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Ptolemy's World

Biography of the Mapmaker

Place in History

Why is Ptolemy considered one of the giants in European geographic thought?

Ptolemy advocated mapping the earth using a geographic coordinate system. In the words of Peter Whitfield, "The rationalizing power of this concept cannot be overemphasized: it is one of the cornerstones of geographical practice, and it was Ptolemy’s discovery" (Whitfield 1994, 10). Whitfield further demonstrates that for method, the fifteenth century revival of Ptolemy was a positive force, while in terms of information it was a step backward, being a world view of a far earlier period. "It is one of the great ironies of map history that after centuries of neglect, the Ptolemaic map should have been rediscovered at the very moment when contemporary events would reveal its limitations" (Whitfield 1994, 10).

Lloyd A. Brown, in his classic, The Story of Maps (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1979; first edition 1949) put it thus: "Between 1440 and 1500 A.D., three of the most important events in modern history occurred. Printing by means of movable types was introduced to European civilization; Ptolemy’s Geographia was multiplied by the printing process; the New World was discovered by Christopher Columbus" (Brown 1979, 150). To Brown, who was a noted historian of mapmaking and maps, Ptolemy ranks very highly indeed! But Brown also wrote: "The Geographia was both a keystone and a millstone, a pioneering effort that outlived its usefulness" (Brown 1979, 74). This is the twofold estimation of Ptolemy that persists today.

Mapmakers stood on Ptolemy’s shoulders long after the maps made using his information were obsolete. His principles, however, continue to retain their value for mapmakers, from his time to the present.