Established 1976


Learn about maps: Mapmaking


Following are short descriptions of just a few of the best-known cartographers.

Claudius Ptolemy [87 - 150 A.D.]: Greek geographer and astronomer of Alexandria. Codified cartographic ideas and data in his Geographia, which gave instructions for map-making, including a system of coordinates. Ptolemy's text has survived, but no maps known to have been drawn by him. The oldest known Ptolemaic maps date from about the 13th century; they were made following the information in the Geographia. Ptolemy's work was lost to the West for centuries, but survived in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic societies, and was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Many editions of the Geographia have been published, the first printed edition with maps being Bologna, 1477.

Martin Waldseemuller [ca 1470 - 1518] His 12-sheet woodblock world map of 1507 was the first to use the name America (after explorer Amerigo Vespucci) and was used as a source by other map-makers. Only one copy of his map survives (rediscovered in 1901). He also produced an important edition of Ptolemy with 20 modern maps added. His version of the Geographia was published in 1513 and again in 1520. Reduced size blocks were used for the maps in editions of 1522, 1525, 1535 (edited by Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake), and 1541.

Jacopo Gastaldi [c 1500 - c 1565]: Piedmontese mapmaker; worked in Venice. Italy's leading mapmaker, his works were copied or reissued by many others. Produced a small-format edition of Ptolemy in 1548 which included 34 modern maps, sometimes thought of as the first pocket atlas.

Antonio Lafreri [1512-77]: French engraver who worked in Rome. Issued many maps, some of which were assembled into atlases. No two such atlases have identical contents, as they apparently were assembled to order. Unlike other Italian map publishers, Lafreri inserted a title page with his name, and the term "Lafreri" atlas has since been used to describe such composite atlases.

Sebastian Munster [1489-1552]: German mathematician and linguist; Professor of Hebrew at Basle. Both his version of Ptolemy's Geographia (1st edition 1540) and his own work, the Cosmographia (1st edition 1544) contained many new maps by him and were reissued numerous times, as late as 1628.

Gerard Mercator [1512-94]: Studied at Louvain and soon established himself as an instrument and globe-maker. The greatest mapmaker of the 16th century, he exercised scrupulous care in evaluating sources for his maps and globes. Best known for the projection he invented for seamen which shows a course of constant direction as a straight line. Also wrote a text on the use of italic lettering in maps. Published an edition of Ptolemy in 1578; his modern Atlas (the first book of maps to use that title) was published by his family in 1595. They later sold the plates for the atlas to

Jodocus Hondius [1563 - 1612]: Worked in London circa 1584-95 where he engraved a famous map showing Drake's circumnavigation as well as the plates for Waghenaer's Mariners Mirrour (1588). Established himself in Amsterdam 1595; subsequently continued publication of Mercator's Atlas with added maps. After his death the work was continued by his sons Jodocus Jr. and Henricus along with

Johannes Jansson [1588 - 1664]: Son of a bookseller and publisher, in 1612 married daughter of Jodocus Hondius. Later in partnership with his brother-in-law Henricus he published and expanded the Mercator-Hondius atlases, culminating in the sumptuous 11-volume Atlas Major. This period is often called the "Golden Age of Atlases." His great rival was

Willem Blaeu [1571 - 1638] and his son Joan Blaeu [1596 - 1673]: Willem studied under Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, and then established himself in Amsterdam as a globe and instrument maker. He soon began publishing sea atlases and wall maps. About 1630 he purchased a number of plates from Jodocus Hondius Jr. (!) and then brought out his own atlas which grew steadily over the years. Blaeu family productions were noted for their high quality and sumptuous design which eventually resulted in the Grand Atlas of 9 to 12 volumes depending on edition. Meanwhile, Paris was emerging as a competitor to Amsterdam. This was led by

Nicholas Sanson [1600 - 1667]: who used more restrained designs in his maps. Sanson emphasized geographic content over style, and began what some call the French "scientific" school of map-making. His work was continued by family members.

Vincenzo Coronelli [1650 - 1718]: a Franciscan priest who worked in Venice, became geographer to Louis XIV which gave him access to information from French missionaries and traders throughout the world. Besides producing several atlases and hundreds of maps, he is celebrated for a pair of terrestrial and celestial globes 15 feet in diameter which he created for the Sun King.

Guillaume De L'Isle [1675 - 1726] carried on the tradition of Sanson in brilliant fashion. He was an intelligent and critical user of the geographic information coming to Paris, and produced many maps which were significant improvements on earlier material. Other French mapmakers who were highly regarded were

Jean Baptiste D'Anville [1697 - 1782] whose work included the maps for Du Halde's 1735 book on China, and

Jacques Nicholas Bellin [1703 - 72] whose career in the French Hydrographic Service resulted in many fine maps, including a number of North America.

As England became an ever more powerful rival to France, British map-making also expanded. An important early English map-maker was

John Speed [1552 - 1629] was primarily interested in publishing a history entitled Theatre of The Empire of Great Britaine. He included maps of the English counties based on earlier surveys by Christopher Saxton and John Norden, and had the maps engraved by Jodocus Hondius. The work was successful and went through many editions from 1611 to circa 1770. Today, his history is a footnote, and attention is focused on the maps. In 1627 he also published A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World thus creating the first world atlas published in England.

Another highly interesting cartographer in England was
Herman Moll [ca 1654 - 1732], German by birth, as a young man he moved to London where he had a long career as an engraver and map-maker. He was on good terms with many important figures of the Enlightenment including scientist Robert Hooke, explorer-buccaneers Dampier and Rogers, and writers Swift and Defoe. Moll created the maps for Gulliver. His maps were well-regarded despite his attachment to the Isle of California fantasy; they had a distinctive engraving style and had many interesting captions, often criticizing other mapmakers.

John Mitchell [1711-68] was a physician known to have produced only one map in his life. That was the 1755 multi-sheet Map of the British and French Dominions in North America. It is considered the most important 18th century map of America because it influenced other map-makers, and was the only map used at negotiations for the Treaty of Paris [1782 - 83]. His great map was rivaled by

Lewis Evans [ca 1700 -1756], an American surveyor, published A General Map of the Middle British Colonies in America (Philadelphia, 1755) which was based on Evans' travels in America. His map was quickly pirated and was reissued for two generations.

While American map-making was growing, England continued to dominate, led by such people as

Thomas Jefferys [ca 1695 - 1771] whose prolific output included English county maps and several atlases relating to North America. His successor was

William Faden [1750 - 1836] who published many maps of battles during the America Revolutionary War. Another fine cartographer was

Aaron Arrowsmith [1750 - 1833]: his most important works were large-scale multi-sheet maps which contained the latest information. The firm was continued by his son Aaron Junior and his nephew John.

John Cary [ca 1754 - 1835] was also a skilled engraver. The bulk of his output related to Britain, but he did produce an atlas of the world, and his globes are sought after today. He is not to be confused with

Matthew Carey [1760 - 1826] of Philadelphia who in 1795 published the first atlas in America and the first United States gazetteer (by Joseph Scott). His firm became Carey & Lea, and continued to publish atlases. At the same time

Jedidiah Morse [1761 - 1826] of Massachusetts (father of artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse) published many geographies.

Philadelphia was a major publishing center at this time. Among its most famous mapmakers were

John Melish [1771 - 1822] was a capable and energetic mapmaker. Five Presidents owned his wall map of the United States. His sudden death led to the immediate dissolution of his firm.

Henry Tanner [1786 - 1858] began his career as an engraver for Melish. His large-folio American Atlas [issued in parts 1818 - 1823] is an impressive work. The complete atlas was expensive at $30.00, and Tanner created his smaller New and Elegant Universal Atlas which sold for $15.00 which went through a number of editions. Publication was taken over by Carey & Hart in 1843, and in 1846 by

Samuel Augustus Mitchell [1792 - 1868] converted the maps in Tanner's atlas from copperplate engravings to lithography, enabling longer print runs. The Universal Atlas continued to 1859 often published by others such as Thomas, Cowperthwait & Company and DeSilver. About this time S.A. Mitchell Jr. took over the firm from his father and in 1860 introduced Mitchell's New General Atlas which was published in large numbers for many years. The Mitchell firm dominated American commercial atlas publishing at this time along with

Joseph H. Colton [1800 - 93] began map publishing New York City in 1833 with a map of New York state by David Burr. Colton published many maps and guidebooks created by others (as did Mitchell). His firm did create its most popular product Colton's Atlas of the World [1855] in two large volumes. It was followed by the one-volume Colton's General Atlas [1857] which was reissued for 30 years.

Alvin Jewett Johnson’s New Illustrated...Family Atlas was first published in 1860 with maps from Colton. It continued for many years as the Colton maps were gradually replaced by newer maps. The Family Atlas was very successful. Johnson became Mitchell’s principal rival and the two were the dominant American atlas publishers during the Civil War and the years after. Eventually they were supplanted as leaders by

Rand, McNally began in Chicago in 1856 as printers. The printing of railroad tickets became an important part of their business and led to railway schedules and maps, travel guides and atlases. For more than 150 years firm has produced a wide variety of cartographic works in large numbers, to the point where its name is synonymous with maps and atlases. [see Cynthia H. Peters, “Rand McNally...” in Michael Conzen (editor), Chicago Mapmakers..., 1984, pp. 64-72]
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