Amid frenzy over map apps, new focus on 16th century world view

Sat May 18, 2013 4:43am EDT
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By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As online titans compete to deliver instant maps to smartphones, the Library of Congress in Washington is focusing attention on an antique "cosmology" printed in 1507 that serves as America's birth certificate.

The black-and-white map created by Martin Waldseemuller, a French cleric, was the first time the name America had appeared on any map.

Waldseemuller was prescient enough to show the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean at a time when no one else in Europe thought they were there.

The map, purchased a decade ago at a cost of $10 million, is the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Library of Congress running through June 22 that features a collection of artifacts from Waldseemuller and his colleagues.

It includes later maps that lose faith in Waldseemuller's vision of America. In a 1516 world map, the Americas are called "Terra Ultra Incognita" - a faraway unknown country.

Still, the Library of Congress had pursued Waldseemuller's mammoth map for more than a century.

It shows two continents across the ocean from Europe, with a skinny isthmus between them, an embryonic Florida peninsula, a western mountain range on the northern continent, and on the southern continent, a clearly lettered name: "America."

These maps are essential for the same reason a smartphone is better with satellite images of Earth, according to Ralph Ehrenberg, chief of the library's geography and map division: people want to know where they came from.   Continued...

Conservators at the Library of Congress screw down the map that first used the name America as it is prepared for its encasement in Washington December 3, 2007. The 500-year-old map, created by German monk Martin Waldseemuller, is the only known surviving copy and was purchased for $10 million in 2003. REUTERS/Jim Young