Arthur H. Robinson, 89; Cartographer Hailed for Map’s Elliptical Design

Times Staff Writer

Arthur H. Robinson, a cartographer and geographer known for marrying art and science in his remarkable 1963 map of what has been called “the world as it really is,” has died. He was 89.

Robinson died Oct. 10 in Madison, Wis., following a brief illness.

When Rand McNally asked the veteran educator and map maker half a century ago to come up with a more realistic “projection map,” Robinson knew he faced a daunting historic challenge.

For 2,500 years, cartographers who may have wished to believe the flat-earth theory have struggled with the problem of depicting the spherical Earth on a flat piece of paper. About 200 world maps, including a few based on satellite photos, have been developed in the last two centuries.


“Take an orange and draw something on it -- say, a human face,” Robinson explained for the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “Now carefully remove the peel, trying to keep it in one piece, and flatten it against your kitchen table. You’ll see that in making a two-dimensional object out of a round one, something has to give. Either the face gets distorted and looks all ‘mushed out,’ or in flattening the peel, it breaks into segments, dividing the face as well into several parts. A cartographer chooses between a series of those kind of lesser-of-two-evils alternatives.”

The classic example of the resulting distortion was drawn in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who exaggerated the northern land masses so greatly that Greenland appeared four times its actual size, or larger than South America. Yet that revolutionary map -- which Robinson said he would have been proud to create -- became the navigator’s standard and hung in school rooms and seats of power for centuries.

“I decided there ought to be another way of balancing out the various distortions without doing it mathematically,” Robinson told The Times in 1990. So, he explained, he drew an elliptical design, presenting “the best portrait that I could,” and worked out the math later.

Unlike his predecessors, Robinson put the emphasis on the world’s most populous temperate zone, making it the most accurate part of the map. The drawing of the United States, for example, was reduced from actual dimensions by only 3%.


The National Geographic Society, which distributes about 11 million world maps a year, endorsed Robinson’s elliptical version in 1988 as “more realistic” than what it had previously offered.

Robinson was gratified by the selection, but even prouder when the Pentagon chose his map for its briefing room.

“Happiest day of my life,” he told the Tribune in 1989, “was when the Defense Department took down” its Mercator. “I started learning how to make maps while on an Army payroll. So getting to see mine in the Pentagon, flanked by generals, is a little like being a prophet who is finally honored by his hometown.”

Born in Montreal, Canada, on Jan. 5, 1915, to American parents, Robinson earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, but also studied art and geography.


He demonstrated an aptitude for cartography and began drawing maps for faculty textbooks while earning a master’s degree in geography from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a doctorate from Ohio State.

Recruited for the Office of Strategic Services in 1941, Robinson headed its map division throughout World War II, overseeing the drawing of about 5,000 maps for the military.

At war’s end, he joined the University of Wisconsin faculty, where he taught until his retirement in 1980. The school’s map library is named in his honor.

Robinson wrote a number of books, including “Look of Maps” in 1952 and “Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography” in 1982. His 1953 textbook “Elements of Cartography” is in its sixth edition and still widely used.


He is survived by his second wife, Martha; two children from his 50-year marriage to the late Mary Elizabeth Coffin, Stephen of Madison and Patricia A. Robinson of Sonoita, Ariz.; and two grandchildren.