27 Facts About Maps


On this episode, map nerd John Green shares a few things you might not know about maps.

Don't miss an episode—subscribe here!

(Images and footage provided by our friends at Shutterstock. This transcript comes courtesy of Nerdfighteria Wiki.)

Hi, I'm John Green, welcome to my salon, this is mental_floss on YouTube, and did you know that I am not just the host of mental_floss videos? I'm also many other things. For instance, I'm a father and a husband and the host of CrashCourse, Vlogbrothers' channel on the YouTubes, but my real job is novelist, and the movie adaptation of my book, Paper Towns, comes out on July 24 in the U.S., and to celebrate, we're gonna do an episode all about maps, because I am a huge map nerd.

1. The term Paper Towns, from which the book and movie get their title, refers to a specific type of copyright trap used by cartographers. Maps get plagiarized a lot, you know, because no matter who's mapping it, the state of New York looks pretty much the same, so cartographers often put fake towns or fake streets on their maps. That way, they can identify ones that have been copied from theirs. A famous example of this, at least to massive nerds like me, is the town of Agloe, New York. In the 1930s, two men named Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers put the paper town of Agloe, mixing up their initials, onto their road map. They situated the town near the Catskill Mountains in New York, and eventually, the company Rand McNally put Agloe on one of their maps, so Lindberg and Alpers were delighted and immediately accused them of plagiarism and threatened to sue. But it turned out someone had seen Agloe on the original map and actually built a general store in that spot, meaning that the paper town had turned into a real one. That transformation of the imagined into reality is of great interest to me, and it's the first of many facts about maps that I am going to share with you today

2. The towns of Beatosu and Goblu, Ohio, are also examples of paper towns, although they weren't necessarily copyright traps. The two towns appeared on a couple official state highway commission maps of Michigan in the late 1970s. They were actually put on the maps by the commissioner at the time, who was a University of Michigan fan. Goblu was a reference to a common Michigan chant, Go Blue, and Beatosu referred to Michigan's rival, Beat Ohio State University, or OSU.

3. Google has also created at least one paper town, Argleton, England. In 2008, it was discovered on Google Maps and Google Earth, but the location wasn't a town, it's just empty land. People were intrigued, and someone even registered the domain argleton.com and wrote, "What the hell are they talking about? We, the good citizens of Argleton, do exist. Here we are now!" Argleton has since disappeared and Google never actually admitted that it was a copyright trap. A spokesperson for the company said, "While the vast majority of this information is correct, there are occasional errors. We're constantly working to improve the quality and accuracy of the information available in Google Maps." You know, by making places up.

4. Let's back up to pre-Google times and talk a little bit about the history of maps.They've existed since the days of cave paintings. In the French caves of Lascaux, there's a map of stars that's believed to be 16,500 years old.

5. And if you think that ancient maps were nothing like our maps, you should really take a look at the Turn Papyrus Map, which was a map of Egypt created around 1160 BCE. It's widely considered the first road map, because it actually shows where people could travel around river bends.

6. And by the 12th century CE, maps had developed into what experts consider "modern maps." The first printed one is in an encyclopedia called Rudimentum Novitiorum. By the way, that map these days is worth around $829,000, so hold on to your old atlases.

7. Another interesting thing about maps is that they always have different projections, because the Earth is round and maps are flat, so there's no such thing as a perfectly accurate map of the world. It needs to be distorted, at least a little. So the projection of a map will change, usually depending on its purpose.

8. The world we're most familiar with is the Mercator projection, which was invented in the mid 16th century by a cartographer named Gerardus Mercator. I wish just once they would name their maps after themselves. This is my new Mercator projection. I named it after my cousin, Kathy Mercator. She's had a tough month, I wanted to make her happy. No, it's always yourself, Gerardus Mercator, it's always yourself. Not everything is about you, man. Sorry, did I get off topic here at all? You might be able to notice that I'm a little bit biased against the Mercator projection. Anyway, we see it in classrooms a lot, but in fact, the Mercator projection is best for marine use. Basically, if you set sail from a coastline and head in a straight direction, this map shows you exactly where you'll end up, and it displays latitude and longitude as right angles, which is helpful if you're sailing.

9. The Mercator projection has its shortcomings, though. It's an accurate map of direction, which means that land area and distance are often distorted, like, it shows North America and Europe as way bigger than they actually are, which is probably also a product of Eurocentrism. And in Mercator projection maps, Greenland and Africa usually look about the same size, even though in fact, Africa is about 14 times larger.

10. So if you're not a sailor and you're interested in a map that like, better represents actual land area, look into the Dymaxion, or Fuller, map. Noted AFC Wimbledon Wimbly-Wombly player Buckminster Fuller invented this map, which was published in Life Magazine in 1943. Fuller put the world map onto an icosahedron, which is a 20-sided polygon for those of you who don't remember geometry and/or don't play Dungeons & Dragons, and then he flattened out the icosahedron so it looks like this. It is a cool map.

11. Or if you're an Aaron Sorkin character, maybe you'd prefer this Peters Projection, which looks a little bit more like the Mercator projection, but attempts to display continent area more accurately. This one was invented in the 1970s by a German man named Arno Gusterson, no, I'm just kidding, of course his name was Arno Peters. Duh. Cartographers. Such narcissists.

12. All of this map projection talk makes it sound like the West was in sole control of how we view the world, but in fact, the first known map putting North at the top and South at the bottom is from Korea. It's known as the Kangnido map, and it was created in 1402 by an astronomer named Kwon Kun. The experts believe that North was at the top because in Korea, looking North was associated with looking at the emperor.

13. But let's return to the cartographers and their names. You may know that America was named after a cartographer, Amerigo Vespucci. Interestingly, Vespucci was cousins with a woman named Simonetta, who's believed to have been one of Sandro Botticelli's muses.

14. Speaking of America, Yale University recently used multispectral image technology to decipher a faded map from 1491. It was believed that Columbus studied this map before heading to America. Their research supports that notion. Japan appears in a unique spot on the map, and in 1492, Columbus was actually looking for Japan in that spot, which is what caused him to hit the New World.

15. Jigsaw puzzles were invented in the late 18th century to be used in geography classes. Originally, they were only maps. You know, it was like early Minecraft.

16. The fictional city of El Dorado was believed to be real for centuries, and it's been found on maps from as late as 1808.

17. In the mid-19th century, there was a cholera outbreak in London, and a man named John Snow—not the illegitimate son of Ned Stark, a different one—made a map of cholera cases and was able to determine a specific public water pump that was to blame. After doing this, he gets a lot of credit for halting that spread of cholera, and of course, for halting the spread of cholera ever since.

18. Map censorship is a common historic practice that you also see today. For instance, you won't find military bases on many maps, and in the U.S., nuclear waste dumps often don't appear on the geological survey maps, which experts believe is just out of sheer embarrassment.

19. In 1891, a group of countries created the International Map of the World Initiative, to make a worldwide standard series of maps, and this initiative went on until the 1980s, thanks to interruptions by things like Great Depressions and World Wars, and then eventually, it was forgotten. Which is too bad for cartography nerds like me who really value standardization, but I guess I can understand the world being like, uhh, maybe we should focus on other stuff like cholera.

20. During World War II, the Bicycle Playing Card company helped out America and Britain by creating a deck of cards that contained cards with multiple layers. If a soldier was being held prisoner, they could soak a card in water, which would reveal a map to help them escape. Our California Raisin's been trying to escape the wall forever, but unfortunately, he can't figure out how to open up the cards.

21. Starting in the 1930s, maps were given out for free in American gas stations. It's estimated that 8 billion were given out to travelers.

22. If you find one of those maps, just looking at it will probably tell you when it was made, like, during the war, the maps would probably have messages about how driving slowly helps to protect tires, an important resource being rubber.

23. But now, of course, we mostly don't get our maps on paper. As of 2012, Google Maps Street View had covered about 5 million miles of road.

24. And to get images of difficult terrain, they sometimes attach a camera to a trolley or a snowmobile or a tricycle or even a camel.

25. But there are still paper maps. Currently, the world's largest atlas is the Earth Platinum, a book published in 2012. At over 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide, it weighs about 440 lbs. Also, there are only 31 copies available, so if you wanna buy one, prepare to spend about $100,000 or, you know, just use Google Maps, which, after all, weighs nothing. Does it technically weigh nothing? I'm not sure, I'm not a scientist, I'm just an amateur cartography enthusiast.

26. Back to maps. In 2012, China put a map on its passports, which ended up causing problems, because it included multiple disputed territories, including all of Taiwan and islands that are disputed with India. When people with the passport arrived in India, they would get a new version of the map stamped on their passports.

27. And finally, I return to my salon to tell you about Sandy Island. It had been on maps for centuries, right off the coast of Australia, and it was believed that Captain James Cook discovered the island, which was usually drawn as a little bit bigger than Manhattan. It was such a well-known place that it even appeared on Google Earth, but in 2012, a group of marine scientists tried to go to Sandy Island and discovered that, in fact, it does not exist. Thus proving that no matter how technologically advanced we think we are, maps still aren't perfect.

Thanks for watching mental_floss here on YouTube, which is made with the help of all of these nice people. Again, the movie adaptation of my book, Paper Towns, comes out on July 24 for all of you cartography nerds, and also for people who aren't cartography nerds, it's for everybody. If you wanna go to a special screening the night before with lots of special stuff, you can go to nightonthetowns.com. Thanks again for watching, and as we say in my hometown, don't forget to be awesome.