Tech Puts America on the Map

Scientists use advanced imaging techniques to reveal the secrets of ancient documents. 

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"The purchase marks the culmination of an effort that has extended over many decades to bring this unique historical document to America where it can be on display in the nation's library for all to see," James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, said when the deal finally went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