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Rhumb Lines and Map Wars

A Social History of the Mercator Projection

In Rhumb Lines and Map Wars, Mark Monmonier offers an insightful, richly illustrated account of the controversies surrounding Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator’s legacy. He takes us back to 1569, when Mercator announced a clever method of portraying the earth on a flat surface, creating the first projection to take into account the earth’s roundness. As Monmonier shows, mariners benefited most from Mercator’s projection, which allowed for easy navigation of the high seas with rhumb lines—clear-cut routes with a constant compass bearing—for true direction. But the projection’s popularity among nineteenth-century sailors led to its overuse—often in inappropriate, non-navigational ways—for wall maps, world atlases, and geopolitical propaganda.

Because it distorts the proportionate size of countries, the Mercator map was criticized for inflating Europe and North America in a promotion of colonialism. In 1974, German historian Arno Peters proffered his own map, on which countries were ostensibly drawn in true proportion to one another. In the ensuing "map wars" of the 1970s and 1980s, these dueling projections vied for public support—with varying degrees of success.

Widely acclaimed for his accessible, intelligent books on maps and mapping, Monmonier here examines the uses and limitations of one of cartography’s most significant innovations. With informed skepticism, he offers insightful interpretations of why well-intentioned clerics and development advocates rallied around the Peters projection, which flagrantly distorted the shape of Third World nations; why journalists covering the controversy ignored alternative world maps and other key issues; and how a few postmodern writers defended the Peters worldview with a self-serving overstatement of the power of maps. Rhumb Lines and Map Wars is vintage Monmonier: historically rich, beautifully written, and fully engaged with the issues of our time.

Read an excerpt.

256 pages | 52 halftones, 26 line drawings | 5 1/4 x 8 | © 2004

Geography: Cartography, Cultural and Historical Geography

History: Discoveries and Exploration

History of Science


"In Rhumb Lines and Map Wars, Mark Monmonier shows that controversies that have ignited as soon as different projections--and there have been many--emerge, each attempting to make a flat map of a ball’s surface more like reality. Some of these show the globe distorted into the shapes of lampshades, inverted triangles, hearts, half-eaten doughnuts and rounded zigzags, as weird as dreams. Politics, nationalism and international prestige caused these wars. Monmonier thinks that such arguments overrate the power of maps. He writes well and simply."

Roy Herbert | New Scientist

"A rewarding study of mapmaking and the uses of maps."

Scientific American

"[Monmonier] offers yet another first-rate contribution to the literature on cartography. . . . An excellent book that deserves widespread attention."

Jeremy Black | H-Net

"Monmonier succinctly describes the methods developed over 400 years to delineate a round earth on a flat piece of paper, ever since Mercator’s portrayal was a boon to 16th-century sailors. Clear diagrams show every stage of man’s attempts to solve this problem, why it was posed, and how theorists tried to make it more suitable, as means of travel changed.  Thus, a projection suited to a sailor seeking to discover what lay across the Atlantic Ocean was unserviceable for airline pilots choosing the shortest route over the North Pole."

Susan Gote | Times Higher Education Supplement

"This little book exhibits a rare . . . combination of elements: scholarship, readability, and usefulness. . . . Although not a textbook on map projection, the book is a handy introduction to the subject and contains as much information as the nonspecialist is likely to need."

Richard Ring | Fine Books and Collections

“This very readable book should be studied by anyone interested in correcting much public ignorance about the importance of map projections and their manipulation (sometimes deliberately) to distort our perception of the world. . . . A major contribution to cartography.”

Terry Birtles | Journal of Spatial Science

"Rhumb Lines and Map Wars is both a primer in the history and geometry of map projections and a complaint against those who tread Mercator under foot. . . . Monmonier has much to say about the ’power of maps,’ and covers a great deal of interesting ground, from the spider’s web of medieval portolan charts to the mathematical armature of satellite cartography."

D. Graham Burnett | London Review of Books

"The book works at several levels and is successful in each. . . . It is engagingly written and well illustrated, as one would expect from Monmonier, arguably the world’s foremost popular map historian. And it is an appeal for us all to be more aware of the importance of different map projections, their flexibility and their limitations."

Charles W.J. Withers | History

"Geographers and cartographers once again owe Mark Monmonier their thanks....This insightful and interesting book further adds to Monmonier’s reputation as an author capable of enlightening students, technicians, professionals, and anyone who enjoys maps and mapping."

Dennis Fitzsimons, | Professional Geographer

"This book makes a major contribution to the debate through its presentation of an intellectual and social history of the Mercator projection. . . . An excellent book, interesting and accessible to both cartographic professionals and the educated general public."

Brooks C. Pearson | Geographical Review

"There is a story to be told here, and Mark Monmonier is certainly the person to tell it. He does so with gusto. . . . Rhumb Lines and Map Wars will be relished by a general audience."

Rienk Vermu | ISIS

Table of Contents

1. Bearings Straight&emdash;An Introduction
2. Early Sailing Charts
3. Mercators Résumé
4. Revealing Replicas
5. The Wright Approach
6. Travelers Aide
7. Soldiering On
8. On Track
9. Wall Maps and Worldviews
10. Size Matters
11. Points of View

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