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What is an Atlas?

An Overview and History of Atlases

By

National Geographic World Atlas

National Geographic World Atlas, 9th Edition, 2010

National Geographic Society
An atlas is defined as a collection of various maps of the Earth or a specific region of the Earth such as the United States or Europe. The maps in atlases show items like geographic features, the topography of an area's landscape, political boundaries as well as the climatic, social, religious and economic statistics of an area.

Traditionally the maps that make up atlases are bound as books. These books are generally either hardcover for reference atlases or softcover for atlases that are meant for to serve as travel guides. In addition to atlases found in book form, there are also countless multimedia options for atlases today and many publishers are making their maps available for personal computers and the internet.

History of the Atlas

The use of maps and cartography to understand the world has a very long history. It is believed that the name "atlas" for a book meaning a collection of maps came from the mythological Greek figure Atlas. Legend says that Atlas was forced to hold the Earth and heavens on his shoulders as a punishment from the gods. His image was often printed on books with names and they eventually became known as atlases.

The earliest known atlas is associated with the Greco-Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy. His work, Geographia, was the first published work of cartography and it consists of the knowledge that was known about the world's geography around the 2nd century. Because maps and manuscripts were written by hand at the time, its earliest publications that still survive date back to1475 (Library of Congress).

In the late 1400s the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci increased knowledge of the world's geography. In 1507 Johannes Ruysch, a European cartographer and explorer, created a new map of the world that became very popular and it was reprinted in a Rome edition of Geographia that year. In 1513 another edition of Geographia was published and it included a connected North and South America (Library of Congress).

The first modern atlas was printed by Abraham Ortelius, a Flemish cartographer and geographer, in 1570. It was called Theatrvm Orbis Terravrm or Theater of the World. It was the first book of maps where the images were uniform in size and design and the first edition consists of 70 different maps (Library of Congress). Like Geographia, Theater of the World was extremely popular and it was printed in numerous editions from 1570 to 1724.

In 1633 a Dutch cartographer and publisher named Henricus Hondius designed an ornately decorated world map that appeared in an edition of Gerard Mercator's (a Flemish geographer) Atlas that was originally published in 1595 (Library of Congress).

The works by Ortelius and Mercator are said to represent the beginning of the Golden Age of Dutch cartography as this is the period when atlases grew in popularity and became more modern. Throughout the 18th century the Dutch continued to produce many volumes of atlases while cartographers in other parts of Europe also began to print their works. In the late 18th century the French and British began to produce more maps and sea atlases because of their increased maritime and trade activities.

By the 19th century atlases began to get very detailed and look at specific areas such as cities instead of whole countries and/or regions of the world as in the earlier works. With the advent of modern printing techniques the number of atlases published also began to increase. Today modern atlases present large areas of the world as well as specific cities and countries. Technological advances such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have allowed modern atlases to include thematic maps that show various statistics of an area.

Types of Atlases

Because of the wide variety of data and technologies available today there are many different types of atlases. The most common are desk or reference atlases and travel atlases or road maps. Desk atlases are hardcover or paperback but they are made in a similar fashion as reference books and they include a variety of information about the area they represent.

Reference atlases are generally large and they include maps, tables, graphs, other images and text to describe an area. They can be made to show the world, specific countries, states or even specific locations such as a national park. For example the National Geographic Atlas of the World includes information about the entire world. It is broken down into sections that discuss the human world and the natural world and these sections include the topics of geology and plate tectonics, biogeography and political and economic geography. It then breaks the world down into continents, the oceans and major cities to show political and physical maps of the continents as a whole and the countries within them. This is a very large and detailed atlas but it serves as a perfect reference for the world with its many detailed maps as well as images, tables, graphs and text.

Similar to the National Geographic Atlas of the World but on a smaller scale is the Atlas of Yellowstone. This too is a reference atlas but instead of examining the entire world it looks at a very specific area. Like the larger world atlas it too includes information on the human, physical and biogeography of the Yellowstone region as well as a variety of maps that show areas within and outside of Yellowstone National Park.

Travel atlases and road maps are usually paperback and are sometimes spiral bound to make them easier to take while traveling. They often do not include all of the information that a reference atlas does but they instead include information that may be useful to travelers such as specific road or highway networks, the locations parks or other tourist spots and in some instances the locations of specific stores and/or hotels.

In addition to paper reference and travel atlases there are many different types of multimedia atlases available that can be used for reference and/or travel and contain the same types of information that a book format would.

Popular Atlases

The National Geographic Atlas of the World is a very popular reference atlas for the wide variety of information it contains. Other popular reference atlases include the Goode's World Atlas (developed by John Paul Goode) by Rand McNally and the National Geographic Concise Atlas of the World among many others. The Goode's World Atlas is popular in college geography classes because it includes a variety of world and regional maps that show topography, political boundaries as well as detailed information like the climatic, social, religious and economic statistics of the world's countries.

Popular travel atlases include Rand McNally road atlases and Thomas Guide road atlases. These are very specific to areas such as the United States or even states and cities and they include detailed road maps that also show points of interest to aid in travel and navigation.

To view an interesting and interactive online atlas, visit National Geographic's MapMaker Interactive website.

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