The oldest existing maps are clay tablets made in Babylon around 2300 BC. The first map to represent the known world is believed to have been drawn by the Greek philosopher Anaximander in the 6th century BC. One of the most famous ancient maps was drawn by Eratosthenes in about 200 BC. It showed the known world from England to the Ganges River. It was the first map to have horizontal parallel lines to show equal latitude.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, European mapmaking almost ceased. Arabian seamen, however, made highly accurate charts.

From the 15th century, Mediterranean navigators made accurate charts although they lacked meridians or parallels. Atlases at this time were based on Classical  models, such as Pyolemy’s Geographia (2nd century AD) which was a compilation of place name and co-ordinates.

"New Holland" (1644)
“New Holland” (1644)

The great voyages of discovery around 1500 spurred the making of new maps and were, in turn, aided by the maps which were produced. (Diaz rounded the Cpae of Good Hope in 1487; Columbus landed in America in 1492; Cabot reached Newfoundland in 1496; de Gama reached India in 1499 and Magellan circumnavigated the globe in 1522.) 

In 1507, the German, Martin Waldseemuller, made the first map that clearly showed North and South America as separate from Asia. In 1513, Martin Waldseemuller produced the first atlas maps of North-West and South Africa

Early maps were usually printed in ink from a wooden block, which had been cut in relief Copper engraving was used from the early 1500s until about 1830 when steel engraving and colour lithography were introduced. They were usually not coloured. Those that were hand coloured at the time of their original creation are likely to have discolouration because of oxidation of the colours (particularly browns and greens) over time. Some early maps were hand coloured at a later time. This can be aesthetically pleasing if the style is appropriate.

In 1568, the Flemish cartographer, Gerhard Kremer who has become known by the Latin name Geradius Mercator, devised the system of map projection in which the meridians are represented by parallel lines and parallels of latitude by straight lines intersecting the meridians at right angles. In 1570, another Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, published the first atlas of modern times. It contained 70 maps.

"La Feuille Map of England" (1747)
“La Feuille Map of England” (1747)

The first maps to show compass variations were produced in the first half of the 17th century and the first charts to show ocean currents were made in about 1665.

The father of English cartography was Christopher Saxton (c.1542 – 1610), the first man to survey and map the counties of England and Wales. Saxton began the survey in 1572, traveling around the countryside on foot and on horseback and measuring distances by pacing or with chains. He completed it just seven years later. Although he left out all of the roads, and hills and rivers were often strangely out of proportion, Saton’s maps formed the basis of all county maps for the next 100 years.

John Speed (1552 – 1629), a London tailor, made the first atlas of the British Isles. It contained 54 maps and relied heavily on Saxton’s and other earlier maps. However, it proved extremely popular and was reprinted in several editions up to 1770. Speed’s maps are very decorative and have seen considerable price rises in recent years.

Cartographers in the first half of the 17th century, particularly in Amsterdam, produced some of the finest works ever produced from an artistic point of view.  In Amsterdam in 1662, Willem Janszoon Blaeu produced the Atlas Maior,, probably the most sumptuous atlas ever made. It consisted of twelve volumes with 600 maps, often hand-coloured and highlighted in gold and bound in leather or velvet.

"A General Map of the World, or Terraqueous Globe with all the New Discoveries and Marginal Delineations, Containing the Most Interesting Particulars in the Solar, Starry and Mundane System" (1794)
“A General Map of the World, or Terraqueous Globe with all the New Discoveries and Marginal Delineations, Containing the Most Interesting Particulars in the Solar, Starry and Mundane System” (1794)

Amsterdam was also the centre of sea-chart publishing. Many of the chart books were finely engraved and often decorated with large cartouches and scenes of naval battles. The most important and prolific of the chart making companies for more than a hundred years from about 1680 was van Keulen family. Their Zee-Fakkel included large-scale charts of all known coasts in the world.

Late in the 18th century, a number of European counties began detailed topographic surveys. The first was France (issued in 1793), followed by Great Britain, Spain and Austria

 Lithography was introduced early in the 19th century. This allowed the mapmaker to draw on a specially prepared stone from which the map was printed. Several colours could be used by drawing each on a different stone. The process was cheaper and quicker than engraving but the results can be fuzzy and the colours may not be precisely aligned. In the late 1880s, machine lithography was introduced and maps lost much of their “artistic” quality.

Aerial photography was developed during World War 1 but not used extensively until the Second World War. In 1966, the United States began a complete geodetic survey of the Earth using high resolution cameras in satellites.

Vintage maps available now
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