Maps — Frank Jacobs on the Fascination of Cartography

Maps — Frank Jacobs on the Fascination of Cartography

Market Island, in between (and in fact exactly on the border of) Sweden and Finland. The original border was a straight line, but because the lighthouse was built on the wrong side of the border, they had to shuffle it around until it looked like it does now.

Frank Jacobs is fascinated by maps. His blog, Strange Maps, is an atlas of sorts, recounting both real and fictional maps. This London-based cartophile has gained quite a following for his take on maps of all kinds. A blog post featuring the “US States Renamed For Countries With Similar GDPs” map has been viewed more than 587,000 times. To wrap our look into the world of maps, we asked Frank a few questions about his love for discovery.

What is it about cartography that attracts you?

It’s pretty hard to define exactly what it is that attracts me to maps, and I’m not all that keen to find out. I suspect and fear that to know exactly why something fascinates you might be the death of the fascination itself. But I can tell you a bit about how that fascination started. As a child, I loved reading, but I preferred atlases to ‘proper’ books: the maps in those atlases proved to be better canvases for my imagination than the stories in children’s books. I loved tracing coastlines and mountain ranges, national borders, roads and railroads with my finger, while thinking on what it could be like to be there, and how I would get from A to B via jungle or desert.

I’ve always found cartophilia to be a lonely affliction. Nobody else I knew as a kid was ‘into maps’. But in corresponding with readers of my blog, I’ve found out that many people share this experience: a lonely, nerdish fascination with maps (including the learning by heart of all the world’s countries, capitals, etc.)

How far would you say your obsession with maps goes?

Pretty far. I’ll cycle all across town (London, in my case) to go see an exhibition just because it has something to do with maps. On holiday, my long-suffering girlfriend and I will make huge detours to go check out a place that looks cool or weird on a map. Two years ago, we (or rather: I) made an effort to visit Point Roberts, an American exclave in Canada. Look it up. You’ll immediately see why I think it’s special. As it turns out, there’s not that much to see in Point Roberts. But that is not the, ahem, point.

Maps — Frank Jacobs on the Fascination of Cartography

Frank Jacobs' map "US States Renamed For Countries With Similar GDPs" has been viewed more than 587,000 times. Photo:

What is something most people don’t know about maps?

What most people don’t know, is that all maps are liars! We all know the Earth is round, and that maps are flat. But few of us realise the consequences of this: a two-dimensional map can not truthfully represent a three-dimensional reality. Ever. If you take a world map in the Mercator projection, you’ll notice that Greenland and Africa look almost the same size. But in reality, Africa is 14 times as big as Greenland! Some cartographers have tried to resolve this by inventing projections that offset some of Mercator’s grossest distortions. But even the so-called Peters projection, which shows a larger Africa and a smaller Europe, is still wrong. Greenland may be shown in truer proportion to Africa, but it is severely misshapen…

What is the most meaningful map in your collection?

That’s a difficult question! The maps on my blog are ‘marginal’ by choice: they’re the ones left out of your ordinary, run of the mill school atlas. So they might not be the most relevant to world history. But sometimes they do make a point better than any history book can. Take the Minard map – sometimes called the best statistical map ever: it shows how disastrous Napoleon’s Russian campaign was, simply by the contrast of the big, fat arrow (representing the number of soldiers) going into Russia, and the incredibly thin trickle coming out again.

Another one of my favorites is the map of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moonwalk: superimposing their walkabout on a baseball diamond shows how little they ventured from their landing craft. Which says something about the precariousness of their predicament: NASA’s main goal was not to explore, but to get them on the Moon and back again alive, which meant as quickly as possible. A third example is a map of the United States with the name of each state replaced with that of a country with a GDP similar to that state. It brings into focus what a gigantic economic powerhouse the US (still) is. There are many more examples – I can’t choose, as you have noticed – of meaningful maps, but what each has in common, is that they shed a different and revealing light on our perception of the world. Or the Moon.

Thanks Frank!

  • Christina Ward

    I love maps too. And the wonderful (and defunct) magazine WigWag (1988-1991) had a monthly feature of  Personal Maps. The end sheet was a beautifully rendered map of that makers life. They were incredible and wish that someone would steal and resurrect that very good idea. 

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