Beyond The Dragon’s Gate: A History of Mapmaking


One of the themes that carries through both of Barry Wolverton’s Chronicles of the Black Tulip books, The Vanishing Island and The Dragon’s Gate, is map-making. Bren’s father is a map-maker, and he wants Bren to become one, too. He works for Rand McNally, and in The Dragon’s Gate, uses map-making as an excuse to travel east in search of his son.

So for today’s final takeover week post featuring The Dragon’s Gate, we thought we’d do a snapshot into the history of map-making, as it pertains to The Chronicles of the Black Tulip series.

What’s in a map?

When you hear the word map, these days you may think of an app on your phone, that provides you with step-by-step instructions on how to reach your destination.

If you’re a bit older, like me, you might picture a paper map intended to help you navigate the old-fashioned way – figuring it out yourself, pre-Google – and that never folds up quite as neatly as when you first received it.


Or maybe you remember the big wall maps your teacher would refer to in class? They were often out-dated, perhaps showing the U.S.S.R. instead of Russia, and eastern European countries that no longer existed, because the school hadn’t quite gotten enough funding to replace them yet.

But at its very essence a map is defined as a symbolic representation of space between places or things.

There are lots of types of maps: street maps, navigational maps, climatic maps, physical maps, weather maps, relief maps, world maps, even atlases are maps.

A History of Map-Making

The earliest believed forms of map-making actually dates bath to the 7th millenium BCE, and was in the form of a wall painting. Historians believe it depicted an ancient city, although this and other ancient maps are questionable in nature, since these artifacts could be depicting something else.

More recognizable maps start to be found in the 6th century BC, from ancient Greeks and Romans. Ptolemy’s Geographia, an atlas and treatise on cartography, was produced in the 2nd century AD and contained Ptolemy’s map of the “world,” at least as he knew it. As you can see below, it depicts the Roman Empire of the day, and spans Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Harley 7182 ff.58v-59

Map-making was happening around the globe, however. Geography dating back to the 5th century BC in China. Early forms of map-making in India use the constellations. Over 1,000 “mappae mundi” survive from the Middle Ages in medieval Europe — some as small as one inch across, while others span nearly 12 feet in diameter.


But the real history of map-making and cartography as we know it took place during the so-called Age of Exploration, spanning the 15th to 17th centuries — the same time period during which The Vanishing Island and The Dragon’s Gate takes place. (Not a coincidence!)

During this time, extensive overseas exploration took place and saw the rise of globalization and colonialism.

As new places were discovered, map-making became ever-more critical. Besides expanding on previous maps, cartographers based much of their work on information brought back by explorers and new technologies in surveying, such as the invention of the magnetic compass, the telescope, and the sextant.

Copy-Cats & Watermarks

During the Age of Exploration, many European map-makers also copied earlier maps — and sometimes even copied the work of their colleagues and peers. The copying of others’ maps was so prolific, in fact, that some map-makers actually made deliberate mistakes as a way to “copyright” their work. If they saw their deliberate mistake show up on another cartographer’s map, they’d know their work had been stolen.

Sometimes these “mistakes” would be called “trap streets,” usually a street printed on a map that doesn’t actually exist. (Doctor Who fans may remember this from a recent episode!) In many ways, these “trap streets” are like the “easter eggs” we look for in movies and other pop culture today.


The Real Rand McNally

In The Vanishing Island and The Dragon’s Gate, Bren’s father works for “renowned map-maker” Rand McNally. As author Barry Wolverton revealed to us earlier this week, no such person actually ever existed.

In fact, Rand McNally was two people: William Rand and Andrew McNally.


These days, Rand McNally is known as a company that publishes mapping hardware and software for commercial transportation and educational markets.

But they got their start in printing in the 1850s in Chicago. (So no relation to the fictional Rand McNally of 1599 in The Vanishing Island.) The two men were hired to run the printing for the Chicago Tribune, and formally launched their business Rand McNally & Co. in 1868 when they bought the newspaper’s printing business.

They initially got their start printing tickets, timetables, and railroad guides, then moved into illustrated newspapers.

Rand McNally created their first map in one of those railroad guides in 1872, and within a few years were printing a variety of atlases and educational maps. Eventually, they also expanded to a variety of other printed material, including a small book publishing division.

They were also the first major map-maker to embrace the numbered highway system we use today, and even helped erect some of the first highway road signs. And they were among the first to start creating maps digitally, starting as early as 1982.

The Rand McNally Road Atlas is still a staple publication of the company.



Dragon's Gate - Cover FinalAn engrossing fantasy, a high-seas adventure, an alternate history epic—this is the richly imagined and gorgeously realized second book in acclaimed author Barry Wolverton’s Chronicles of the Black Tulip, perfect for fans of The Glass Sentence and the Books of Beginning series.

A magical white jade stone and a map inscribed in bone that may be the key to an even greater mystery—this is the treasure Bren and Mouse have found buried on the Vanishing Island.

Mouse is determined to follow the map to a place called the Dragon’s Gate, convinced it will explain who she really is and the powers she possesses. Bren has had enough adventure for one lifetime and would like nothing more than to return to his father in Map. But nothing goes according to plan when the survivors of the Albatross are rescued by Lady Jean Barrett, a charismatic archaeologist with a sense of destiny.

Barrett is on a quest for the Eight Immortals, ancient artifacts she believes are buried in the tomb of China’s first emperor—the location of which has been hidden for nearly two thousand years. The only way for Bren, Mouse, and Barrett to all get what they want is to work together on a dangerous journey into the heart of China, a kingdom long closed to outsiders, where the greatest secrets about Mouse and Bren are waiting to be unveiled.

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contestWe’ve teamed up with our friends at Walden Pond Press to give away at least THREE signed copies of The Dragon’s Gate by Barry Wolverton, and you’ve got chances to win EVERY DAY this week. And the more people who enter, the more prizes we’ll give away.

Here’s how to enter:

  1. Visit every day this week, and check out our latest post featuring The Dragon’s Gate.
    (HOT TIP: New posts go live every morning at 8am ET/5am PT)
  2. Read that day’s post, and then comment on each day’s post with your response to the comment prompt.
  3. Then fill out the Rafflecopter form below to tell us you’ve commented, and earn additional chances to win. (We’ll post the Rafflecopter form on each day’s post, to make it easy for you!)
  4. BONUS! The more people who enter this contest, the more prizes we’ll give away. That means MORE signed copies of The Dragon’s Gate, and even copies of book 1, The Vanishing Island. So ENTER & SHARE, share, share!

The more posts you visit & comment, the more chances you have to win!

Also be sure to complete the Rafflecopter completely for your entries to be counted. (We also require you provide us with your U.S. mailing address up front. This information will not be shared or sold; we’ll use it ONLY if you win to mail you your prize!)

Ready? Here is today’s prompt:

FRIDAY’S CONTEST COMMENTS: What’s your favorite type of map?

a Rafflecopter giveaway
This contest is open to the U.S. only, and runs through midnight (PT) on Friday, November 18th. Please see our contest policy for complete details. 





4 thoughts on “Beyond The Dragon’s Gate: A History of Mapmaking

Add yours

  1. My favorite type of maps are weather maps–I rely on radar especially–but if I had the weather channel (no cable TV) I would spend too much time watching it.

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