Tech Puts America on the Map

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2008-03-18

Tech Puts America on the Map

"Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorumque lustrations."

In English, it translates roughly into the $10 million mistake that put America on the map. With the help of hyperspectral imaging, the Library of Congress plans to keep it that way.

Thought to be the only surviving copy of a 1507 world map made by German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller, "Universalis cosmographia" is the first map to appear with the name America on a separated and full Western Hemisphere. Waldseemuller named the new landmass after the explorer Americo Vespucci.

Waldseemuller was right about the continent but wrong on the name, as European scholars had already given Christopher Columbus credit for the discovery. After printing a thousand copies, Waldseemuller was forced to print a new copy of the map with America replaced by "Terra Incognita."

The rest of the story reads like a scene straight out of the National Treasure films with a healthy dose of advanced imaging techniques developed for the study of earth and space. The Library of Congress calls the map "one of the greatest finds of the modern age."

All copies of the map were considered long lost until a pristine copy was found in 1901 in a 16th Century castle at Wolfegg in southern Germany, where it had resided apparently untouched for 350 years. The Library of Congress acquired the map in 2001 for $10 million from Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg. The German government granted the Library of Congress permission to export the map since it had been designated a "valuable national cultural property."

"The purchase marks the culmination of an effort that has extended over many decades to bring this unique historical document to America where it can be on display in the nation's library for all to see," James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, said when the deal finally went down.

It took awhile. Six years after acquiring the map, the Library of Congress finally mounted the 12 sheets that make up the map in a 6-foot by 9.5-foot display encased in a single block of aluminum flooded by inert argon gas.

Tech Puts America on the Map

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High-Tech Conservation

Six weeks before the map was encased, the Library of Congress assembled a team that can only be described as the pros from Dover to undertake a hyperspectral analysis of the map. Members of the team previously produced hyperspectral images of the Archimedes Palimpsest (a medieval parchment manuscript), the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khaboris Codex, which is the oldest-known copy of the New Testament.

Hyperspectral imaging combines both conventional imaging and spectroscopy, using optical elements, lenses, spatial filters and image sensors to capture 3D image cubes of the object. After years of highly restricted use by the government mapping agencies, hyperspectral imaging is emerging as a valuable tool for historical conservationists and preservationists.

"There has been intense interest in the application of hyperspectral imaging to issues of preservation for items of cultural heritage," states the Library of Congress.

The Archimedes Palimpsest, for example, was written in the 10th Century, but was recycled in the 13th Century by a monk who scraped the text off the parchment and reused it to create a prayer book. Spectral imaging has been successful in retrieving 80 percent of the original text.

No Secrets, But Still a National Treasure

Alas, the imaging of the Waldseemuller map has produced no secret codes or messages that have become the story line of the National Treasure movies. Nevertheless, the imaging has allowed conservationists to study the inks, paper and techniques of 16th century mapmaking.

"We thought we had something but it turned out to be just an impression someone made when applying pressure on the map," said Dr. Fenella G. France, a visiting scientist in the Preservation Research and Testing Division at the Library of Congress.

The contraption used to image the map did, however, end up in the film "National Treasure: Book of Secrets." When researching the forensic techniques that would be used in the film to examine a page from John Wilkes Booth diary, the filmmakers turned to the Library of Congress, which, in turn, led them to the Waldseemuller map hyperspectral imaging team.

Dr. Roger Easton, an imaging scientist from Rochester Institute of Technology, set up a shot for the film using the imaging apparatus used in the Archimedes Palimpsest and later on the Waldseemuller map. The scene made the final cut of the film. 


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