National Geographic Society Celebrates 130-Year Mapmaking History With Trip Through Archives: Staff geographer and map librarian select standouts published from 1888 to 2018

At the National Geographic Society, we’re mad about maps, so it was understandably difficult to choose just a few from our archive. But to commemorate 130 years since the first time we published a map, we thought we’d do just that. Curated by our own staff geographer Alex Tait and manager of the Map Library Michael Fry, these are some of the standouts.

These four maps were the first ever published by the National Geographic Society. Titled “Maps of the Great Storm,” they debuted in National Geographic magazine in October 1888, depicting meteorological conditions along North America’s Atlantic coast March 11-14, 1888, when a massive low-pressure system paralyzed the eastern United States with record snowfalls and high winds. The Great Blizzard of 1888, also known as the “Great White Hurricane,” grounded or wrecked more than 200 ships along the Atlantic seaboard and left more than 400 people dead. The charts accompanied a report written by U.S. naval meteorologist and Society founder Edward Everett Hayden.

This Grand Canyon supplement map, published in National Geographic magazine in 1978, was 109 years in the making (sort of). While John Wesley Powell’s journey into the “Great Unknown” in 1869 was the first major attempt to explore and map the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, arguably the most detailed and precise map of the canyon was made a full century later. Bradford Washburn, with support from the National Geographic Society, Boston’s Museum of Science, and the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, surveyed, photographed and—like Powell—walked the landscape to create this Grand Canyon map over the course of seven years.

One of our most influential and collectible maps is “Germany and Its Approaches.” Published in the July 1944 issue of National Geographic magazine, it was instantly put to work for the war effort. Drafted on a larger scale than any previous map of Europe created by the National Geographic Society, all the principal roads, railroads and canals are clearly shown. Allied forces sometimes lost their way in the maze of French backroads, so the Army Corps of Engineers borrowed the original drawings of this map, made enlargements and posted them at crucial road junctions for the use of truck and ambulance drivers. Soon the British War Office reproduced 50,000 copies at both standard and enlarged sizes for distribution to its frontline officers.

The preliminary plans for partition and occupation of post-war Germany were roughed out on a small map of the country. Lt. Arthur Robinson, chief map officer for both the Office of Strategic Services and the U.S. Chiefs of Staff, marked these divisions onto a copy of “Germany and Its Approaches.” Robinson, who went on to become an influential American geographer, later said of the map: “As far as I know, that National Geographic map became the official U.S. map showing the proposed occupation zones of Germany.”

Perhaps our most innovative map is 2018’s “How Birds Migrate.” Billions of birds migrate annually, crossing oceans, deserts, mountains and even hemispheres in search of better weather and food. This map combines the latest crowd-sourced data on species locations throughout the year with interpretive panels and beautiful artwork. The supplement map published in National Geographic magazine is accompanied by a web-based digital map with route animations, providing innovative insights into the lives of birds. Learn more about the project, part of 2018’s “Year of the Bird” campaign, at