The Evolution of Cartography

It may sound hyperbolic, but history proves that when maps change, so does humanity’s perception of itself.

Just as Cold War-era maps by the Soviet Union reflect certain ideas about that society’s worldview, so do maps left by ancient civilizations. A clay tablet from around 600 BCE called the “Babylonian Map of the World,” is thought to be among the first-ever known maps. It features Babylon in the center of the known world surrounded by water and eight triangular regions. This arrangement is thought to be a symbolic, rather than literal, representation of the world. Older maps from Greece are organized similarly.

(The Babylonian Map of the World. Known as the first map ever created. Image courtesy of Ancient History Encyclopedia.)

Around 150 BCE, Greek mathematician and geographer Ptolemy created his atlas, “Geographia.” This work is a cartographic milestone, as, while working to establish a grid that would more accurately chart birth locations for horoscopes, Ptolmey created a global coordinate system that laid groundwork for our modern system of longitude and latitude.

Ptolmey’s work had massive influence on medieval Islamic scholars. In 1154, one of those scholars, Muhammad al-Idrisi, created the most accurate map for its time. The Tabula Rogeriana. Al-Idrisi’s achievement combined Ptolmey’s system with knowledge of the Far East, Africa, and the Indian Ocean gathered by explorers and merchants.

Information from explorers and merchants continued to play a crucial part in map-making, as the 15th century saw an explosion of exploration. One of the most significant innovations from this period is Gerard Mercator’s 1569 World Map, which used a cylindrical map projection to effectively ‘flatten’ the globe for nautical travel.

(Gerard Mercator’s 1569 World Map. Image courtesy of ClassicSailor.)

Tools like telescopes, compasses, and sextants allowed for increased accuracy. These tools of surveying were put to good use on land, too. In 1912, Alfred Wegener used surveying tools to add proof to the theory of continental drift, which was eventually accepted half a century later.

The invention of the printing press pushed maps into the hands of more people than ever before. Following the Industrial Revolution, as middle classes rose and more people found more free time in their days, a spike in travelling as a hobby occurred. Map makers found demand shifting from ornate, often symbolic maps, to ones of a more utilitarian nature for use by common travelers.

World War I introduced aerial photography, which progressed through the following century into today’s world of satellite imagery, remote sensing, and LiDAR.

One of the biggest revolutions in the field was the ability to pick and choose what data to include on a given image. The first Geographic Information System (GIS) was created in Canada in 1962 by Roger Tomlinson and the Canada Land Inventory (CLI). This allowed for separation of information and attribute data, meaning more specialized visualizations. In 1973, first editions of large digitized maps made their entrance into the cartographic landscape.

(Image courtesy of ArcGIS.)

Throughout the centuries of progress, one thing remains true: maps are an abstraction of reality with some elements depicted more prominently than others. Today, as it was in the past, the cartographer’s job is to make sure it is done the most effective way possible.

Relief shading, which adds depth and dimension to maps, is just as important today as it was in the 17th century. Today, cartographers might use ESRI Toolsets instead of an ink pen, but the idea is the same. Modern cartographers make choices that help viewers of their maps understand climate change, shipping routes, special-interest hiking trails, and even make maps more accessible to individuals with color-blindness.

At East View Geospatial, our cartographic team is as busy as it has ever been, utilizing the latest and greatest mapping tools. Most recently, the team identified a gap in country map coverage for the country of Tanzania at 50K scale. Utilizing data from the Tanzania government and Maxar, as well as toolsets from ESRI, the cartographic team created 16 new map sheets, completing Tanzania’s map coverage for the first time in history. This entire project was executed remotely, without any EVG personnel having boots on the ground in Tanzania. The entire project would not have been possible without innovation in the cartographic space over the past centuries. To see how this project was executed, EVG created a brief StoryMap that breaks down the process. As a company, we are constantly pushing the boundaries to find new ways of sourcing data and executing the cartographic production process to bring the most authoritative maps to market.

The Rich History of Soviet Mapping

A Soviet map of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California.

Following World War II, the Soviet Union set out to map the entire world. The full story of how they did this remains untold, but the legacy of the maps they produced is clear; they are potentially the pinnacle of pre-satellite-era cartography, rich in both aesthetics and diverse data.

Scholars and researchers have used the maps to gain perspective of the USSR worldview. Some argue that the combination of topography with human infrastructure represents an attempt to synthesize the two and express a post-revolutionary worldview. From a more practical standpoint, the map’s content points to potential objectives; from invading (or defending) to understanding.

The maps feature topographic and geographic features, but the amount of auxiliary information they contain is astonishing. Widths of streets, sizes of buildings, and even construction materials and conditions of roadways are recorded in cities around the world. In mountainous regions like Afghanistan, maps include notes on times of year when snow clears from mountain passes. In other areas, maps note where to find edible vegetation and drinkable water. Some even feature the inclusion of military and research facilities that do not appear on official maps from the surveyed country.

In 2005, East View, which has assembled the world’s largest single collection of these maps, translated and published a Russian military manual that provides instructions for how the maps are to be used in planning and executing operations. Tables in the manual provide even more detailed information, like how far certain sounds travel in a given area, even accounting for what kind of material the sound was made on: everything from an idling tank to footsteps to a snapped tree branch.

A Soviet Union military map showing the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

A Soviet map of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Some of the Soviets’ quest for granular detail in their maps must have come from their military strengths. While the United States Air Force maintained air superiority, Russian forces relied on tank and ground forces. While the Americans were able to formulate a strategy from the sky, the Soviets needed maps that allowed them to plan for more precise ground operations. Typically, 1:50,000 is an ideal scale for such activity.

The Soviet military’s mapping of worldwide urban centers was unparalleled until the arrival of Google Maps. Thousands of cities are mapped at scale 1:10,000 and 1:25,000 – and comprehensively so, not just potential military targets. The detailed mapping of cities like Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco and Seattle are perhaps expected by an adversary. But Pueblo, CO, Madison, WI and Shreveport, LA – points to an obsession within cataloging and measuring American postwar industry and business strength.

The maps were made using a combination of existing official sources (similarities to maps produced by the Ordnance Survey and by US Geological Survey are too numerous to be coincidental), on-the-ground surveyors, reconnaissance aerial photography, and, presumably, spies. Teams were sent out to some of the furthest corners of the earth in pursuit of cartographic knowledge, and some died in their pursuit. Russian cartographer Alexy Postnikov, who, when on assignment to survey a remote area of Yakutiya in the 1960s, found an inscription left by an ill-fated cartographer from 1948. It was left 200 km away from the nearest populated area and stated that he and an injured aide were alone without supplies and fending off bear attacks.

A 1980 Soviet map of San Diego naval facilities (left) compared with a US Geological Survey map of the same area, from 1978 (revised from 1967).

Regardless of the maps’ purpose, it is clear the Soviet government regarded them as precious. Access to them was highly restricted. A strict system of checking out the maps existed, and ex-military members describe feeling that, even if it had been partially or totally destroyed, whatever pieces remained needed to be returned.

When the Soviet Union fell and laws changed, officials and others with access to them started marketing the maps bit by bit to a scattered constellation of buyers, which is how the world knows about them today.

“What remains most impressive about the Soviet maps was their uptake and utilization by industries far and wide – both commercial and consumer”, notes Jonathan Thompson, Director of Sales & Marketing for East View Geospatial. “From telecom and utility to aviation and insurance companies, as well as recreationists and historians alike, these maps have been and continue to be highly regarded and used for countless applications. In fact, for some regions of the world, they still represent the highest quality published topographic information.”

More information about the maps is available in The Red Atlas, a book by John Davies and Alexander J. Kent, which gives an in-depth history of their creation and use. We also recommend reading “Inside The Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers” by Wired. East View had the opportunity to contribute their knowledge of Soviet mapping in both The Red Atlas and the Wired article.

For those wanting to dive into the depths of these maps, East View Geospatial’s MapVault service provides access to our vast collection of Soviet mapping as a web mapping service. Each map is available individually in a variety of print and digital formats at

As cartography continues its march into the future with computer and satellite-aided tools, the painstaking efforts of those Soviet topographers, surveyors, and others will continue to provide an example of outstanding tradecraft whose relevance and value continue to find new applications.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons characters and features

Animal Crossing: How Real-World Mapping Influences Nintendo’s Fictional Universe

Big news in the gaming world today- the highly anticipated game, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is being released! Though it may not be obvious, the geospatial field interfaces with the gaming world in many ways, even if the game is based in a fictional universe like it is in Animal Crossing.

One of the reasons this game has been so highly anticipated is due to the brand-new landscape and map options. In this version of the game, players are given their own island to explore and develop. Players will be presented with four different map options they can choose from, with each one having slightly different geographic features (different elevations, longer or shorter rivers, etc). Previously released images of the new maps (courtesy of Nintendo) show them to be quite simple, displaying only the necessary features- bodies of water, bridges, and a home base, among other things. Though the world of Animal Crossing is pixelated and filled with animal townspeople, the basic principles of mapping and cartography are still followed to a tee. Certain mapping conventions (i.e. water is blue, forest areas are green) have become so ingrained in what the collective expectation of a map is that there is often an adverse reaction from people if one of those conventions is not followed, even if the world is based on fiction.

For Animal Crossing specifically, the maps are predicted to start very simple and will likely get more complex as the player progresses and unlocks new features. This mirrors what happened with the earliest real-world cartographers- they made maps increasingly more detailed as they discovered more about their surroundings. Moreover, these maps became more complex as people found innovative and improved ways to capture, store, & use data. Nintendo went above and beyond to assure their gameplay mirrored the experience of being a real-life explorer. There have been rumors that there are many geologic features, such as cliffs and mountains, which will be discovered the more you explore the world, just as early trailblazers experienced. In fact, new discovery is still occurring today in places that are only just beginning to be explored, like the deep ocean and space.

There is a subset of video game design that is responsible for designing game maps, known as level design or environment design. While this entails much more than just designing fictional maps, displaying features on a map is crucial for positive gameplay experiences. These maps are often the first thing a player sees when beginning a new game and can guide players during in-game decision making. This is also true in the real world, maps can show a myriad of different features and can provide people with useful data that can aid in key decision making. A great example of this is how geospatial data is leveraged within insurance.

Whether the cartography is based on the real world or a fictional universe, almost all the same principles and conventions still apply. Our real-world expectations for what needs to be conveyed on a map have bled over into the world of simulation and gaming. As the games and features get more and more complex, so do the maps within the game experience, and, as a result, the gameplay experience itself becomes more immersive and enjoyable. It’s quite incredible to take a step back and realize how crucial maps are in our everyday lives. Whether you’re driving to a vacation destination using Google Maps or navigating the world of Animal Crossing: New Horizons utilizing their immersive map experience, there is always value to having a map on hand!

Scrabble tiles spelling out "The Geospatial Blog"

Welcome to The Geospatial Blog!

In its 25-year history, East View Geospatial (EVG) has provided solutions for over 10,000 companies across more than 30 industries in over 150 countries around the globe. Today, the work produced and procured by EVG’s expert staff appears on everything from map library shelves to major aircraft simulators and command and control center monitors. From printed topographic maps to full 3-D renderings of cities, the array of products and services East View Geospatial provides is truly expansive.

EVG’s roots go back several decades.  Beginning with a company co-founded by Kent Lee and Vladimir Frangulov to export systematically declassified Soviet military journals and books (East View Publications—, a map department was created in the early 1990s to focus on a new and quite interesting phenomenon—the sudden commercial availability of a worldwide trove of detailed Soviet military topographic maps.

By the mid-1990s, East View’s map department was growing more successful. Its products and services rapidly began to appeal to users outside its traditional client base of academic and government institutions.  Thus was born East View Cartographic in 1995, the first East View company solely focused on scientific and precision maps and geospatial data.  (EVG adopted its present name in 2012.)

The corporate world, in particular, was very interested in large scale topographic maps, and as the GIS revolution took hold, all paper-based maps began to be much more useful as they yielded critical information about terrain, transportation networks, boundaries, geographic names, and much more.  Soviet military maps were an especially rich vein of data (indeed they still are) for countries and regions of the world not well mapped by other, more easily available map products.

Early corporate adopters of digital mapping data relied on EVG for precision terrain models in exotic locations to build many of Africa’s and Asia’s first cellular telephone networks, saving untold millions of dollars in the efficient network design afforded by such data from East View. The same data was incorporated widely into the civil aviation industry’s terrain avoidance systems, providing a life-saving benefit for anyone flying over such routes.  Energy companies of all kinds relied upon (and still rely on) EVG’s data products and solutions for oil and gas exploration and delivery, for efficient siting of wind power turbines, for mining operations, and even for solar applications.

“In relatively short order, East View became a leading distributor to professional geospatial consumers in numerous verticals—academic, governmental and corporate—in nearly all countries of the world” says Mr. Lee. The success of digital geospatial data sourced from maps soon gave East View the opportunity to expand its repertoire into all forms of remote-sensing data, including high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery.  Mr. Lee says this development path helped underline a broad geospatial competency that no other company, even today, offers: namely, the unique, one-stop shopping proposition that EVG offers its clients in sourcing both remote-sensing data (increasingly a commodity) and locally-produced authoritative data (which is still frustratingly difficult to acquire in so many situations).

Thanks to an unparalleled network of data and content providers spanning the globe, academics, world explorers, nation defenders, risk assessors, software integrators, even reality TV show contestants make use of EVG’s products. The defense industry relies on geospatial data for training, simulations, and mission planning. Telecommunications companies require detailed geospatial information of many kinds to inform their construction of new networks. The entertainment industry needs maps and data for quality sets and for special effects.  In colleges and universities around the globe, East View Geospatial’s databases and maps provide the knowledge on which future scholars build.

The strategy is simple – make discoverable and provide access to the world’s most authoritative geospatial and cartographic content. Partnerships with hundreds of mapping authorities and publishers, from national mapping agencies to nautical and geological agencies, guarantee that EVG can provide authoritative content direct from the source.

From satellite imagery to digital elevation models or population datasets, East View Geospatial’s procurement team can track down anything for its customers. Field offices on six continents and a commitment to being the authority on cartographic data compels EVG’s teams across the globe for new information.

In 2020, East View Geospatial wants to share more of its knowledge with the world. Follow the EVG blog to stay up to date on industry news, innovations, exciting projects, contests, giveaways, and more. We want your feedback and will check in periodically to ask about which topics most interest our colleagues in the geospatial community.

We’ll also be posting new and interesting geospatial tidbits on our social media channels. We are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter at @EVGeospatial and on Instagram at @eastviewgeospatial.