The First International Map of the World?

The inestimable Barry Ruderman has once again (see here) sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole, discovering a wondrous mapping failure that frankly boggles my mind with its sheer audacity. Some might say, chutzpah. Specifically, Barry led me to an attempt to create a systematic atlas of the world at a scale greater than Philippe Vandermaelen’s Atlas universel de géographie (1825–27) at 1:1,641,836 (see Delaney 2011; Silvestre 2016) and even the International Map of the World, begun in the late nineteenth century at the height of Western imperialism (see Nekola 2013; Pearson and Heffernan 2015; Rankin 2017), but without having lined up any of the intellectual and financial resources that could reasonably be expected to be necessary for such an endeavor.

As a seasonal greeting, Barry sent some friends a tidied up version of the following quote:

It may be further considered, that large maps joined together, are exceedingly unweildy [sic] and troublesome—if hung up they are speedily discouloured [sic] with smoke or flies, and if rolled up (especially if not lined with linnen [sic]) are quickly torn to pieces. (Colles 1794, [ii])

This succinct explanation of the high mortality of wall maps comes from the introduction to Christopher Colles’ Geographical Ledger and Systematized Atlas. Colles was a creator and promotor of big projects, none of which really got off the ground, and he would eventually die in penury. US map historians know Colles for his 1789 atlas of forty strip maps covering the roads of the eastern country (Ristow 1961). His later work is much less-well known, for the simple reason that it was massively over-ambitious and failed abysmally. It is known in barely a handful of copies, all of which are substantially incomplete (Griffen 1954, 170, 178–82).

The Geographical Ledger was stunningly audacious. I am not even sure that Colles actually appreciated just what he was doing. He prefaced the work with an eight-page introduction that began as a twofold complaint about the distortions inherent in commonly used map projections (Mercator’s and the stereographic) and the problems of handling and keeping large maps; this led to his description of the Ledger itself as a series of standardized map sheets, each accompanied by detailed typeset indexes; the few maps and indexes completed and published were of eastern North America. I can’t find any online images of the finished sheets, so I include here one reproduced by Walter Ristow (1961, 80) from the Library of Congress copy:

Sheet 1549 of Colles’  Geographical Ledger  (1794), engraved by Eliza Colles.

Sheet 1549 of Colles’ Geographical Ledger (1794), engraved by Eliza Colles.

Detail of sheet 1549

Detail of sheet 1549

Each sheet would cover two degrees of latitude by four degrees of longitude, at about ten miles to the inch (1:633,600). Rather than cramming in many toponyms, Colles used abbreviations keyed via a reference system to the detailed typeset indexes. In the detail below of sheet 1549, particular places on Cape Cod were indicated by letters—A, b, c, d, e, f…—within squares Dz.

Colles further offered a detailed explanation of his own projection—actually three projections, a cylindrical projection for the tropics, conical for the temperate zones, and azimuthal for the polar caps—that would map the entire world with minimal distortions (Snyder 1993, 74). And at the end of the introduction he segued into presenting the larger project of the Systematized Atlas. His business sense was naive:

As a great number of foreigners are continually arriving in this country, it appeared feasible to me, that the maps of some parts of Europe, Asia or Africa, might meet with purchasers, I therefore thought it advisable to form the design universal. (Colles 1794, viii)

But at the scale of each sheet, it would take some 3,600 sheets to cover the entire world. Even if sheets covering only ocean were omitted, Colles would still have to design, engrave, print, and sell as many as 2,000 sheets. Colles knew this: the five known sheets all bear sheet numbers in the 1000s. But how he could think that he could profitably produce so many maps within New York’s fledgling economy is simply beyond me.

I’m still amazed by Colles’ audacity in attempting such a project. His intellectual resources were limited. (He admitted that he could not gain access to Maupertuis’ account of the spheroidal earth.) Vandermaelen and the creators of the IMW were all bound up with imperialistic sentiments fostered in modern Europe; but, to judge from the subject matter of the maps that were sold in 1790s New York (see Wheat and Brun 1978), public geographical interest was focused on the fledgling United States, not the rest of the world. Colles’ global project seems instead to have been driven by personal idiosyncrasy, and chutzpah.



Colles, Christopher. 1794. The Geographical Ledger and Systematized Atlas. New York: John Buel. [Accessed via the Early American Imprints database]

Delaney, John. 2011. “Philippe Vandermaelen (1795–1869): Atlas universel (1827).” Princeton University Library.

Griffin, Lloyd W. 1954. “Christopher Colles and His Two American Map Series.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 48: 170–82.

Nekola, Peter. 2013. “Looking Back at the International Map of the World.” Environment, Space, Place 5, no. 1: 1–20.

Pearson, Alastair W., and Michael Heffernan. 2015. “Globalizing Cartography? The International Map of the World, the International Geographical Union, and the United Nations.” Imago Mundi 67, no. 1: 58–80.

Rankin, William. 2017. “Zombie Projects, Negative Networks, and Multigenerational Science: The Temporality of the International Map of the World.” Social Studies of Science 47, no. 3: 353–75.

Ristow, Walter W. 1961. A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America, 1789, by Christopher Colles. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Silvestre, Marguerite. 2016. Philippe Vandermaelen, Mercator de la jeune Belgique: Histoire de l’Établissement géographique de Bruxelles et de son fondateur. Vol. 7 of Inventaire raisonné des collections cartographiques Vandermaelen conservées à la Bibliothèque royale de Belgique. Brussels: Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.

Snyder, John P. 1993. Flattening the Earth: Two Thousand Years of Map Projections. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wheat, James Clements, and Christian F. Brun. 1978. Maps and Charts Published in America before 1800: A Bibliography. Rev. ed. London: Holland Press.