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Matt:

On a recent road trip I was navigating while my friend drove. At one point, I turned the map upside down, since we were going south and I was having trouble remembering to switch what looked like a right turn on the map into "turn left" as I was giving directions. All this leads to my question. Why are all maps oriented to the north? Who started that and why?

-- Robert, trippin'

The guys who win wars get to write history; the guys who live at the center of recorded civilization get to draw the maps. Most scholars credit Ptolemy in the second century A.D. with setting north as the standard orientation, though maps of one sort or another had existed for at least a thousand years. Ptolemy was a Greek, living in Egypt; and as if he didn't have enough on his mind, what with his astronomy and math studies, he decided to catalog all the previous Greek knowledge of the geography of our spherical earth. He added a grid system, like our latitude and longitude, and even compensated on his flat maps for the tendency of land near the poles to appear larger than life. No one can crawl into Ptolemy's brain and poke around looking for the logic file on why north is up, but scholars speculate that putting the Northern Hemisphere at the top of the page made the maps easier to use. Most of the known world was there, the top of a page is more important than the bottom, so why cram the Roman Empire down at the bottom of the page? If most of civilization lived in Lapland, maybe all our maps would have south at the top. Ptolemy's studies of astronomy might have played a part in the decision too. At any rate, his maps were very influential until the Middle Ages, when the Church decreed the world was flat and square. Once we got past that one, it was back to north-at-the-top maps. Australia is too small and too far away to complain.

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