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"Phantom Atlas" book explores legendary inaccuracies in the history of maps

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Courtesy of Edward Brooke-Hitching

Take Two's A Martinez speaks with Edward Brooke-Hitching, author of "The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps"

There was a time when if you needed to go somewhere you weren't familiar with, you had to look at a map. In the today's digital age, where we are accustomed to the convenience of a GPS, it's easy to forget the importance of paper maps. 

For the most part, maps were accurate but throughout history, mapmakers took some pretty amazing liberties with geography. A new book, "The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps" explores the errors, imaginings, and downright dishonest moments in the history of map making. 

Take Two's A Martinez spoke with the book's author, Edward Brooke-Hitching. 


How maps were historically created

Every line you see on an antique map is an adventure that someone took. It's information that a sailor or an explorer or a gold hunter headed out into the darkness and this unknown to try and track down— this little bit of information— and start to fill in the blanks on the maps. The cartographers, mainly of Europe, that we study in the book, would collect scraps of information brought back from these sailors who would also bring back a huge amount of rumors and mythology and theories of their own. And they'd try and piece together what was real and what was perhaps, slightly hysterical and imaginative. 

The blunder of mapping California 

When it was first drawn by the Spanish, they drew it correctly. Then something really bizarre happened in 1600, where a Spanish priest, Antonio de la Ascensión, was on a journey up the coast. For some reason, he recorded this peninsula as being divided by something he called the Sea of California. But his ship was hijacked by the Dutch as so often the way that the greatest treasures that pirates might steal, it wasn't just jewels, it was information. It was these maps and data. And his mistake was copied. It was taken as gospel truth and it was reproduced. At least for 150 years, everyone thought that California was an island drifting freely from North America. Even to the extent that the king of Spain in 1747 had to issue a national proclamation to clear it up which specifically said, California is not an island. 

To hear the full interview, click on the Blue Arrow above. 

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