History is written by the winners, according to the common adage. The winners get to draw the maps too. An atlas can tell a lot about a nation’s politics by what it includes, what it leaves out, and how it’s arranged–the theme of “Maps and Power: How Politics Shaped the Atlas,” a lecture to be given by James Akerman at the Newberry Library.

Maps have existed for millennia, but the atlas is a relatively recent invention, the first having been published in Bavaria in 1568.

Queen Elizabeth copied the idea, commissioning the first atlas of England and Wales in 1570, and the first French atlas appeared about 20 years later.

Wars have always been boom times for atlas makers, says Akerman. “Gentlemen’s societies in Britain periodically published maps including battles of the Revolutionary War. However, not too many published maps showed battle losses.

An elaborate atlas tends to be something final. Only the winner would print it.”

During and after World War II American atlases tended to use polar projections, which made Germany and Japan (and later the Soviet Union) seem closer to the United States–and therefore more of a threat. Those maps pretty much disappeared when the cold war ended, but politics hasn’t disappeared from maps. “American atlases are likely to show individual states, while those of other countries would ignore the states,” says Akerman. “We are still very Eurocentric. Individual nations in Europe still get major focus, while the entire continents of Africa or South America are clumped together in a map or two.”

Akerman will give his lecture March 15 at 11 AM at the Newberry Library,

60 W. Walton. Admission is free; call 312-255-3700. –David K. Fremon

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): map photo courtesy Newberry Library.