In 1507 Johannes Schöner bound the different sheets of Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map together and placed them inside a cover. This is the set preserved at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Waldseemüller’s world map shows South America and the Pacific. The first question is, how did Waldseemüller know of the Americas and the Pacific before Magellan set sail? The second is, how did Schöner get a copy of Waldseemüller’s sheets in order to bind them?
Martin Waldseemüller was born at Wolfenweiler near Freiberg in 1475, two years before Schöner. His birthplace is about 250 miles from Schöner’s birthplace. Waldseemüller spent his working life as a canon at Saint-Dié. In 1487 he entered the University of Freiberg to study theology. There is no evidence that Waldseemüller was a particularly clever student or even that he obtained a degree. In 1514, as a clerk of the diocese of Constance, he applied for a canonry at Saint-Dié and obtained the post. He died there in 1522.
Waldseemüller had about a thousand copies of his 1507 map printed. In addition to the copy owned by the U.S. Library of Congress, a cutout set (ready to be made up into a globe) is owned by the James Ford Bell Library in Minneapolis. A third copy was acquired in 2003 by the well-known map dealer Charles Frodsham, from Christie’s auction house.
In the summer of 2004 I carefully examined Waldseemüller’s 1507 map. Its significance, of course, is that it showed the Pacific, South America, the Andes, and the Rocky Mountains before either Magellan set sail or Balboa “discovered” the Pacific. So it appeared someone had been in the Pacific before Magellan and had mapped 23,000 miles of American coastline.
On the map, the Americas look nothing like the continents; they appear more like an elongated snake. Waldseemüller had used the most extraordinary method to make his map.1 It was projected from a globe onto a flat piece of paper using a heart-shaped projection. As a consequence, a degree of longitude near the equator was some ten times what it was near the Poles and, conversely, a degree of latitude near the Poles was some ten times what it was near the equator. Even more curious, longitude scales varied from one part of the map to the other at the same latitude, and South Africa poked out of the bottom for no apparent reason at all. (See color insert 2 and the 1421 website for a picture of the map.)
For several months I tried to make sense of this. How could I convert what Waldseemüller had drawn into a map that we would all understand?
Then, at dawn on a lovely summer’s day, a heron arrived for his breakfast and perched very near the gazebo in which I was working. I watched him, admiring his patience as his neck craned over the New River, which runs at the back of our garden. After he pounced, his neck swelled. An electric shock went through my body, and it dawned on me that if I reversed Waldseemüller’s process—put back onto a globe what he had laid out on a flat piece of paper, and then photographed it—I might have a map in a form that would make sense to us today.
I rushed into the basement that serves as our 1421 offices and photocopied Waldseemüller’s map into black and white, using blue lines to emphasize longitude and red for latitude (see color insert 2). Then I went down the coast of South America and marked points a, b, c, and so on every ten degrees of longitude (yellow points). On a separate piece of paper I wrote the latitudes and longitudes of each yellow point. I repeated the process for the Pacific coast of South America and North America, then concluded with the Atlantic coast of North America. Next, I transposed these points a, b, c, and so on onto a globe, connecting the points. Then I photographed the globe (see color insert 2).
There on the globe was the world that Waldseemüller had originally copied: an extraordinary likeness of North and South America, which we would recognize today, with the correct landmass, shape, and position relative to Africa. Before Magellan set sail, Waldseemüller had produced a wonderful map of the Americas from a globe.
So how did this clerk in holy orders with no known knowledge of map collecting or cartography, working in what was then the landlocked backwater of Saint-Dié, manage to produce a globe with the first accurate description of the Americas?
Waldseemüller initially said he he got his information from Amerigo Vespucci. Assuming that Vespucci reached 45° S, and that Waldseemüller had received his reports, Waldseemüller could have obtained from him the information necessary to draw the Atlantic coast of South America. Vespucci was an excellent navigator and had Regiomotanus’s ephemeris tables, which enabled him to calculate latitude and longitude. Yet Vespucci never claimed to have reached the Pacific. He specifically told the Florentine ambassador that he had failed to find the passage that led from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the passage we now call the Strait of Magellan.
Waldseemüller’s map shows the Pacific, the Andes up to Ecuador, and then the Sierra Madre of Mexico and the Sierra Nevada of California. So for him to have credited Vespucci for his depiction of Pacific America (a credit he later withdrew) is nonsense. Waldseemüller must have copied his map—but from whose globe, and when?
There is a host of evidence suggesting that Waldseemüller got his information from the same source as Schöner.
First, Schöner’s globe of 1515 and the globe shown on Waldseemüller’s map of 1507 are the same.
Photographic Insert 1
Admiral Zheng He, a pioneer of global exploration, who was in great part responsible for this remarkable adventure.
The Liu Gang 1418 /1763 map—a tribute to Zheng He’s courageous voyages of discovery.
Bronze Chinese lion figure at the entrance to the Emperor’s Summer Palace, Beijing.
Visitors at the Summer Palace, Beijing, c. 1902.
A view of the magnificent Forbidden City, Beijing, whose construction flourished under the great emperors of the Ming dynasty.
A delicate piece of beautiful Ming porcelain, as traded around the world by the Treasure fleet.
A view of the Great Wall of China snaking along the rugged mountain ridge at Simatai.
A vast fleet of Chinese junks could carry a considerable amount more than a caravan of camels!
The fleet journeyed northward up the crystalline Red Sea waters, through to the bustling souks of Cairo, and beyond.