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After the Map

Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century

After the Map

Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

For most of the twentieth century, maps were indispensable. They were how governments understood, managed, and defended their territory, and during the two world wars they were produced by the hundreds of millions. Cartographers and journalists predicted the dawning of a “map-minded age,” where increasingly state-of-the-art maps would become everyday tools. By the century’s end, however, there had been decisive shift in mapping practices, as the dominant methods of land surveying and print publication were increasingly displaced by electronic navigation systems.
In After the Map, William Rankin argues that although this shift did not render traditional maps obsolete, it did radically change our experience of geographic knowledge, from the God’s-eye view of the map to the embedded subjectivity of GPS. Likewise, older concerns with geographic truth and objectivity have been upstaged by a new emphasis on simplicity, reliability, and convenience. After the Map shows how this change in geographic perspective is ultimately a transformation of the nature of territory, both social and political.

416 pages | 13 color plates, 144 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2016

Geography: Cartography, Cultural and Historical Geography

History: History of Ideas, History of Technology

History of Science


"After the Map uniquely addresses important questions about the changing nature of territoriality in the twentieth century. The book is thus highly recommended to historians of science—and historians more generally—who have an interest in politics, space, and territoriality, as well as to those inquisitive minds who want to cast a spatial glance into the twenty-first century."


"After the Map should sit on the shelf alongside such books as Neil Smith’s American Empire and Susan Schulten’s The Geographical Imagination in America, as part of the pantheon of ground-breaking scholarship that captures that inescapably spatial twentieth century."

Imago Mundi

"This ambitious and detailed book, elegantly written and illustrated, offers a history of the mapping sciences—or, more precisely, "geographic tools" and "geo-epistemology"—in the 20th century. Moving across cartography, geodesy, and navigation, cartographer Rankin traces a gradual but significant shift in the "nature of territory" from a world of cartographic representation firmly tied to the space of the nation-state to very different understandings premised on the coordinates of the global positioning system (GPS). Alongside detailed historical excavation, the text’s strength is its serious, even unprecedented, attempt to draw together scholarship in cartography and historical geography with the history of science—and with a dose of diplomatic or international history, too. Rankin clearly possesses a formidable understanding of his subject, and approaches maps and related technologies with a delightful precision."


"Traversing varied material, institutional, and conceptual terrains, plotting shifts in how space has been represented and enacted throughout the 20th century, and rendering connections between spatial technologies and politics, After The Map ventures far beyond conventional boundaries of the history of cartography."

Reviews in History

"After the MapCartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century, has a wealth of good, interesting information."

Cartographic Perspectives

"The questions sustaining Rankin’s inquiry — questions that ultimately remain open at the end of the book — are about how the dramatic shift from traditional to GPS mapping might affect not only our sense of the spatial but also our sense of the political."

The New Atlantis

"William Rankin’s After the Map tracks the ‘geo-epistemology' of surveying and navigation across the twentieth century, from the patchwork international collaboration of creating a reliable world map in the years leading up to World War I to the use of radiolocation technologies eclipsed by the meteoric rise of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the 1990s. Rankin’s fine analytical sensibility regarding scale, space, and subjectivity enables him to make a nuanced argument about the nature of territory under globalization."

Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences

"Policymakers and the public clamored for maps throughout the first half of the twentieth century.... Yet by the 1960s and 1970s, interest in maps waned while electronic coordinate systems emerged. But this was not solely a shift in technology, as William Rankin writes in After the Map. The shift from maps to coordinate systems, and then eventually to GPS produced novel geographical subjectivities, navigational experiences and geopolitical arrangements. It was a shift in the meaning of territory itself."

New Books Network

"Through scrupulous attention to detail, After the Map demonstrates for readers that the theoretical and practical underpinnings of geospatial knowledge are more intricate, entangled, and politically charged than they might appear at first glance."

Southestern Geographer

"In William Rankin’s ambitious book After the Map, he explains how this shift in mapping practices not only tracked the geopolitical and technical transformations of the twentieth century, but also dramatically reordered our basic conceptions of spatiality as well. . . . It goes a long way towards clarifying what we actually mean when we talk about territory, globalization, and the contestation of geographic knowledge."

Historical Georgraphy

"In following an historical trajectory by way of its investigation into the IMW, UTM and GPS, After the Map examines the present and looks to the future."

The Globe

"After the Map is an ambitious, tightly focused, yet wide-ranging study of the transformation of mapping sciences, from the first international effort to create a unified map of the earth’s surface to today’s ubiquitous Global Positioning System."

The AAG Review of Books

"[A] worthy addition to the literature."

Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly

“In this tour de force study, Rankin maps mapping, demonstrating just how radically the global map evolved over the long twentieth century. He brings us from the 1890s, when treaties produced the first true global map system, through the military grids that marked every spot for building, digging, and targeting. Finally, Rankin displays, in a fresh new way, how we have come to move in a pointillist, instrument-ready GPS world—the third great moment of modern world mapping. Map may not be territory, but with After the Map, Rankin shows us how mapping has remade contemporary territory and reconfigured the political geography of space itself.”

Peter Galison, Harvard University

“How do we place ourselves in space? Do we imagine large, contiguous territories or isolated points on a grid? Rankin traces three waves of geographic knowledge-making over the twentieth century. Forged or foiled by wars and treaties, technological capabilities, navigational imperatives, and cartographic imaginations, each mapping scheme reflected shifting notions of how best to find our place in the world. After the Map is profoundly researched and utterly fascinating.”

David Kaiser, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

After the Map is as prodigiously capacious and ground-breaking as the successive representations of the world that it recounts. It not only traces the progression since the late nineteenth century from terrain-based maps, through location by latitude-and-longitude-free grids, to orientation by points in GPS space, but it also convincingly analyzes what drove these cartographic shifts, spotlighting the dynamic interplay among technical knowledge and practices, military and navigational needs, and changing ideas of territory and sovereignty. Deeply researched and lucidly written, After the Map is an important, eye-opening, and compelling work.”

Daniel Kevles, Yale University

"Rankin’s fascinating and challenging study attunes readers to identify and contemplate more fully how systems whose presence we barely register shape our lives, perceptions, and abilities where spatiality is concerned."

Diplomatic History

"...a tour de force study of the professionalization and expansion of cartography across the twentieth century."

American Historical Review

"Fascinating reading . . . territory, Rankin reminds us, is a way of inhabiting space, and the very manner in which we do this is undergoing radical transformation."

Geographical Magazine

"After the Map is an important work of scholarship, contextualizing valuable and well-written histories of these major international projects such that they extend readers’ understandings of their impacts. It will be a necessary acquisition for map libraries and is recommended for  academic libraries generally."

Western Association of Map Libraries Information Bulletin

"Popular histories of GPS and its applications ... tell a story of inexorable progress ... For William Rankin, these narratives are far too simple. In his new book, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century, he argues that GPS is not just a technological advancement. It is instead a spatial tool that reflected and replicated the ‘emerging logic of the grid.’"

Brink Review

"William Rankin’s After the Map tells an intriguing a story of an epistemic shift in the world of cartography and navigation, and perhaps even in human consciousness...Historians of technology will find After the Map to be a fascinating book that rewards careful reading, with insights about epistemology embedded in detailed descriptions of mapping conventions and navigation technologies."

Jacob Darwin Hamblin | Technology and Culture

Table of Contents

Possibly Ambiguous Terms

Introduction Territory and the Mapping Sciences

Part I The International Map of the World and the Logic of Representation

Chapter 1 The Authority of Representation
A Single Map for All Countries, 1891–1939

Chapter 2 Maps as Tools
Globalism, Regionalism, and the Erosion of Universal Cartography, 1940–1965

Part II: Cartographic Grids and New Territories of Calculation

Chapter 3 Aiming Guns, Recording Land, and Stitching Map to Territory
The Invention of Cartographic Grid Systems, 1914–1939

Chapter 4 Territoriality without Borders
Global Grids and the Universal Transverse Mercator, 1940–1965

Part III: Electronic Navigation and Territorial Pointillism

Chapter 5 Inhabiting the Grid
Radionavigation and Electronic Coordinates, 1920–1965

Chapter 6 The Politics of Global Coverage
The Navy, NASA, and GPS, 1960–2010

Conclusion The Politics in My Pocket

Acronyms and Codenames


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Yale MacMillan Center: Gaddis Smith International Book Prize

Social Science History Association: President's Book Award

Society for the History of Technology (SHOT): Sidney Edelstein Prize

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