Friday, April 23, 2010

History Channel - The Map Makers

A map is more than a geographical representation of a land. It is an image which mirrors a society's political, religious and cultural vision of itself. The Map Makers tells the story of maps through history and explores major developments in map making.

Episode One: The Waldseemüller Map 1507

The first episode in the series of The Map Makers is a story of a map which changed the way man viewed the World. It is the tale of a ten million dollar map which has become known as the 'birth certificate of America.' Within the lines marked on its surface can be traced the first discoveries of the 'new world', by sixteenth century explorers such as Columbus, and Amerigo Vespucci. But why were the new lands called America, and who were the men who first named the new continent on the famous Waldseemüller map? The intriguing history behind the map is revealed.

This map was the first to include not just a representation of the New World as a continent, but also named it as America. The programme looks at the nature of map- making of the early 16th century and the use of maps for navigation. It is suggested that Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the new continent was made, may have commissioned the map. This episode also details the eighty-year effort by the US to buy the map from the German aristocratic family that owned it.

Episode Two: The Mercator Atlas

The second episode uncovers the shadowy world of espionage in 16th Century Europe, a time when map making and spying went hand in hand. It features Gerard Mercator, the most famous map maker to have lived, who became caught up in a dangerous plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I using an invasion map ordered by England's enemies, the French. It is a story of intrigue, treason and religious turmoil, with map makers at the heart of the struggle for power in Europe. Information was power in European royal courts, and fragile maps were the key.

This episode looks at the map of England created by the famous Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator in the 16th century. This map was only rediscovered in a shop in Holland in 1967, and modern map historians consider that the map was made in preparation for an invasion of England by France which never came. The programme looks at the map-making of Henry VIII and the intrigues involving spies, including the Scotsman John Elder, on whose information the Mercator map seems to have been based. This episode seems to me to be the most stretched and padded out of the series, with some material included that is only peripheral (such as the tale of the American map thief), and could easily have been confined to a half-hour running time.

Episode Three: The D-Day Invasion Maps

In order to invade France, the Allies needed detailed maps of the coastline. Such maps did not exist, so they had to be created. This involved not only aerial reconnaissance but also dangerous work on the ground by Resistance workers. The level of detail required was extraordinary, so the preparation of these maps was one of the great intelligence feats of modern times.

The last episode in The Map Makers focuses on a time in history when thousands of men and women risked their lives to create a set of top secret invasion maps during World War II. Allied service men and woman worked alongside French Resistance members in covert operations to create a 'living map' of the Normandy coast. The resulting invasion maps were the most extensive ever to have been created, combining aerial photography and intelligence information. The invasion maps were critical to the success of the D-Day landings, and ultimately the defeat of Hitler's regime.

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