How has map reading changed since the 1600s?

James Cortwada has a post on one of this blog’s favorite activities –  reading and figuring maps.

Literacy in the United States was never always just about reading, writing, and arithmetic. Remember in the 1980s and 1990s the angst about children becoming “computer literate”? The history of literacy is largely about various types of skills one had to learn depending on the era in which they lived. Some kept their name, but changed in substance. Map literacy is one of those.

When colonists began occupying the North American continent in the 1600s, it soon proved essential to know how to draw a map, such as of the boundaries of one’s farm or town, and to be able to read a map. When Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the first thing he did after recovering from sticker shock—the deal had cost 50% more than the annual budget for the entire federal government—was to immediately send a team of soldiers and scouts to map what he had just purchased. His Louis and Clark Expedition developed some of the initial maps of the continent from Virginia to the Pacific Ocean. For the rest of the 1800s when it was not fighting wars or Indians, the US Army mapped in detail the United States.

When the National Park System was developed in the late 1800s and expanded across all of the twentieth century, the Army and park personnel developed the maps we use today when hiking in these areas, including the wilderness that has no roads. After satellites were launched into space, the American government continued to map the United States, beginning in the 1960s.

One of the subjects children learned in school was how to read a map, almost from the 1600s on. By the dawn of the twentieth century, it was common for classrooms at all grades to have a map of the United States hanging on the wall. By the 1940s, children were learning how to draw, recognize, and read maps of their towns and states. One of the core skills taught to all boy scouts, girl scouts, and other children’s national organizations was how to read a map.

Has the digital world made maps irrelevant? Thankfully no:

Speaking of GPS—Global Positioning System—it was developed in the United States and launched in 1973. In effect, it is like a digital map that can pinpoint the location of people and things within inches. Satellites using GPS are used to create specialized maps, such as those of the bottom of an ocean, the height of mountains, and changing sea levels, among others. Storms and other weather conditions have been imposed on maps since the 1860s in North America and Western Europe. GPS has made mapping the most precise it has been in human history, automated by satellites, computers, and (increasingly) drones.

Like other types of literacy, the need for map literacy has not gone away. It just keeps changing. Why? Our dependence on map information is greater today than at any time in human history. So, the next time you go on vacation, don’t forget to bring along a map, as you will probably need it.

Figuring places via maps is such a fun thing to do. This is something we need to learn and implement in Indian cities and tourist places. We just don’t have a map culture at all.


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