this one. Even then you have small problems (compare the shape of Norway, for example) but there are no huge mistakes that jump out at you immediately. At the end of the 19th century maps are beginning to get accurate, probably as a result of large scale triangulation of most of the world.

Here is one example from 1897.

Triangulation relies on you being able to see fixed points, so it doesn't work on oceans. There you have to rely on measuring the longitude and latitude, where longitude is the difficult thing to measure. At the end of the 18th century this problem was solved to an accuracy good enough for navigation. This must have helped improve the accuracy of the distance between various landmasses as well.

  • Thank you Lennart, this is exactly the information that I was looking for. I did not realise the importance of triangulation. But how did triangulation help for placing islands not within sight of the mainland?
    – dotancohen
    Jul 22 '12 at 17:17
  • 1
    @dotancohen: I don't think it did. For that you have to rely on less accurate methods. And that actually reminds me of another important breakthrough, which I'll add to the answer. Jul 22 '12 at 19:25
  • Thanks. I am actually now reading that very wikipedia page as it was mentioned in another question of mine.
    – dotancohen
    Jul 22 '12 at 19:29
  • 2
    @LennartRegebro: re "solved to an accuracy good enough for navigation" Remember (one of) the key issues for the Longitude Prize offered by the British Admiralty was navigational accuracy (in darkness or fog) sufficient to avoid known shoals. The Prize was awarded in increments for accuracy to 60nm, 40nm, and finally 30nm: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longitude_prize Inaccuracies smaller than these limits are difficult to spot on maps as extensive as the entire world. Jan 29 '14 at 23:37

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cartography has a very good description.

Ptolemy suggested mapping a spherical earth with lines of longitude/latitude but didn't do very much field work. There are Arabic maps from C9-C10 which used astronomical observations to get their important cities in the right place.

The maps from 1500 are essentially correct:

enter image description here

  • Thank you. In all my googling I did not find that excellent wikipedia page.
    – dotancohen
    Jul 12 '12 at 8:36
  • 1
    Essentially correct? :-) Have you looked at Scotland? Or for that matter Sweden? :-) Jul 22 '12 at 16:08
  • The Mediterranean areas look pretty good.
    – dotancohen
    Jul 22 '12 at 17:16
  • @LennartRegebro - well who wants to visit a bunch of hairy barbarians anyway? The maps were drawn by/for trading voyagers and few of them got that far (or few came back)
    – none
    Jul 24 '12 at 3:48

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