WASHINGTON (Aug. 15, 2004)–Ever since National Geographic established a cartographic department in February 1915, its maps have told the story of the world, from the depths of the oceans to the heights of Everest, from the ends of the Earth to the far reaches of the universe.
The first chief cartographer was Albert H. Bumstead, under whose leadership the department produced its first map supplement, “Map of the Western Theater of War,” released with the May 1918 issue of National Geographic magazine. The Geographic Society of France pronounced it the best and most complete map of the Western Front available.
The Society’s tradition of timely map supplements published during periods of world crisis began in 1914, a year before its cartographic department was formed. That August, as World War l erupted, the Society released “Map of the New Balkan States and Central Europe,” commissioned by National Geographic magazine editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor, who had seen war looming.
Of the 30 map supplements the Society published between 1939 and 1945, well over half related to the geography of World War ll. More than 37 million maps were distributed to Society members and Allied forces during the course of the conflict. The New York Times praised the Society for accomplishing “probably the most ambitious cartographical undertaking on record…”
“Germany and Its Approaches,” a map supplement released with the July 1944 issue of National Geographic magazine, was used not only by troops in the field but also by General Dwight Eisenhower, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It became the official U.S. map showing the proposed occupation zones of Germany.
A month into the Gulf War, the Society released its “Map of the Middle East” with the February 1991 National Geographic magazine. Fifty thousand copies were donated to U.S. military units throughout the Persian Gulf. In 2001 the Maps division produced a supplement map of Afghanistan less than seven weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
Many other areas of the world have come under National Geographic’s cartographic scrutiny. From 1967 to 1981 the Society published an important series of maps of the ocean floors that revealed abyssal plains fractured by vast mountain chains. The “Map of the Moon” in February 1969 was the first to show the entire lunar surface on a single sheet. The 1978 award-winning “Heart of the Grand Canyon” was compiled with the Boston Museum of Science and noted cartographer Bradford Washburn, who likened it to “mapping a mountain upside down.” Working again with Washburn and the Boston Museum of Science in 1988, the Society released the most detailed and accurate map of Mount Everest.
The cartographic department has been responsible for several exciting technological innovations. In 1926 Richard Byrd became the first to fly over the North Pole, thanks in part to a sun compass designed by Albert Bumstead. In 1933 Bumstead invented the Bumstead Photocomposing Machine, which reproduced hand-lettered map type photographically and allowed the Society’s distinctive typefaces to be applied to its supplements.
In 1946 staff cartographer Wellman Chamberlin devised the Chamberlin Trimetric Projection, which enabled entire continents to be mapped with less distortion than previous projections. In 1957 the cartographic division contributed to the early space program by inventing handheld satellite-tracking devices able to pinpoint a moving satellite against the night sky.
The first National Geographic globe was released in 1961, with a transparent “Geometer” overlay, allowing users to trace satellite orbits and solve geographical and navigational problems.
Two years later the first edition of “National Geographic Atlas of the World” was published. The eighth edition debuts in October 2004, marking nine decades of mapmaking at the Society.
Launched in 1999, National Geographic’s MapMachine is one of the most innovative and complete online cartographic resources.
Today National Geographic Maps employs 60 full-time cartographers who produce four map supplements and about 100 page maps a year for National Geographic magazine as well as maps for other Society media. NG Maps also produces Trails Illustrated maps, TOPO! digital maps, globes, wall maps, reference maps, state maps, city and recreational destination maps, and atlases.