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A world-changing map

A little history, a little word play, and a little cartography, plus seeing where Copernicus got some of his crazy ideas. What better way to get your morning started?

Drawn half a millennium ago and then swiftly forgotten, one map made us see the world as we know it today… and helped name America. But, as Toby Lester has discovered, the most powerful nation on earth also owes its name to a pun.

Almost exactly 500 years ago, in 1507, Martin Waldseemuller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure Germanic scholars based in the mountains of eastern France, made one of the boldest leaps in the history of geographical thought – and indeed in the larger history of ideas.

Near the end of an otherwise plodding treatise titled Introduction to Cosmography, they announced to their readers the astonishing news that the world did not just consist of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the three parts of the world known since antiquity. A previously unknown fourth part of the world had recently been discovered, they declared, by the Italian merchant Amerigo Vespucci, and in his honour they had decided to give it a name: America.

But that was just the beginning. Waldseemuller and Ringman in fact had written the Introduction to Cosmography merely as a companion volume to their magnum opus: a giant and revolutionary new map of the world. It’s known today as the Waldseemuller map of 1507.

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Author:

Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.