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A Portraitist of the Earth

Arthur Robinson merged science and art to overcome one of mapmaking’s greatest challenges.

Arthur Robinson, the cartographer and geographer best known for his elegant solution to a mapmaking conundrum, died last October 10 at the age of 89. He merged a sense of aesthetic clarity with the mathematical rigor of science to reimagine the Mercator projection, a method for representing the round earth on a flat surface that had prevailed for the better part of four centuries.

In 1569, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator created a map of the world on a flat surface, as opposed to a globe. Such a map would be particularly useful for sailors. In doing so, however, Mercator encountered a challenge that was as old as the craft of mapmaking itself: how can a curved surface be accurately represented on a flat plane?

Mercator’s solution was workmanlike, and relied mostly on mathematical considerations rather than aesthetic ones. In the end, his equations enabled cartographers to produce charts from which sailors could readily navigate. However, the visual distortions created by Mercator’s projection were a source of consternation for mapmakers and aesthetes alike: following his method, Greenland appeared to be larger than South America, when, in fact, it is roughly the size of Mexico.

During a 1989 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Arthur Robinson explained the challenge in this way: “Take an orange and draw something on it, say, a human face. Now carefully remove the peel, trying to keep it in one piece, and flatten it against your kitchen table. You’ll see that in making a two-dimensional object out of a round one, something has to give. Either the face gets distorted and looks all ‘mushed out,’ or in flattening the peel, it breaks into segments, dividing the face as well into several parts. A cartographer chooses between a series of those kind of lesser-of-two-evils alternatives.”

In 1963, under commission from the map company Rand McNally, Robinson developed his own projection, a task to which he brought an artist’s sensibility. He began by sketching a map that in both shape and size appeared to more accurately represent the world than Mercator’s method did. He calculated a mathematical representation for this map later. The end result was a visual depiction of the world that had less distortion near the poles. The Robinson projection was used by Rand McNally in a number of its atlases and was also selected by the National Geographic Society as its primary world map. It is still in wide use today, though other competing projections have been introduced over the last 40 years.

For Robinson, as for his predecessor Mercator, mapmaking consisted of much more than equations. Rather, Robinson maintained that cartography was an essential form of intellectual and symbolic expression. In one of his textbooks, Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography, he wrote, “The act of mapping was as profound as the invention of a number system….The combination of the reduction of reality and the construction of an analogical space is an attainment in abstract thinking of a very high order indeed….”

Robinson began drawing maps for geography textbooks while conducting graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin. In 1941, he was recruited by the United States’ Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, to work in its map division. Over the course of World War II, as the need for accurate maps arose, Robinson became chief of the map division for the OSS, overseeing at least 50 professional cartographers and developing nearly 5,000 maps for the war effort.

In 1945, Robinson was appointed to the faculty of the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin. Over the next 35 years, he established the preëminent program of its kind at Wisconsin, teaching courses in cartography and physical geography until his retirement in 1980. According to one history of American cartography, it was during this period that Robinson “established himself as the unofficial ‘Dean’ of American academic cartographers.”

In addition to his status as an educator and the elevation of cartography in American universities, a big part of Robinson’s legacy will likely be his emphasis on the inherent visual beauty of maps. As Robinson liked to point out, mapmaking is often considered “the oldest of the graphic arts,” and in his estimation, an elegant map should always “be considered as worthy of wall space as a painting.”

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