The World According to Us: A Timeline

Lab Reports, Timelines, Visualization
The title slide of the timeline on which this lab focuses.

Humans are innately curious about the world around them. The first of our kind only knew the universe extended as far as they could travel. Maps were borne out of a desire to make sense of and bring order to the world. Beginning with rudimentary drawings on cave walls, cartography has evolved to using satellites in space that record images of the entire planet. Besides aiding in navigation, maps can serve as historical documents. Not only do they show how much of the world was “discovered” and explored at any given period, but they provide clues as to human knowledge of the Earth’s surface and shape. Before mathematical tools were used to record landmasses, a location’s size on a map was determined by its importance, providing evidence of historical hierarchies. In order to answer the question of how mankind has viewed and learned about the world around them over time, we can study the evolution of maps, taking special notice as to which areas of the Earth are represented, how accurately coastlines and distances are drawn, and details of geographical features. By placing selections of historical cartography on a timeline, the human perception of the world is revealed.

I decided to title this timeline “The World According to Us: A Timeline” to signify that this brief study is more concerned with the evolution of man’s visualization of the planet rather than the progression of mapping techniques. Eight examples of maps are included, each chosen for their unique presentation, relative importance, and the time period they represent. Not every instance is a traditional map, I also included works of art because they signify more nuanced views of the world and theological interpretations. The timeline begins with a reconstructed illustration of a description of the world by the famous epic poet Homer from 900 BC. While there are many examples that claim to be the “first map of the world,” I decided to include Homer’s representation as it exemplifies the ancient Greek’s knowledge of the Mediterranean coastline yet misconception of the Earth’s shape. Moving to AD 150, Ptolemy’s map was significant for its use of mathematics to make sense of the world, rather than general observation. Cosmos Indicopleustes constitutes an idiosyncratic view with the universe shaped almost like a chest of drawers, yet is noteworthy for its conversation with Ptolemy’s view even four hundred years later. It also demonstrates the persistence of the flat Earth myth into the Middle Ages and beyond despite scientific refutation. Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych is included for its fanciful interpretation of the world and fate of humanity with religious influences. In the Age of Exploration, the Padron Réal and Mercator maps were important examples of how navigation informed more precise depictions. The 18th-century map is the last one on the timeline that was created without the aid of computers but shows an almost complete map. Google Earth is the tool that concludes the chronology, as satellite pictures and aerial photography now cover over 98% of the Earth’s population.

Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights as presented on the timeline.

In a peer review of a prototyped version of this timeline, the Cosmos and Dunn maps were not included, and Mapquest was, charted in 1996. A critique was the jumps in time that occurred, which left viewers with gaps of knowledge and curiosity of the interim timeframes. The Cosmos and Dunn maps were therefore added to bridge those gulfs. My original intent of creating this timeline was to focus on the theme of the history of cartography. However, as I conducted my research into historical maps, I found it more interesting to see what humans knew of the world around them rather than the maps themselves. This allowed me to focus on the evidentiary data the maps contained instead of how they were created. To that end, my peer felt that MapQuest no longer made sense to include in this study, as it focused more on navigation techniques rather than visual representations of the world.

To glean how an audience would interact with this timeline, I asked a number of questions of my peer. Their first impression centered on the image on the title slide. Because of the classical painting style, they assumed that the dates would begin in antiquity and follow through to the present, which was the aim. When prompted on what could be added or changed, they noted that they were unfamiliar with some of the references to certain explorers, authors, or events. For the information to be better communicated, a concise explanation of each would bring a better understanding to the user. Design-wise, they appreciated the inclusion of the photos because the theme centered around visualization, making it critical to include visual elements.

The backend of the TimelineJS template, showing the title slide and first event.

The platform this timeline was created on, TimelineJS, was easy enough to use but lacked certain features that I would have liked. One such feature would be the ability to add multiple photos to a single date. For an instance like the Garden of Earthly Delights, I would have liked to include the painting that is inside the triptych, rather than just focusing on the outer panels of the work. Additionally, support for zooming into photos would be key to appreciating the details of each of the works included, especially because the premise of the timeline looks at the increasingly detailed knowledge of the world over time. Because of this lack, I chose to echo the main image on each slide in the background. The text remained readable due to the shaded background and the image was zoomed in to reveal more details. TimelineJS was functionally laid out in a way that was user-friendly. I use Google Sheets often in other projects, so I was familiar with the features. The program has example slides already uploaded, which is helpful to base further event slides on.

An example of the main image being echoed in the background of the slide.

Overall, I believe that this timeline, “The World According to Us,” does live up to its name in that it provides a brief, chronological overview of man’s perception of the world in which they live. If given the chance, I think that including a few more elements to illustrate even more views would give a more rounded understanding to the user. However, the events that are present do encapsulate important and varying worldviews and thus serve their purpose of answering the questions around how humans have understood the Earth. For future iterations, I would aim to expand the breadth of the timeline, both visually with more images and physically with a more dispersed sampling of representations. My hope is that viewers of this timeline learn about historical human knowledge of our planet and reflect on their own worldviews.

A link to the timeline in question: