With the rise of the GPS tracker app, the paper map is increasingly seen as a thing of the past. John Noble Wilford’s classic survey — republished this year in a sumptuous, illustrated tome by The Folio Society — is a timely reminder, then, of the bravery, ingenuity and, at times, epic mistakes of adventurers and mapmakers alike, whose hard-won discoveries and subsequent cartographic creations have paved the way for our understanding of the world around us.
It’s a story with a diverse cast and a twisting narrative almost too fantastical to believe. Wilford chronicles the great map stories: the early plotting of the Earth by the ancient Greeks, the Mercator projection, the mapping of the US by Lewis and Clark, Percival Lowell’s survey of imagined alien waterways on Mars, the aerial charting of the Amazon — and a host more largely uncelebrated events and technological innovations.
While it does a great job of revealing the secret histories of ancient maps, this isn’t just a nostalgic gaze at the early days of exploration. The final pages are devoted to the rapid advances in modern cartography, including mapping the oceans and deepest reaches of space.
It’s an essential tome for the curious geographer, and a luxurious addition to any serious traveller’s library.
This cloth-bound edition of The Mapmakers, by John Noble Wilford (first published: 1981), was published by The Folio Society in April. RRP: £44.95
Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)