From Gutenberg to Google: Reflections on the printed paper map in the era of Web-published maps

Italian Journal, Rome-New York


From Gutenberg to Google: Reflections on the printed paper map in the era of Web-published maps


School of Mathematical and Geospatial Sciences, RMIT University, Australia


Maps as communicators of discoveries

In a series of articles in 1999 in the Australian Good Weekend the best of everything from the last millenium was covered. ‘Top of the list’ was the humble threaded screw, which, according to journalist Witold Rybczynski (1999) changed the world. He expounded that “Without screws, entire fields of science would have languished, navigation would have languished, navigation would have remained primitive and naval warfare as well as routine maritime commerce in the 18th and 19th centuries would have not been possible. Without screws, there would have been no machine tools, hence no industrial products and no Industrial Revolution” (op cit., p. 33). Included in the series of articles and included in the ‘best of the last 1000 years was the map. Battista Agnese’s paper map of the world, produced in Venice in the mid-16th Century was described by Johnson (1999, p. 26) as something more than a beautiful and precise document, but also “a topography of the European mind in transition”. The map illustrated the new information gleaned from voyages of discovery by Columbus and Magellan, and was able to depict it more accurately due to the application of new scientific and mathematical advances and to make it more widely available with new tools provided by the newly available technologies. It was an illustration of human endeavour and revolutions in knowledge acquisition and depiction.

Historically, maps have been used to provide information to users about places recently discovered or voyages completed to unknown worlds or hitherto seemingly impossible journeys.  Maps were believed by Ptolemy, to be the means to “exhibit to human understanding … the earth through a portrait” (Crane, 2003, p. 33). These precise scientific documents provide the tools for exploration and discovery, accurate tools of warfare, records of new lands and settlements, depictions of communications and national development and artefacts for tourists and conveyances for armchair travellers. They are useful, accurate and powerful information provision tools.

From the first Century and the production of Ptolemy’s Geography, a collection of maps and a treatise on mapping practices, and the establishment of the great library at Alexandria, mapping standards, and the manner in which they were produced declined. During this era maps of the world were produced by hand.

However, the application of science to cartography changed the methodology of gathering map information and making replications of manuscripts.. For example, Phillip II who reigned at the height of Spanish power (late sixteenth Century) deemed the production of accurate charts and topographic maps to be important to the proper running of his domain and to support his war machine. In 1566 he sponsored the mathematician Pedro de Esquivel to make the first detailed map of Spain (Berthon and Robinson, 1991) and he established an academy to develop cartography as a scientific discipline. With this scientific advance, maps were more accurate, but mistakes and omissions resulting from copying by hand made confidence in duplicates somewhat low. A method for making exact copies and making them more quickly and as precise as the original was needed.  Printing provided the means to do this.

The rules that govern map design, production and consumption evolved over centuries, and the methods of producing maps via the printing press have been established by over 500 years of experiment and development.  These paper maps are generally what one envisages when we think of maps.  However, relatively recently mapping, and map publishing has been changed with the application of computer and communications technologies.

Computers and cartography

With the ‘invention’ of the computer everything changed in the scientific world, including cartography. The mapping industry first used computers to facilitate computations related to surveying and map projections, then to guide drawing instruments as CAD systems or as DeskTop Publishing (DTP).  Digital mapping and access to large databases first made innovative products available to the general public.  Before the arrival of inexpensive storage capacity and powerful computers such packages were limited to fairly modest presentations of vector-based displays of geographical information.  However, the application of computer power to what could be seen as consumer mapping products changed the way in which information could be provided forever.  Once bitten (and smitten) by the ability to interrogate databases that covered cities, regions, and even countries, users embraced geographical information packages as a means to get access to current comprehensive information and data.

Mapping with computers ranges from large electronic purpose-built systems housed in a map production company to individual desktop map producers. Individual cartographers are able to produce maps as sophisticated as their corporate counterparts. Equipped with a powerful microcomputer plus a scanner, plotter/printer and modem the individual becomes part of the distributed digital electronic mapping community.  Maps are still produced using a printing press, electronic printer or plotter, regardless of their actual method of production.

Multimedia and cartography

Multimedia mapping changed the genre of the communication of geographical information. What has been called the first multimedia mapping project was the Aspen Movie Map Project, devised and undertaken by the MIT Architecture Machine Group in 1978. This groundbreaking package used videodiscs, controlled by computers, to allow the user to ‘drive’ down corridors or streets of Aspen, Colorado. Video laserdiscs became a standardised product through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The first widely popular mapping application on videodisc was the Domesday project, the innovative multimedia ‘picture’ of Britain in the 1980s, jointly produced by the British Broadcasting Commission, Acorn Computers and Philips to commemorate the 900th anniversary of William the Conqueror’s tally book.

Quickly following the introduction of the CD-ROM it replaced simple digital mapping and videodisc mapping (which suffered greatly from the need for users to have what was then expensive hardware required to ‘play’ multimedia videodisc packages).  The advantages of large storage and the ability to include elaborate renderings, complex imagery, digital video and databases assured its success in many application areas, including mapping and education.  Early products like encyclopedias and atlases used scanned images to provide ‘collections’ of maps and information resources, but it was not until the medium ‘matured’ that real interactivity was added to products.

By the mid to late 1990s the Internet, and more particularly the use of the World Wide Web, became the focus of map delivery.  Discrete media (CD-ROM etc.) was pushed aside somewhat in the move towards the communication system that changed forever how we access information, including geoinformation.

Mapping and the Web

The Internet again changed how maps were distributed and used and its potential to improve the quality of maps as a form of communication.  Mapping applications using the Internet and, more particularly, the World Wide Web could be built around multimedia/hypermedia maps or interactive/clickable maps. Just as cartographers changed the way in which maps were produced and distributed when the printing press was used for the reproduction of their products, so as to ensure that the maps ‘worked’ in the new communication environment, albeit one that then had to include the printer and the restrictions of paper sizes, platemaking processes and paper/ink design guidelines, they now have, quite rapidly, metamorphosed established (digital mapping) practices to utilise what the Web offers – efficient delivery to users that now expect ‘maps-on-demand’.

Maps being made available via the Web range from simple (!) collections of images made through scanning existing paper maps, data files that can be downloaded to a client’s computer and then re-drawn locally, information services that include maps, Web atlases, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) on-line that enables users to log into databases maintained by spatial information resource providers, and multimedia mapping packages that work as well on-line as similar products. Many mapping and GIS sites have been and continue to be developed by both public authority and private agency alike.  GIS vendors have developed server software for their once discrete products.

Citizen cartography

Recently there has been another paradigm shift, this time leveraging on the powerful possibilities of Web 2.0, social software and relatively inexpensive consumer electronics-delivered tools that can be geo-enabled, mobile and incorporating media capture and generating tools. Web 2.0 is the use of the Web by individuals and groups of individuals to provide and share information, including geographical information.  It provides a new model for collaborating and publishing.  This has meant that the consumer can now be the data collector and map producer as well.

Maps can now be published on the Web by user/producers using a process called ‘mash-ups’ with Web 2.0 and Social Software. Users are able to develop their own ‘marked-up’ maps by appending their overlay information as an additional layer of information, usually using the default symbology provided (and usually map pins are employed), to self-publish their maps via the Web. In a mash-up mapping world, maps generated and published via the Web are, in many cases, produced atop of Bing®, Google Maps®, OpenStreetmap et al. and , therefore, are  ‘pre-designed’.  By that, what is meant is that each map is similar, the same, ersatz maps substituting for unique, well-designed and focussed products.  They are somewhat different from maps produced pre-Internet that provided a unique design solution for representing geography.

This has been given many names, including ‘Neocartography’. One example of this type of maping is the world map, developed by Paul Butler, a Facebook intern.  Butler developed a self-generated map package using data from the social network site.  It show the connections between ‘friends’ and, in so doing, a map of the world (via Facebook connected friends’s vectors) was generated.  About the results he said …”Not only were continents visible, certain international borders were apparent as well”.  The visualisation illustrates the lack of presence in central Africa and China.  (BBC News, 2010).  This particular map had no designer/cartographer input whatsoever, but it was generated automatically from Facebook connections data.  Butler’s visualisation is shown in Figure 2.


We have traditionally used maps to provide information about space, which depict three, four and n-dimensional data. Rules for production and use have evolved and producers and users have mastered these rules to develop and publish product and to exploit the information resource. We have fashioned a design, development, fabrication and consumption process (and associated procedures) that have enabled essential artifacts to be made available and for them to be used effectively and efficiently.

Maps were once published on paper, but now map publishing requires the utilisation of contemporary software and communication systems. In the early days of computer-aided mapping users were required to have access to sophisticated and powerful computer equipment and peripherals to effectively use such offerings. Now, with the advent of freely available software via the open source community, powerful hardware and relatively inexpensive Internet access, map compilation and both professional and amateur cartographer alike can undertake publishing. Maps are being provided by traditional map publishers and produced as mash-ups by amateur producer-users, who produce their maps using data from both traditional and non-traditional sources or they place their personal geographical information ‘atop’ of base maps or imagery from on-line resources.  Maps and map-related objects abound and they are being applied to a multitude of uses – professional and personal, and a hybrid mix of both.


BBC News, 2010. “Facebook connections map the world”,  Web site accessed 16 December 2010.

Berthon, S. and Robinson, A., 1991, The Shape of the World, Chicago: Rand McNally

Crane, N., 2003, “Changing our view of the world”, Geographical, The Royal Geographical Society, April 2003, pp. 33 – 37.

Johnson, C., 1999, “New Ways of Seeing”, The Age Good Weekend Magazine, September 18, p. 26.

Rybczynski, W., 1999, “One Good Turn”, The Age Good Weekend Magazine, September 18, p. 33.


About the Author


wec photoWilliam Cartwright is Professor of Cartography and Geographical Visualization in the School of Mathematical and Geospatial Sciences at RMIT University, Australia. He joined the University after spending a number of years in both the government and private sectors of the mapping industry. He is Chair of the Joint Board of geospatial Information Societies and Immediate Past-President of the International Cartographic Association. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Fellow of the British Cartographic Society, an Honorary Fellow of the Mapping Sciences Institute Australia and an Honorary Fellow of the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute.   He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Melbourne and a Doctor of Education from RMIT University.  He has six other university qualifications – in the fields of cartography, applied science, education, media studies, information and communication technology and graphic design. He is the author of over 300 academic papers. His major research interest is the application of integrated media to cartography and the exploration of different metaphorical approaches to the depiction of geographical information.