History of Geography as a Timeline

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Listed here are significant events that happened in the field of Geography. Covered are events and advances in world geography, human geography, physical geography, and cartography/GIS.

Some notes about this timeline page:

This timeline on the history of geography is still very much a work in progress. You can help contribute to its development by submitting significant events in the field of geography here.

Geography Timeline

500 BCE ~ Oldest Known Map of the World

The first known world map is Imago Mundi, also known as the Babylonian Map of the World.

The map, inscribed on a clay tablet, depicts Babylon in the center of the continent, with parallel lines at the bottom indicating the southern marshes. The Zagros Mountains are represented by a curving line coming from the north and northeast. All of the sites on the circular map are labeled in cuneiform script.

More: The Oldest Known Map of the World

Imago Mundi from Babylonia, 500 BCE.
Imago Mundi from Babylonia, 500 BCE.

240 BCE ~ Calculation of the circumference of the Earth by Eratosthenes

A Greek scholar living in Egypt, Erastosthenes, observed the position of the sun around the summer solstice and used the distances between Egyptian cities to calculate the approximate circumference of the Earth.

More: Early Efforts to Measure the Circumference of the Earth

200 – 300 BCE – Compass Invented

Sometime around 200-300 BCE, the Chinese invented the compass. From William Lowrie’s Fundamentals of Geophysics (p. 281): “Early in the Han Dynasty, between 300-200 BC, the Chinese fashioned a rudimentary compass out of lodestone… the compass may have been used in the search for gems and the selection of sites for houses… their directive power led to the use of compasses for navigation.”

Circa 194 BCE – Eratosthenes Geography

Written at some point in the forty-year period after 245 BCE, Eratosthenes published his three-volume work entitled Geographika. Eratosthenes was the first to use the term ‘geography’ and is considered the father of geography. 

From Wikipedia: In his three-volume work Geographika, he described and mapped his entire known world, even dividing the Earth into five climate zones: two freezing zones around the pole, two temperate zones, and a zone encompassing the equator and the tropics.

He had invented geography. He created terminology that is still used today. He placed grids of overlapping lines over the surface of the Earth. He used parallels and meridians to link together every place in the world.

It was now possible to estimate one’s distance from remote locations with this network over the surface of the Earth. In Geographika the names of over 400 cities and their locations were shown: this had never been achieved before. Unfortunately Geographika has been lost to history, but fragments of the work can be pieced together from other historians like Pliny, Polybius, Strabo, and Marcianus.

19th century reconstruction of Eratosthenes' map of the known world, c. 194 BC.
19th century reconstruction of Eratosthenes’ map of the known world, c. 194 BC. Map from: Bunbury, E.H. (1811-1895), A History of Ancient Geography among the Greeks and Romans from the Earliest Ages till the Fall of the Roman Empire. London: John Murray, 1883.

150 CE ~ Ptolemy’s Geographia

Ptolemy described and organized all information about the world’s geography throughout the Roman Empire of the 2nd century in his work Geographia, written around AD 150.

More: Ptolemy’s Geographia

Ptolemy's Geographica, translated by Emanuel Chrysoloras and Jacobus AngelusHarley 7182 ff. 58v-59, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, British Library.
Ptolemy’s Geographica, translated by Emanuel Chrysoloras and Jacobus Angelus. Harley 7182 ff. 58v-59, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, British Library.

April 1507 ~ First Map to Name America

The Waldseemüller map Universalis Cosmographia, created by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in April 1507, is the first map of the Americas in which the name “America” is mentioned. The Waldseemuller Map has been called “America’s birth certificate”.  

It is noteworthy for being the first map to show both the Western hemisphere and the Pacific Ocean as independent entities, in addition to being the first map to utilize the word “America.”

More: Waldseemüller Map

1507 Waldseemüller Map. Library of Congress.
1507 Waldseemüller Map. Library of Congress.

1625 ~ Geography Delineated Forth in Two Bookes

Carpenter’s book, Geography Delineated Forth in Two Bookes, is generally recognized as the first English geography book published. Source: Tyner, J. A. (2015). Stitching the World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

More: Scientist of the Day – Nathanael Carpenter

1650 ~ Bernhardus Varenius’s Geographia Generalis

Varenius’ Geographia Generalis laid out the main principles of geography on a broad scientific basis, based on what was known during his time.

Absolute geography, relative geography, and comparative geography are the three sections of the work.

The first looks into mathematical facts about the earth as a whole, its shape, dimensions, motions, and measurement, among other things.

The second section looks at how the sun and stars affect the world, as well as climates, seasons, apparent time differences across locations, day length variations, and so on.

The third section discusses the actual divisions of the earth’s surface, their relative positions, globe and map production, longitude, navigation, and other topics briefly.

14 September 1769 ~ Birth of Alexander von Humboldt

Widely acknowledged as one of the founders of modern geography, Alexander von Humboldt was born in Berlin, Germany in 1769. Von Humboldt traveled extensively through South America where he studied the flora, fauna, and topography of the continent.

His Essay on the Geography of Plants was based on the then novel idea of studying the distribution of organic life as affected by varying physical conditions.

Photograph of Alexander von Humboldt taken in the 1850s. Image: Library of Congress, public domain.
Photograph of Alexander von Humboldt taken in the 1850s. Image: Library of Congress, public domain.

Related: GeoQuiz: Pioneering Geographers

1817 ~ First Isothermal Chart

Alexander Von Humboldt creates the first isothermal chart, “Carte des lignes isothermes.” This map was the first to show the use of isotherms, a term Humboldt coined for lines of equal temperature.

"Carte des lignes isothermes." by Humboldt, 1817. This map was the first to show the use of isotherms, a term Humboldt coined for lines of equal temperature.
“Carte des lignes isothermes.” by Humboldt, 1817. This map was the first to show the use of isotherms, a term Humboldt coined for lines of equal temperature.

Related: Early Data Visualization Pioneers

1830 ~ Geographical Association (UK) founded

The Geographical Association is founded at a meeting at Christ Church, Oxford, led by Sir Halford Mackinder, Douglas Freshfield (Honorary Secretary of the RGS) and ten others, mainly Masters from public schools. A subscription of five shillings is set.

A main objective of the GA was to share ‘lantern slide’ teaching resources. More: Geographic Association

1830 ~ Founding of the Royal Geographical Society

The Geographical Society of London was founded in 1830 as an institution to promote the advancement of geographical science, gaining its Royal Charter in 1859.

The Society’s purpose has not changed, but it has expanded its global interests to include publishing, the support of field research and expeditions, lectures, conferences, and developing its collections. More: RGS History

1876 ~ Real Sociedad Geográfica Established

In 1876, Real Sociedad Geográfica (Royal Geographic Society), the oldest geography society in Spain, was founded with the original name of Sociedad Geográfica de Madrid.

More: Real Sociedad Geográfica

3 March 1879 ~ Establishment of the United States Geological Survey

Originally called the Geological Survey, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) was charged with “classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.”

The USGS is a fact-finding federal organization that focuses on four main scientific areas: biology, geography, geology, and hydrology.

October 1884 ~ Prime Meridian Established

The International Meridian Conference held in October 1884 in Washington, D.C. selected the Greenwich Meridian as an international standard for zero degrees longitude.

Related: The Prime Meridian isn’t Where You Think it is

The prime meridian is the line drawn north to south at 0° (0 degrees) longitude. Credits: NASA
The prime meridian is the line drawn north to south at 0° (0 degrees) longitude. Credits: NASA

January 1888 ~ National Geographic Society is founded

The National Geographic Society was founded in January of 1888 with the intention “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge.” More than 500 million people monthly are now reached by the various media products of the National Geographic Society.

1904 ~ Association of American Geographers (AAG) is founded

The Association of American Geographers (AAG) is a nonprofit scientific and educational society founded in 1904. The association has more than 10,000 members from over 60 countries.

1915 ~ National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) Established

Founded in 1915 by George J Miller in order fill in a gap in geographic education. Originally called the National Council for Geography Teachers (NCGT), the name was changed in 1956.

1962 ~ Canada Land Inventory (CLI) is Created

Roger Tomlinson, also known as the Father of GIS, is famed for being a pioneer in the field of Geographic Information System (GIS). His early work fifty years ago with the Canada Land Inventory (CLI) in 1962 is widely recognized as the beginnings of GIS.

1970 ~ First Law of Geography

The first law of geography was developed by Waldo Tobler in 1970 and it makes the observation that ‘everything is usually related to all else but those which are near to each other are more related when compared to those that are further away’.

Tober's First Law of Geography: the orange dots closest to the red dot are more related than the orange dots that are farther way.
Tober’s First Law of Geography: the orange dots closest to the red dot are more related than the orange dots that are farther way.

1984 – 1994 ~ Five Themes of Geography

The five themes of geography were developed by the National Council for Geographic Education and the Association of American Geographers to help with geography education at the K-12 levels. The five themes were replaced by the National Geography Standards in 1994.

24 September 1991 ~ Launch of Geography in the UK National Curriculum

The Geography National Curriculum is launched at the Royal Geographical Society with an address given by the Rt. Hon. Kenneth Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Science in the government of John Major.

1994 ~ National Geography Standards Established

Replacing the five themes of geography, a set of eighteen learning standards was created by the National Council for Geographic Education called the National Geography Standards.

1 May 2000 ~ End of Selective Availability

On May 1, 2000, the White House announced the end of Selective Availability. Selective Availability (SA) was the practice of distorting GPS signal locations which reduced the spatial accuracy for civilizations using GPS units. In order to correct the GPS signal locations, users had to differentially correct the GPS data separately. The end of SA opened up GPS use to the commercial market.

More: U.S. discontinues selective availability of GPS to public

10 May 2003 ~ Australian Curriculum: Geography endorsed

Ministers of Education representing the States and Territories of Australia endorsed the Australian Curriculum: Geography from Foundation (5 year olds) to Year 10 (16 year olds).

The first time Australia had a national approach to teaching the discipline of Geography. In August 2013 it became the first of all subjects to be published from Foundation to Year 12.

More: The F-10 curriculum

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