The First


World Atlas

Following data collected by Ptolemy (90 A.D.-168 A.D.)


Claudius Ptolemy was a celebrated astronomer, mathematician, and geographer who lived in Alexandria.   Although his thinking influenced contemporary Arab geographers,  little was known of his work in the West until manuscripts from Constantinople reached Italy in about 1400.  These manuscripts were written in Greek and contained the names of every city,  island,  mountain  and  river known to the many travelers interviewed by Ptolemy.  In addition,  the latitude and longitude of each of the resulting eight thousand locations were also recorded.  They were translated into Latin by 1401 and appeared in print by 1475.  The earliest Byzantine manuscript maps,  drawn by analyzing the Ptolemy figures,  date from the twelfth century.  A number of handdrawn copies were made in Italy throughout the early fifteenth century to accompany Ptolemy's text.

Ptolomy stressed the importance of accurate observations in order to calculate latitude and longitude,  and  laid down the principals of systematic cartography that remain to this day.   Obviously there are many errors in Ptolemy's maps, due to the limited extent of basic geographic information at that time and the lack of a method of determining accurate longitudes.  Judged by modern standards, the basic shortcoming of the Ptolemy world map is the small area it portrays.  The Mediterranean is fairly well depicted,  but is greatly exaggerated in length (Longitudinally).  The effect of this,  combined with Ptolemy's disregard for Eratosthenes'  extremely accurate estimate of the earth's circumference (c. 200 B.C.)  and the use of a Posidonius'  much smaller flawed estimate (c. 50 B.C.)  implied a much shorter distance across that part of the unknown earth's surface not drawn on the map.  Columbus and his contemporaries based their exploratory ventures on Ptolemy's calculations and,  like him,  had no idea of the vast New World to the west,  interposed between Europe and Asia.

Work on the first “printed” atlas was started in 1473 and finally published in 1478. A crude copy of this atlas was produced and published by some dissident workers in 1477 in order to be ‘first’. However, the plates for the 1478 were done prior to the pirated issue and thus the 1478 atlas holds the title of the first Atlas of the world

There are very few surviving examples of this atlas


The 1478 World map plates were used again in the 1490 Ptolemy atlas and yet again in the 1507 Ptolemy