Early Sailing Charts

in Rhumb Lines and Map Wars

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print October 2004 | ISBN: 9780226534312
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226534329 | DOI:
Early Sailing Charts

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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Portolan charts taught mariners to rely on sailing charts and also left a legacy of geographic detail for later mapmakers. In their handbook of cartographic innovations, map historians Helen Wallis and Arthur Robinson list four key characteristics of portolan charts. Foremost is the web of intersecting rhumb lines, typically originating on the circumference of a circle, around which sixteen equally spaced points represent the eight principal wind directions and the eight half-winds of the mariner's compass. Inked on treated animal skin called vellum, portolan charts withstood rough handling at sea better than paper navigation charts, which did not become common until the eighteenth century. Because tradition-bound mariners learned to live with its distortions, the plane chart dominated nautical charting for over a century after Mercator introduced his demonstrably superior 1569 world map.

Keywords: Portolan charts; mariners; rhumb lines; compass; plane chart

Chapter.  3409 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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