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Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection

The Mercator Projection extends ad infinitum to the north and south poles, and can be truncated in various ways. Its value is largely as a navigation aid.

In addition to exploring the Mercator projection’s initial development and later refinements, I examine the controversies surrounding one of cartography’s most significant innovations, a variation of which provides a geometric framework for detailed topographic maps. Because it distorts the proportionate size of countries, the Mercator map was criticized for inflating Europe and North America for imperialist purposes. 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. In Rhumb Lines and Map Wars I look at why well-intended clerics and development advocates rallied around an allegedly superior projection that flagrantly distorts the shape of Third World nations, why journalists covering the controversy ignored alternative world maps and other key issues, and how a few post-modern writers defended the Peters worldview with a self-serving overstatement of the power of maps.

James Gall introduced a similar map in 1855.
Goode's homolosine projection preserves relative area and limits distortion of shape.

More Kind Words

"Mark Monmonier is unparalleled in the quality of his research, and he has covered the Mercator-Peters debate thoroughly, providing historical insights into how cartographic function influences cartographic form." – Nancy Obermeyer, coauthor of Managing Geographic Information Systems

"[Because] Mark Monmonier [is] the one of the best-known and most readable writers about things cartographic . . . I figured this book has a lot going for it and sat down and read it. I wasn’t disappointed. . . . Underlying the discussion is a critical look at what becomes [the Mercator projection’s] ‘chief’ rival, the Peters Projection, and the suggestion that many other fine projections might have served its backers even better. . . . If you like James Burke type connect-the-dots stories, this book will suit you fine." – Adena Schultzberg, editor of the online weekly GIS Monitor

“Heavy on content that has been carefully researched [this book] also is quite lucidly written. . . . To his credit, Monmonier has kept his explanations straightforward and concise, but nevertheless meaningful. In this he has also been facilitated by an excellent set of black-and-white illustrations. This fine volume should be of value to the scholar and more general reader alike and certainly to anyone who has grown up with and been impacted upon, even unknowingly, by the Mercator projection.” – Dennis Reinhartz, in Journal of Historical Geography

“All in all, and notwithstanding its special title, this book provides an excellent introduction to the nature and attributes of map projections in general, set within an interesting narrative, and can be recommended to undergraduate students in geography and cartography to encourage projection awareness. But there is no mistaking the underlying agenda, expressed in the preface, namely that ‘Rhumb lines and map wars offers a vigorous and needed response to a campaign that mixes willful ignorance and misguided activism.’ ” – Bob Parry, in Society of Cartographers Bulletin

“It is rare that in the world of books on map projections that something compelling is written without the use of complex analysis and differential geometry. Most non-technical and popular histories of the field oversimplify and rehash well-known historical anecdotes. Rhumb Lines and Map Wars, the latest book by Mark Monmonier, Distinguished Professor of Geography at Syracuse University, is a well-written and well-researched exception.” – John Hessler, in Imago Mundi

“This book makes significant claims, none more important than the insistence that misunderstood technical features must be freed from accusations of ideological bias.” – D. Graham Burnett, in London Review of Books

“An excellent book, interesting and accessible to both cartographic professionals and the educated general public." – Brooks Pearson, in The Geographical Review

“Riding the wave of his own deserved reputation, the popular author [of] How to Lie With Maps has added yet another readable, humanizing tome to the corpus of technical literature about the science of maps and the history of mapmaking. . . . Monmonier subjects the pretensions of Arno Peters to a withering gaze. . . . With the tools of history and mathematics in hand, Monmonier deftly tears these claims to shreds." – David I. Spanagel, in Journal of Interdisciplinary History


“In Rhumb Lines and Map Wars, Monmonier . . . offers an in-depth, balanced, and at times quite technical study of Mercator's projection specifically, and the history and methods of map projection in general. . . . This little book exhibits a rare--indeed, almost mutually exclusive--combination of elements: scholarship, readability, and usefulness." – Richard Ring, in Fine Books and Collections

“Worth reading for Monmonier's take on the Peters controversy along, Rhumb Lines is a fine look at an influential, useful and maligned projection." – Jonathan Crowe, in The Map Room blog