Where Knowledge Junkies Get Their Fix
Rob Lammle
3 Controversial Maps
by Rob Lammle - August 15, 2008 - 3:05 PM

1. The One With Only 38 States


[Click on the map for a larger view.]

If George Etzel Pearcy had his way, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous song would have been called “Sweet Home Talladego.” In 1973, the California State University geography professor suggested that the U.S. should redraw its antiquated state boundaries and narrow the overall number of states to a mere thirty-eight.

Pearcy’s proposed state lines were drawn in less-populated areas, isolating large cities and reducing their number within each state. He argued that if there were fewer cities vying for a state’s tax dollars, more money would be available for projects that would benefit all citizens.

Because the current states were being chopped up beyond recognition, part of his plan included renaming the new states by referencing natural geologic features or the region’s cultural history.

While he did have a rather staunch support network—economists, geographers, and even a few politicians argued that Pearcy’s plan might be crazy enough to work—the proposal was defeated in Washington, D.C. Imagine all the work that would have to be done to enact Pearcy’s plan: re-surveying the land, setting up new voter districts, new taxation infrastructure—basically starting the whole country over. It’s easy to see why the government balked.

The map above was published in 1973. Oddly, it doesn’t show any city locations to help illustrate Pearcy’s argument. At this point, I should tell you that I make maps for a living. So I did my best to replicate Pearcy’s map using population data from the 2000 census to show current high population cities and where they would fall within the new states. Here’s what I came up with:


[Click on the map for a larger view.]

As you can see, many of the new states contain a small number of major metropolitan areas, and the problem of dual-state cities has been solved. While Pearcy’s proposal might have been a logistical nightmare to make a reality, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad idea.

2. The One Where Greenland & Africa are the Same Size


In 1973, Arno Peters, a German filmmaker and journalist, called a press conference to denounce the widely accepted map of the world known as the “Mercator Map” (above). Peters’ position was that the Mercator Projection—a cylindrical projection first developed in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator—was not only inaccurate, but downright racist. Peters pointed out that the Mercator map has a distortion in the northern hemisphere, making North American and Eurasian countries appear much larger than they actually are. For example, Greenland and Africa are shown as roughly the same size, although in reality Africa is about fourteen times larger. In contrast, the regions along the equator—Africa, India, and South America, to name a few—appear smaller, especially when seen next to the distorted northern half of the map. It was Peters’ belief that this error led many in the developed world to ignore the struggles of the larger, poorer nations near the equator.

Of course Peters had a suggestion on how to fix this problem—his own map. The Peters Projection map, which claimed to show the world in a more accurate, equal-area fashion.


Because Peters’ map showed the size of developing nations more accurately, charitable organizations that worked in those regions quickly gave him their endorsement. Eventually his map became so well received that some were calling for an all-out ban on the Mercator map, believing it to be an outmoded symbol of colonialism.

The thing is, cartographers agreed that the Mercator map was outdated, inaccurate, and wasn’t the best way to represent the world’s landmasses. They’d been calling for the use of a new projection since the 1940s.

One of the reasons experts wanted to move away from the Mercator was because of the distortion. However, they also understood that it was distorted for good reason. The Mercator map was intended as a navigational tool for European mariners, who could draw a straight line from Point A to Point B and find their bearings with little trouble. Because it was made for European navigators, it was actually helpful to show Europe larger than it really was. It wasn’t a political statement, but a decision made purely for ease-of-use.

However, the biggest insult to cartographers was the Peters projection itself. Peters claimed to have created the projection, when in fact, it was essentially the same thing as devised in 1855 by a cartographer named James Gall. Many have recognized this similarity and now you’ll often see Peters’ map called “The Gall-Peters Projection.”

Today, the controversy is mostly dead. Both projections are seen as flawed and have fallen into disuse as more accurate maps have been developed. In classrooms now, you’re more likely to see the Robinson Projection or the Winkel Tripel Projection. The Gall-Peters map is still favored by some organizations, though many map publishers don’t even produce it anymore. And despite the controversy, the Mercator projection is still one of the most widely used navigational tools in the world—it’s the primary projection for Google Maps.

3. The One that Claims the Chinese Got Here First


[Click on the map for a larger view.]

It seems everyone wants to ruin Christopher Columbus’ biggest claim to fame. This time it’s a Chinese map that is threatening to rewrite history.

Purchased from a Shanghai dealer in 2001 by Liu Gang for a mere $500, the map shows the world—including a well-developed picture of North and South America. While text on the map indicates it was drawn in 1763, it claims to be a copy of another map drawn in 1418. The original map was cited as belonging to the great Chinese explorer, Zheng He, whose known travels include India and eastern Africa. However, thanks to numerous errors and anachronisms, the map’s authenticity has been called into question.

For example, California is shown as an island, which is a famous mistake made by European maps of the 17th Century. Furthermore, the detailed representation of river systems would be difficult to attain by such large ships as those used by Zheng He, whose fleets sometimes carried up to 28,000 men. Finally, the Chinese did not have an understanding of how to create a map projection at that time, a skill necessary to translate a 3-D globe to a 2-D map. In short, they didn’t even know how to make this map when it was supposed to have been drawn.

The annotations on the map also seem to be largely erroneous. A perfect example is a note stating of Eastern Europe: “The people here all worship God (shang-di) and their religion is called ‘Jing.’” However, according to noted professor and map critic, Dr. Geoff Wade, the term “shang-di” for the Christian God was not introduced until the late 16th Century. Perhaps most damaging are the many references to the “Great Qing Ocean” regarding the waters off China. Unfortunately, the Qing Dynasty began in 1644—more than 200 years after the original map was supposed to have been made.

Based upon this evidence, it seems likely that the Chinese map of the New World is the product of a 1763 cartographer using the terminology of his time, combined with data from European maps. Therefore, while Zheng He can definitely claim to be a great explorer, it is doubtful he ever made it to America.

Rob Lammle is probably the only cartographer you’ll ever meet who has an English degree. In addition to contributing to mental_floss, Rob maintains his own site, spacemonkeyx.com.


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Comments (51)
  1. The Mercator-Peters Projection controversy was actually a story arc on the ‘West Wing’ on a Season Two episode entitled “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” (after the Don Henley song “New York Minute” which opens and closes the episode), when all the members of the Senior Staff need to entertain a “People’s Group” so that their concerns are heard. C.J. Craig gets to sit in an the concerns of “Cartographers for Social Justice,” and the incident is actually very, very touching. The episode as a whole is conveniently detached from the rest of the controversies of the ongoing story lines of the Season (for some reason), and is therefore a nice introduction to the show.

  2. Speaking as someone who has lived in Shawnee, Bayou and Alamo while never leaving the state of Texas, I can assure you that if you put some of those small town people in a state that is not Texas, there will be a bloody revolt.

  3. When I was a kid we had a World Book Atlas that I would regularly take out and explore the maps of all the countries. I would redraw them myself and look up the countries in the much older encyclopedias we had. Some of them weren’t there of course.
    To this day I love maps of all kinds for any reasons. Maps in history books, road maps, etc.
    I really liked this one!

  4. Interesting idea, but it would have been much more realistic if it used straight line borders instead of curved. As it is, most (I counted 44) states have at least one border that is flat, and at least 23 that are defined by a river. I could see the states being redrawn… but take some of the natural borders into account and then make the rest squared off and it would have been a much easier sell IMO.

  5. Have to agree with John Joachim - that “West Wing” episode was the first thing I thought of while reading this article. It’s an excellent episode in its own right and a great intro to the series for newcomers.

  6. Another “West Wing” note here.

    Fascinating article.

  7. I am intrigued by the choice of names on the 38-state map. Some are obvious, but others range from unfamiliar to downright baffling. Why does “Erie” not touch Lake Erie at any point, for example?

  8. Coeli -
    In my research, I found that the information available on the naming schemes was vague at best. A quick Wikipedia search for Erie, however, brings up information on the Erie tribe of Native Americans that lived in the northern part of Ohio (and are the folks the big lake is named after as well). So I’m guessing that’s where the name comes from and not so much the lake that it wouldn’t be bordering. But, honestly, your guess is as good as mine.

  9. “Alamo” still would have three major cities — maybe it’s all a plot to create the United States of Texas. As a Louisianian who lived in Texas for 18 months, I wouldn’t put it past some of the people who live there.

  10. I think Peters was actually Greenlandaphobic. The Mercator projection puts the world in danger of being swamped by a Greenland so gigantic, its head isn’t even visible. Peters’ solution was to arrange it so Greenland would slide off the top of the world.

    One of my favorite world-views is in the link.

  11. Rob,
    re the Menzies/Liu fake Chinese map you note above, there is no possibility that the map is anything but a fake made in the last 50 years.
    See here:


    Best wishes

    Geoff Wade



  12. Dr. Wade-
    I would have to say I agree with you, sir. And most of that opinion was formed based upon your extensive research debunking the map. Your papers were so in-depth I had a really hard time choosing which points to use for this article. I’m glad you’ve posted your work here so that others can get a clearer picture of everything that doesn’t quite jive with the 1421 map; it’s really fascinating stuff.

  13. I love the 38 state map! The west is done really well. Nevada’s gone, which is so desolate that it really should be moved into other states. Northern and souther California are also made into two states, which really they should be. My northern friends and I are so different we could be from seperate countries. I think the state “Alamo” could be cut in two and still be a good sized state with a large city or two in it.

    My reCaptcha: nearby to (where?)

  14. 3 Controversial Maps [/PICS] | CommentURL.com…

    \r\nThe one with only 38 States, the one where Greenland & Africa are the same si…

  15. Anyone who thinks we would ever name a state “Susquehanna” is insane. Same with “Allegheny” and “Biscayne”.

  16. The merkator projection was good for navigation not because Europe was larger, but because it kept the angles intact (while the that avoid distorting area do distort angles). Having intact angles makes it easier to determine the rhumb line which in turn is used to determine the oxodroma, shortest path between two points on earth.

  17. Leiv Eiriksson discovered America.

  18. #2 is very interesting, I knew it was making Greenland look huge, but hadn’t realized it was making the countries near equator smaller! Google Earth looks more realistic.

  19. Great article! I learned a lot from it. Probably the best thing I’ve found on Digg in several weeks.

  20. great article!
    and awsome job you have.

  21. Pawe is corerct, the mathematical term for this is a Conformal Mapping and it does in deed have the effect of perserving angles. Because it preserves angles it allows for bearings, loxodromes and geodesics to be found with simple graphical methods.

    Part of the reason for the problems in map making for the world is that there are provably no isometries from the sphere to the plane. An isometry is an distance (and hence area) preserving mapping.

    I.e. you cannot draw a map that satisfies egos on sizes of countries. Only maps that have certain other useful properties.

  22. The 38 state map is interesting! The largest city in Prairie, however, shouldn’t be Cedar Rapids, but either Des Moines or the Quad Cities, a metropolitan community that straddles the Mississippi River and is currently divided into Illinois and Iowa. It would actually make a lot of sense for the Quad Cities to be in one state rather than two.

  23. The authenticity of the Chinese map is not the determining factor as to whether or not the Chinese made it to the Americas before Columbus. There is ample evidence that they in fact did.

  24. Great article! Well… I’m from El Dorado! :D

  25. I absolutely love the 38-state map. As a resident of Schenectady County in New York, I and the rest of what we refer to as Upstate New York, are constantly facing tax increases and higher costs of living due to what I believe is, New York City.

    My location, to the north and west, is fairly remote, consisting mostly of suburban towns, and rural areas, and the Adirondack mountains. There is a world of difference between the area of New York City (southern NY), and the rest of the state.

    If you check tax data from gasoline, income, cigarettes, alcohol, etc, you can see we are one of the worst taxed states in the country. I have to say we have not seen much of a benefit from the taxes that are constantly being thrown at us.

  26. Actually, the PNW region should be Cascadia, not Cascade and it should be its own country…

    google search cascadian independence

  27. The 38 state map is about the best thing I’ve seen in awhile. It creates the nearly perfect state of Bitteroot (remove Boise and it would be perfect).

    One note though, up in Bighorn, you may have missed Billings (2000 census 89,000). It’s bigger than Great Falls (2000 census 56,000).

  28. I have no problem with the Peter’s projection concept to make continents more accurately represented, but the political correctness part of it is not only annoying, it’s downright wrong: The Mercator projection is NOT biased in favor of the north, it’s biased in favor of the poles - north and south EQUALLY. The only reason you don’t seen the south massively presented is that they usually cut off the bottom 1/3 of the map because it would just show a massive white zone for Antarctica and be a waste of paper.

  29. Your modification of the Pearcy map is an interesting idea. Have you considered using the US Census Bureau’s MSAs instead of cities?

    The cities of San Francisco and San Jose are each represented by a separate 0.5M to 1M dot, suggesting that the population of the area is 1M-2M. The 2000 census showed over 7M residents of the San Francisco - Oakland - San Jose MSA.

    I’d be interested in seeing a modified map based not on cities but on MSAs.

  30. I see a lot of folks trying to explain the Mercator Projection as being an OK projection for it’s intended purpose. Unfortunately, I’m seeing a bunch of mangled explanations. Let’s see if I can do better.

    All flat maps have distortions — there simply is no way to map a sphere to a plane without distortion. The trick is deciding what distortion you are willing to live.

    Mercator designed his map for navigation, specifically he designed it so that straight lines on the map correspond to paths which maintain a constant heading. A navigator planning a trip from San Francisco to Hong Kong could sit at a Mercator map, connect the two cities with a line, and use a protractor to measure the heading from one to the other (about 270 degrees, or about WxS). He could then tell the helmsman to maintain a course of WxS, and know that he’d end up close to Hong Kong.

    In order for Mercator’s map to do this, it needs two properties: It has to be conformal — all angles are locally preserved — and all meridians have to be parallel straight lines. Mercator’s map is the only map projection with both these properties.

    The projection has distortions, however. Most noticeably, it’s not “equal-area”, i.e., two regions of the same area on Earth are not necessarily mapped to two regions on the same area on the map.

    In this case, there is a scale distortion the further from the equator you get. Alaska, Greenland, Antarctica, Scandinavia, all get projected at a much larger relative size than South America, Africa, India, and other tropical areas. It’s impossible to make a conformal map with parallel meridians that’s equal area.

    As a point of interest, Mercator knew of this problem with his map, and knew that this distortion of areas wasn’t good for general presentation of the world. He suggested the use of a different map, what’s called the “sinusoidal projection”, which unfortunately distorts shapes and distances. It is also not rectangular.

    The Gall-Peterson projection is one of several rectangular equal-area projections. It’s main advantage is the equal-area feature: areas on the map are proportional the the corresponding areas on the Earth. It’s major technical problem is the rather severe shape distortion far from the equator. The article above covers the political problems.

  31. Wtf are you talking about? Google maps uses artificially colored satellite maps for its globe projection. Zoom out all the way in Google Maps and flip between the map and satellite views. They are identical. Did you bother to look at Google Maps before you wrote the article?

  32. the richest counties in the US are in northern NJ, which is grouped into the same state as NY and Western Conn. Too much money in one state, IMHO…

  33. What was Christopher Columbus’ claim to fame? Being at least the second European to reach the New World? Or never actually setting foot in North America, but being treated like he lead the colonization and built Washington DC with the knowledge that the USA would rise from that site? You Yanks are nuts. Learn some history.

  34. I think the US should give Texas back to Mexico…

    And great article, by the way!

  35. thetinguy,

    Thos satellite images are distorted as well. An image comes back from space as a “quadrangle”. You can map each pixel in this qudrangle to a latitude and longitude, which become an X-Y coodrinate on the map. This isn’t a Mercator projection, but it still has the problem of distorting areas far from the equator by stretching them. The fact is, it is impossible to truly represent the earth in a 2D map, as was well explained by Blaise Pascal (the commenter above, not the mathematician/philosopher).

  36. Everyone knows that Columbus didn’t get here first. The people who crossed the Siberian land bridge did, followed by a host of other people, including Leif Ericsson.

    Columbus is important because his expedition led to permanent settlement of the Americas.

    Oh, and I second the part of making non-Texas parts of America part of Texas. I grew up in Southeast New Mexico, and if you made us part of Texas, we’d lead a war of secession. We hate Texas and Texans. A lot.

  37. So Google is using the “artificially colored satellite maps” projection, you say? For some reason, they seem to disagree with you; from a link I’m not allowed to post:

    Q. What type of map projection does Google use for Google Maps

    A.We use the Mercator projection for our maps. Wolfram MathWorld has a good
    page on the projection (and a bunch of other map projections). — Bret Taylor, Google Product Manager.

  38. while i love the 38 state map, i think we’re fogetting one important thing: 38 will not be as nearly easy for on-the-fly calculations as 50 is. as a sociologist, 50 is so much easier to deal with mentally, especially in a culture where lack of a metric system means we rarely get to deal with round numbers.

  39. As a member of Chesapeake, I have to say that I prefer the 38 state map, because “Maryland” sounds nowhere near as cool as our bay.

  40. “everything that doesn’t quite jive…”

    Using ‘jive’ in this context is wrong.
    Jive is a slang expression originating in the black community that was most popular in the 1970s.
    It is known from popular songs of the era: ‘Jive Talkin’ by the Bee Gees, or “Jive Turkey” by the Ohio Players.

    Jive is just another word for bullshit, as in “You’re talking…”

    To say that something doesn’t jive is to say it is honest and not misleading.

    The word you want in the above text is ‘jibe.’ Jibe is an old nautical term related to sailing, but today is used to refer to alignment usually of facts or figures with expectations.

    Try to just remember that to not jive is a good thing and to not jibe is a problem

  41. Nice article. I can surely attest to the distortion in using Google maps. I was trying to plot points on the map and use a nice overlay of the us. Because the two maps were not created with the same projection I had some serious issues lining up the dots. Crazy stuff and now I know why.

  42. I suspect Mark Stein, author of “How The States Got Their Shapes” would have an interesting perspective on this. Some very interesting facts in there that provide “aha!”s about many current state boundaries that I never noticed before but now come to mind everytime I see the map.

  43. Here’s a dumb question: How to you become a cartographer? Did you study it in college? Is it a good job? I’ve always been very curious about how maps are made and would love to talk to an actual cartographer.

  44. A correction: James Gall was not a cartographer as is claimed here. In fact he was a reverend in the Church of Scotland who in 1858 founded Carrubber’s Christian Centre in Edinburgh Scotland (still there today).

    He was also a “pre-Adamite” who believed that there was an ancient race of men, descended from Satan and his fallen angels, who lived in the world before Adam did. However, they died out because they sinned. But their material remains (fossils, tools, shell mounds) were still to be seen today.

    Gall also believed that Jesus lived on a planet orbiting one of the stars visible from earth. And that you could see through the crater Aristarchus on the moon to the people living inside.

    He was a fascinating man with some fantastic beliefs, but he was not a cartographer.

  45. I find it amazing that Pearcy went through the trouble of creating a new 38 state map without researching his flawed assumption that “if there were fewer cities vying for a state’s tax dollars, more money would be available for projects that would benefit all citizens.” In reality, large urban areas typically generate more tax revenue than they receive in government spending. The bigger the city, the more likely this is true. Sorry Wheelman (or should I say congratulations), NYC subsidizes upstate, not the other way around. Red states really make out under the federal system.

  46. @bedhead- These days to become a cartographer you usually study in a university geography department and you’ll have many courses in geographic information systems (GIS). You need to be comfortable with computers. Penn State, Kansas, Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota, BYU, and many other schools have good GIS/cartography programs. Probably a lot of folks commenting on this post would give you their opinions on schools.

  47. @bedhead- What Sterling said is pretty spot-on. However, being the scatter-brained person that I was until a few years ago, I drifted around looking for a career (thus the English degree) and found one hiding at the municipality where I already worked. One of my managers said, “Hey, you’re good with computers. Maybe you can help our GIS Department with this project that they don’t have time for.” I think it took me an hour of working on that project to know that this is what I wanted to do for a living. So, I started taking classes online at ESRI.com, as well as at my local community college. Now I’m a GIS Technician and get to do this every day. It’s a pretty sweet gig.

  48. Great! Do it tomorrow.

  49. Can anyone explain why real-world Alaska would be divided into Seward and Kodiak? I understand either as being a legitimate name for the state, and why it might be hard to pick between them, but why both? I went back and looked a couple of times, and it didn’t appear as if we’d annexed part of Canada… There aren’t major metro areas to split, either.

  50. think about all the state universities…would they all have to change their names? so many signs and stuff…the cost benefit analysis doesn’t look too promising. perhaps if it would’ve gone down in the 70’s it would’ve worked out.

  51. i think thats a pretty cool new map of the states. i would have backed it.

    then again… i’m canadian.

    reCaptcha: allowing con