Science: Map Mystery

David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer David Brown and John W. Hessler, a senior researcher at the Library of Congress, were online Tuesday, Nov. 18 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss evidence about Martin Waldseemuler's knowledge when he created his world map in 1507.

Read the story 16th-Century Mapmaker's Intriguing Knowledge and see the map.


David Brown: Good morning chatters. We have what I suspect will be an unusually interesting session coming up. The topic is the wonderful map of 1507 made by Martin Waldseemuller and Matthias Ringmann, two Catholic clerics working under the patronage of the Duke of Lorraine. The map was the first to show South America as a continent surrounded by water, and was astonishingly precise (North America much less so), and also first named the land mass "America." We are extremely fortunate to have on the chat John W. Hessler, a historian of cartography and science, an engineer and a mathematician. He has recently published a book on Waldseemuller's work, "The Naming of America." Mr. Hessler is the author of more than 50 articles on cartography and also of an earlier book called "Projecting Time", about the Mercator projection.

So let's begin.


Fairfax, Va.: This is a fascinating story, but I am worried that there might be an explanation that isn't getting sufficient attention. Maybe Waldseemueller simply guessed and got lucky? Much like a writer of historical fiction who combines myth and hearsay into a compelling story that turns out to be true, perhaps this map-maker simply sketched together a picture that turned out to be right?

John W. Hessler: Yes this of course a real possibility. That being said however there are many other maps that show a passage under South America before Balboa and Magellan. Even Leonardo Da Vinci on a map that is in the collections of Windsor Castle shows this passage on his map made somewhere between 1510 and 1519...this is truly a mystery story that is really only recently coming to light since the Library of Congress' purchase of the map...

David Brown: There is statistical evidence that increases the probability that Waldseemuller's contours of South America did not occur by chance. But that is only probability, and it falls short of the 95+ correlation that would make chance a very poor explanation.


Amherst, Mass.: Why doesn't map-making flourish in Spain in the 16th century, as it does in the Netherlands (both are maritime powers)?

John W. Hessler: Mapmaking in Spain really does flourish in the 16th century... it is just for the most part unknown to members of the general public. Mapmakers like Sancho Gutierrez, Sebastian Cabot, Jorge Reinel made some of the most important maps of the period especially in the realm of nautical cartography. There is very little of this however that is published in English and that filters down to popular works. In the area of nautical cartography, that is sailing charts, the Spanish are especially important and certainly rival the Portuguese.

Navigational cartography came under the control of the Casa de la Contratacion, the House of Trade, founded in Seville in 1503, most of the early maps they produced were Portolan charts...or very expanded versions of Portolan charts that included parts of the New World.

There are many open historical and technical questions questions about how these charts were used what they represent from a navigational stand point. Discussions in scholarly circles revolve around whether or not they are projected, why most of them are rotated from the true north orientation of modern maps and most importantly when the first ones were actually made...the oldest Portolans we have are form the late thirteenth century. The oldest one in the collections of the Library of Congress dates from 1320....

There are several works one could go to for more information on this. The third volume of the History of Cartography has an especially good review of Spanish nautical cartography by Alison Sandman... it is very up to date and definitely shows it detail what the Spanish were up to.


Silver Spring, Md.: Do you lend any credence to the speculation that the Chinese Ming dynasty voyages reached the Americas? If so, possibly there was some information about them floating around Europe that Waldseemueller drew on. Easy to see how that would be sensitive and subsequently "retracted."

John W. Hessler: The idea of the early Chinese voyages to America as put forth most recently by Gavin Menzies in his book "1421" has certainly given the field of the history of cartography and exploration food for thought. His notion of the Chinese discovery of America is a compelling story which unfortunately has very little "hard" evidence to back it up. That being said one must be somewhat careful to say a great deal of attention is being paid to these theories both in a attempt to refute and to confirm them. One waits to see if Menzies' "1421 team" has anything more to say in the future. The theory is radical but at this point it is just as you stated it in your question a "speculation". It is an exciting time in this field however...

There are other theories out there that to me at least make a bit more sense in terms of the types of questions we see brought up by the Waldseemullers maps. Peter Dickson, who is an independent scholar of the history of discovery and cartography, has written a book called "The Magellan Myth" in which he outlines some of the more probable western sources of this information from the Spanish and Portuguese. Peter has done a great deal of work in this area and has brought together in this small book a compelling, and for the most part, wholly original theory, that to me seems more probable.


Amherst, Mass.: Any idea how many copies of this map were made? If only one still exists in any condition, that would suggest there were very few to begin with. How then did the term "America" get such wide use? Thanks.

John W. Hessler: Again we are faced with an open question...Waldseemuller tells us on the 1516 map that the 1507 was made in "1000 copies" but this has been doubted by many scholars...there is little evidence.

The map only survives in the single copy at the Library of Congress...

David Brown: Just common experience would suggest that it would be highly unusual for 1,000 copies of a 12-panel map to be produced and have only one survive, and it intact. One would think that there would be some fragments, incomplete copies, recycled panels, heavily worn or damaged versions, etc etc. Of course, it could happen. But it seems more likely the 1,000 copies was wishful thinking.


Rockville, Md.: Will a book become available containing a reproduction of the map and its translation? I just bought the National Geographic's illustrated history of cartography and am delighted to see it includes the map -- though it is so small on a double-page spread.

John W. Hessler: My book contains both a facsimile of each sheet of the map and a translation of Waldseemuller's text it is called the Naming of America and it is available at places like Amazon and the Library of Congress bookstore.

David Brown: Alas, there is no life-size reproduction of the map available for consumer purchase. I personally think there would be a market for same.


Carmel, Calif.: What are the chances the Church forced Martin Waldseemueller to revise his map? Have you looked for a church connection?

John W. Hessler: The question of the retraction of the what the 1507 map shows is a difficult one to answer and may never be adequately resolved. We know that Waldseemuller's patron, Duke Rene II dies in 1508 and that some changes begin to occur at the Gymnasium in St. Die but we really have no idea of what any of this has to do directly with Waldseemuller's cartographic projects. The translation of the text block on the 1516 map is very large and has created all sorts of new questions for scholars. The full translation of the can be found on my blog if people are interested in reading further...


Dover, N.J.: Hi - I have a very basic question - how did the mapmakers in the early centuries even have an idea about the shape of Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. prior to the advent of space satellites? Given the vastness of the land (and continents), how and when was this determined? The maps from those times seem fantastically accurate! In terms of Waldseemueller's achievement, it is indeed very fascinating - do you know if any TV channel or program is going to have a show on this? Thanks!

John W. Hessler: Early mapmakers in the Renaissance were for the most part following Ptolemy...Ptolemy was a second century geographer who manuscripts where rediscovered in the 12th century and whose work was translated into Latin... the work contained detailed instructions on how to make maps and European geographers and cartographers followed his directions. The earliest printed version came out in 1472 and Waldseemuller himself produced a new edition of the work in 1513...

David Brown: How the maps of that era were made is both complicated and somewhat mysterious. It was much more than just sailing or walking along the coast and sketching or remembering the contours. There was compass work and celestial navigation and estimations of longitude by sailing time and dead-reckoning---lots of things that allowed cartographers to improve maps and charts in a small-step, iterative process.


Anonymous: Sirs: Any chance this is a forgery? What tests are done to verify age of paper, ink , etc.?

John W. Hessler: Not a forgery but there are interesting problems associated with the dating of the copy, the only surviving copy that is in the LOC. On the 1507 map itself there is a text block that is actually pasted onto the map. This text block, on which Waldsemuller tells us that this is a radical cartographic view of the world, is actually printed on a piece of re-cycled paper from a palm-reading manual. The earliest known edition of the manual dates from 1515. So you can see that almost everything about this map is an open historical question...

David Brown: This inserted text block is indeed an odd twist (which I didn't have room to get into in the news story). It suggests that the Library of Congress's map may have been printed after 1515 from the original blocks. Of course, it could also have been printed earlier, and had its original text block replaced by the one that is printed on the back of the palm-reading manual page. In either case, however, the information on the map conforms with information published in the Cosmographia Introductio, which is of 1507. So we can be confident the map goes back to that year, even if the actual imprint owned by the LOC is from somewhat later.


Washington, D.C.: What's the most likely explanation for his prediction? Stories from Indians? Cross-Panama trip or sailors who went around the southern tip, but whose records were lost to history? Pirates or privateers? Just a good guess? God told him?

John W. Hessler: The most likely explanation for the Pacific Ocean on Waldseemuller's Map and that of other cartographers of the period such as Johannes Schoner, who owned the Waldseemuller maps now in the LOC, is information that we no longer have. The best source for these theories is really the work of Peter Dickson that I discussed earlier. He has compiled a list of maps in his book that show the passage around South America before Magellan.


McLean, Va.: What happened to the original prints of the 1507 map? Were they destroyed - perhaps only the parts that depicted the west coast of South America? And who asked that they be destroyed or suppressed?

John W. Hessler: The date of the LOC version of the map has usually been set at 1515 by scholars. We do however know that there were earlier copies of the map than this in 1507. In a letter by a monk whose name is Trithemius, dated August 1507, he mentions that he was lately traveling through Strasbourg and that he purchased a large wall map and a small globe that show the new discoveries of the Spaniard Vespucci. This at least tells us that the 1507 map existed in 1507. Several later cartographers copied portions of the map in 1510 and 1512.

What happened to these original copies is unknown...

David Brown: I have to say, the notion that there is another copy, or a fragment of one, sitting on the shelf or pressed between the pages of a book someplace in Europe is part of what makes this mystery compelling. Of course, lots of stuff was destroyed in the various European wars since 1507, which is undoubtedly part of the explanation that other copies haven't turned up if in fact they ever existed. St. Die, where Waldseemuller and Ringmann lived, was extensively bombed twice during World War II. The Cathedral was hit and much of its library was destroyed.


Washington DC: On 1507 map it seems that Waldseemuller has taken an educated guess about the west side of South America. Previous maps showed an ocean to the east of Asia. Waldseemuller simply drew a series of straight lines to connect the unknown "ends" of the S. America coastline. Even if the 1507 map gets close to the right width in a few places (after warping), almost everything else is way off.

Polynomial warping demonstrates the ability to alter maps using computer processing, but how does it suggest that Waldseemuller had some kind of "secret" knowledge? Very interesting work! Thanks very much.

John W. Hessler: Polynomial Warping and other computer methods that I am using such as thin-plate splines certainly do not answer the questions... they are simply one more tool in the historians toolbox. All of these methods must be used with extreme care and with constant reference to the historical context of the problem.

In the case of the Waldseemuller map we are really looking at probabilities of what is the probability that one could draw a map that is to some degree accurate without any additional information. There are several other people who asked this question before me...again Peter Dickson in a talk at the LOC did some rough calculations on the continents width.

I am really trying to apply much more complex methods that have some statistical import to these problems. Mark Monmonier at Syracuse university has called my methods "geometrical mining"...


Ashburn, Va.: This was an intriguing, fascinating article. What was the role/contribution of the collaborator Mathias Ringmann? Was he an explorer who could have contributed to the knowledge in drawing the map?

John W. Hessler: Matthias Ringmann was a humanist and mathematician who studied in Paris and as far as we can tell was the "intellectual" brains behind the operation at St. Die. Ringmann knew Greek and was the person who worked with Waldseemuller on the collation of Greek manuscripts that were used in the making of the Waldseemuller's 1513 edition of Ptolemy. He appears to have extensive contacts with several well known humanists in Florence. He also invented a really interesting card game to learn Latin grammar by...he died in 1511 and disappears from history at this point...


Washington, D.C.: Yesterday I submitted a long comment stemming from the book "Westward before Columbus" by Kare Prytz. I understand from Prytz's book that Waldseemueller called his maps "The Admiral's Map," that is, Columbus's. Do we have any information as to what he may have known of "Inventio Fortunatae," which Columbus also possessed, or of other pre-Columbian maps? Places in America were often called islands, as in Ihla da Verz Cruz for what is now Brazil, so the concept of an ocean lying beyond is not as much of a puzzle as the possible accuracy of Waldseemueller's West Coast.

John W. Hessler: The admiral's map is a chart drawn in the Portolan style that is found in the 1513 Ptolemy. Portolan charts are navigational charts that are "unprojected" and contain compass headings to allow travel between ports. The Admirals's chart is interesting for a number of does mention Columbus there is also one copy that has the word America on it...


Alexandria, Va.: I was so excited to see this topic in yesterday's Post. If you will, a little on the more mundane aspects of the map - a magnificent thing which I've seen up close and in original as a Docent @ the LoC - can you give us details of the purchase by the LoC? Price, etc. Also, my understanding is that earlier and subsequent editions of the map did not include the now famous 'birth certificate' designation 'America'. True? Many thanks.

David Brown: A preliminary agreement to buy the map was made in 2001. The seller was the Prince Wolfegg-Waldberg. The sale was completed in 2003. The purchase price was $10 million, of which $5 million was provided by American taxpayers through a Congressional appropriation, and the other $5 million raised by private donations, with the Discovery Channel providing the largest contribution. The map underwent conservation and study until it was put on display in 2007. It is in a sealed, oxygen-free environment in a sealed case filled with argon gas with glass that protects it from UV radiation. This will allow it to be displayed more or less permanently.


Bowie, Md.: I really liked your article yesterday on the map mystery. I have created maps using a popular GIS program and one thing that I have taken away from the experience is that no map is 100% accurate. Up-to-date information is fluid, not static. We would all like for it to be static, but all maps do-- is tell us generalities.... what is generally on the ground at any particular time. Also, each map is created using a filter (political, use, scale, direction, etc.) So while I think it is terrific that you are exploring the factors that created these very old maps, I believe that what you have with Waldseemuler's map is a very rare map... a point in time. It may be the oldest found, but other people (Chinese, Nordic) were traveling on the oceans for millennia before the Europeans. The Europeans just took more precise notes and preserved these notes better. I only say this to emphasize that I agree with you that Waldseemuler was probably creating as accurate a map as he could and the information that he was using turned out to be very sensitive. He was probably then ordered to issue a new "corrected" (read "filtered") map that downplayed or removed the sensitive information on it. It would seem that information is golden no matter what time you live in.

John W. Hessler: The issue of the correction or the so-called "retraction" of the information regarding the Pacific Ocean on the 1516 map is controversial and one of the most hotly debated issues in scholarly circles. The large text block on the map that is talked about in David's article seems to imply a retraction but there is no way to be sure that this is true...we only have the textual information and our ability to makes sense of it...the text block contains many other things that we do not really understand. In the text Waldseemuller also mentions many personages that made journeys to the moguls in the 13th century and several others whose identities are lost to history...

As I said previously at every turn we face nothing but questions and very very few answers...


Freising, Germany: One of my first thoughts was that the date of this map might be incorrect. Was Carbon Dating used to verify the age of the map? Also, how many maps of this age are still in existence around the world?

John W. Hessler: There are really two dates to this map. One the information that it contains and the second the date of its actual printing. The information that it contains very much corresponds to the guidebook that Waldseemuller wrote to accompany the map called the Cosmographiae introduction. This was published in the 1507 in St, Die. The other date of the printing of the only surving copy of the map is another issue that many scholars including myself believe to be after 1515. There are quite a few maps of this age that do survive and at least 17 that show the passage around South America before Amgellan.

David Brown: There have been no destructive tests of the map. No carbon dating has been done, as there has been no question about its age. Carbon dating could not distinguish between something made in 1507 and something made in 1515.

There has been some "hyperspectral imaging" that involves taking digital photographs with wavelengths other than visual light and then using computer programs to produce unusual images, such as the reconstruction of the raised surface of the woodblock and type blocks. Some of these images are on Mr. Hessler's website,


Rockville, Md.: Will a book become available containing a reproduction of the map and its translation? I just bought the National Geographic's illustrated history of cartography and am delighted to see it includes the map -- though it is so small on a double-page spread.

John W. Hessler: The Library has plans to hold an international conference on the history of the map next May. The Conference is called Exploring Waldseemuller's World and will bring together a cross disciplinary group of historians, art historians of cartography, classicists and historians of science to really look closely for the first time at these problems that we have been discussing. After the conference we will publish a book of the conference and hopefully a facsimile.


David Brown: Whew! What a wild and interesting ride, which alas has come to an end. I want to thank John Hessler for generously giving us his time this morning. We are all looking forward to more of his work, and others', on this map and its makers. (Are there any Hollywood scriptwriters listening?)


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