With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

World War II Led to a Revolution in Cartography. These Amazing Maps Are Its Legacy.


Image -- David Rumsey

More Americans came into contact with maps during World War II than in any previous moment in American history. From the elaborate and innovative inserts in the National Geographic to the schematic and tactical pictures in newspapers, maps were everywhere. On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and by the end of the day a map of Europe could not be bought anywhere in the United States. In fact, Rand McNally reported selling more maps and atlases of the European theaters in the first two weeks of September than in all the years since the armistice of 1918. Two years later, the attack on Pearl Harbor again sparked a demand for maps. Two of the largest commercial mapmakers reported their largest sales to date in 1941, and by early 1942 Newsweek had named Washington, D.C. "a city of maps," one where "it is now considered a faux pas to be caught without your Pacific arena."

War has perennially driven interest in geography, but World War II was different. The urgency of the war, coupled with the advent of aviation, fueled the demand not just for more but different maps, particularly ones that could explain why President Roosevelt was stationing troops in Iceland, or sending fleets to the Indian Ocean. Americans had been reared on the Mercator map of the world, a sixteenth-century projection designed for navigation but which created immense distortions at the far northern and southern latitudes.

Indeed, Americans had become so used to seeing the world mapped on the Mercator projection that any other method met with resistance, both in classrooms and living rooms. But as aviation displaced sea navigation in the twentieth century, Americans were sorely in need of maps that conveyed the new realities of distance and direction in the air age.

The most important innovator to step into this breach was actually not a cartographer at all, but an artist. Beginning in the late 1930s, Richard Edes Harrison drew a series of elegant and gripping images of a world at war, and in the process persuaded the public that aviation and war really had fundamentally disrupted the nature of geography...

Harrison's most notable legacy was a series of colorful and sometimes disorienting pictures (not quite maps) that emphasized relationships between cities, nations, and continents at the heart of the war. These maps were published in Fortune, then issued in an atlas that became an instant bestseller in 1944... 

Read entire article at The New Republic