from the world's big
California, an island? Meet cartography's most persistent mistake
The Glen McLaughlin Collection brings together more than 700 historical examples of 'California as an island'.
- California was born a fiction: named after a made-up island the name of which could be translated as 'caliphate'.
- For centuries, California was a cartographic fiction as well: it was shown as an island until as late as 1865.
- Over 40 years, Glen McLaughlin dug up more than 700 maps of California as an island – the world's biggest collection on cartography's most persistent mistake.
A nameless peninsula
Detail of an early woodcut world map by Francisco Lopez de Gomara (Zaragoza, 1553). The oldest map in the McLaughlin Collection, it shows California nameless for now, but with its correct, peninsular shape.
In 1971, Glen McLaughlin came across a strange map in a London map shop. Americæ Nova Descriptio, produced by Anne Seile (1) in 1663, showed California as a big, carrot-shaped island, floating off the coast of North America.
McLaughlin, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, bought the map and hung it on a wall at home. It turned into a popular talking point with visitors, and California-as-an-island became McLaughlin's decades-long obsession.
Over the next 40 years, he collected more than 700 maps, charts and other cartographic objects on the topic, building up a visual library of what is one of history's most persistent cartographic fallacies.
Detail of 'Granata Nova et California', a map by Corneille Wytfliet, published in Leuven in 1597. It's the oldest map in the collection to label the west coast of North America as 'California'. Again the region is shown, correctly, as a peninsula.
Perhaps that persistence and McLaughlin's obsession spring from the same source. Even though California geographically isn't an island, it does tend to feel like a place separate from the 'mainland'.
Indeed, in more ways than one, California is a one-off. Some metrics are obvious. It's so vast and varied that it could easily be a country on its own, let alone an island. California is the largest state by population (40 million) and GDP ($3 trillion, 15% of the U.S. total). It's home to both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States: Mt Whitney (14,505 ft; 4,421 m) and Badwater Basin in Death Valley (-282 ft, -86 m).
But the Golden State is special in a more intangible way as well. It's where America's westward expansion met its ultimate physical barrier: Manifest Destiny, say hi to Pacific Ocean. Both the 1849 Gold Rush and the birth of Hollywood, half a century later, merely confirmed the image of California in the popular mind as the final destination of the American Dream – there to flourish or wilt.
Detail of the second title page of 'Descriptio Indiæ Occidentalis' by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, published in Amsterdam in 1622. This is the earliest map to show California as an island.
It's fitting that a state so synonymous with storytelling should have started out as an invention itself. California is the only state that was named after a fictional place. Bound up with its name was the misconception that California was an island – and so it would remain on many maps, until as late as 1865.
In 1533, a mutineer from Hernan Cortez' expedition into Mexico landed on a peninsula so elongated that he mistook it for an island. He named it after a fictional island in Las Sergas de Esplandian ('The Deeds of Esplandian'), a romantic novel then popular in Spain. It says that:
"[O]n the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of the Amazons."
The women were gorgeous, brave and strong, and their weapons were all made of gold – the only metal available on the island.
Silver coin struck by Laurens van Teylingden to commemorate the capture of the Spanish silver fleet by Dutch admiral Piet Heyn, in 1628 off Matanzas Bay in Cuba. It's the only known representation of California Island on a medal.
Though the name 'California' can be traced to a specific novel, its etymology remains disputed. In the novel, the island is ruled by Queen Calafia. Her job title suggests a derivation from the Arabic 'caliph' ('ruler') – 'California' would thus mean something like 'Caliphate'.
Another theory pinpoints the name's origin to 'Califerne', a place mentioned in verse CCIX of the medieval Song of Roland (and also deriving from 'caliph'), while a third one posits a derivation from 'Kar-i-Farn', Persian for 'Mountain of Paradise'. One more: 'calit fornay', Old Spanish meaning 'hot furnace'.
As early as 1539, an expedition by Francisco de Ulloa demonstrated that the area (near the southern tip of present-day Baja California, Mexico) was a peninsula after all. But fiction proved stronger than fact. Even though the earliest maps do show California attached to the mainland, the name for the place stuck.
Spanish vs. English
Detail of 'Americque Septentrionale' by Nicolas Sanson (Utrecht, ca. 1682). Classic representation of California as an island, with some extra fantasy islands added to the narrows separating it from the mainland.
But the idea of the island of California proved pretty tenacious too. After an 80-year period of continental attachment, California started to appear on maps as an island, from 1622 onward and far into the 18th century.
California's insular revival is generally ascribed to Antonio de la Ascension, a Spanish clergyman who had sailed along North America's West Coast in the early 1600s and yet, contrary to the evidence, claimed California was an island.
Perhaps this was to invalidate the English claim on the continent. In 1579, Sir Francis Drake had landed at a place he called 'Nova Albion' (today known to be Point Reyes, California), and claimed the region for England. If Drake's landing could be situated on an island, De la Ascension seems to have thought, Spain's claim to the mainland itself would remain undisputed.
Introduction to the chapter on America in Robert Morden's 'Geography Rectified' (London, 1700). Fighting a losing battle on the naming of the New World ("commonly, but improperly, termed America"), but cool with the name California, and with its insularity.
That it would take more than a century to set the record straight again speaks to California's by now semi-legendary status. Other famous cartographic legends on the map of the Americas include Norumbega, El Dorado and Siete Ciudades.
Father Eusebio Kino's expedition (1698-1701) proved – again – that California was connected to the North American mainland. The title of his report left no doubt: 'A passage by land to California'. Still, not everyone was prepared to give up the ghost of California Island.
However, by 1747, king Ferdinand VI of Spain had had enough. Tiring of the persistent falsehood infesting his maps, he simply decreed that "California is not an island". Only after this was reconfirmed by the expeditions of Juan Bautista de Anza (1774-1776) was the fiction definitively laid to rest.
A lunar view
'Facies terrae americana in luna conspecta' ('The American face of the Earth, from a lunar perspective'): map by John Seller, part of his 'Atlas Coelestis' (London, ca. 1700). The island of California is the smaller mistake on this map – there's also a giant southern continent almost touching the southern tip of South America.
But it's hard to kill a ghost, and cartographic spectres are particularly persistent. Even as the rest of the world caught up with the facts on the ground, a Japanese map in 1865 showed California – by then thoroughly explored, well described and increasingly populated – as an island nevertheless, the last such occurrence in cartographic history.
Glen McLaughlin's collection is testament to the mesmerising power of map mistakes, over other cartographers and over collectors like himself. In 2011, and by then in his 80s, he had had enough, though: he parted with his collection, which was acquired in its entirety by Stanford University. It's now online in its entirety, featuring these maps and many others.
Mapmaking by committee
Title page illustration for Heinrich Scherer's 'Geographia Artificialis' (Munich, 1703), showing six symbolic figures (clockwise from the top: Topography, Astronomy, Mathematics, Drawing, Geometry and History) collaborating to produce a globe – which despite their best efforts shows California as an island.
'A Map of all the EARTH and how after the Flood it Was Divided among the Sons of Noah'. (Joseph Moxon, London, 1711). California is on the extreme right of the map, almost falling off (a fate that often befalls New Zealand these days). North America is green, and labelled 'Japhet'. California is yellow, but it's unclear whether this indicates it belongs to another son of Noah's (or which one).
A giant carrot
'La Californie ou Nouvelle Caroline': map by Nicolas de Fer (Paris, 1720) showing California in the shape and colour of a giant carrot, floating off the coast of North America, and proposing an alternate name for the island: 'New Carolina'. The text relates to the missionary work of the Jesuits in the area.
Catholics and heathens
Detail of a 1725 map by Christoph Weigel, showing California as a large island, with a sketchy territory to its north, labelled 'Terra Essonis'. Helpful legend in the top left corner: 'Gold Catholisch; Erdfarb Heydnisch' (yellow-coloured countries: catholic; earthen-coloured countries: heathen). California counts as catholic, as does Florida.
A polar perspective
Hemispherical map centred on the North Pole, created by Isaak Tirion in Amsterdam in 1735, showing the northern tip of the island of California (circled).
East is east and west is west
Detail of a map by Richard William Seale, created in London in 1745. While the East Coast is shaping up with names and borders still recognisable today, the West Coast is still dominated by that huge, floating island – rendered in great detail for added believability.
California as a Pacific island
'De Groote Zuyd-Zee en 't Eylandt California', created by R. and J. Ottens and printed in Amsterdam in 1745. The map shows California as a Pacific island, larger than Japan and much more defined than Australia or New Zealand, traced only in partial outlines and labelled Hollandia Nova and Zeelandia Nova.
Detail of 'L'Amérique Septentrionale', created by Jacques Chiquet in 1721 and published in Amsterdam around 1749. It shows a huge and well-defined island of California, its southern tip touching the Tropic of Cancer, facing New Mexico and New Spain across the narrow Vermillion Sea.
Drawing a blank
Detail of a map published in 1772 by Augsburg cartographer Tobias Lotter, based on earlier work by Guillaume de l'Isle. Rather than choosing between a peninsular or an insular version California, it hedges its bets by blanking out the northern part of the narrow 'Californian Sea'.
Detail of 'Novae Orbis sive Americe Septentrionalis', a map by Matthaeus Seutter (Augsburg, ca. 1790). It shows a particularly stretchy version of the Californian island, with numerous coastal place names (capes, islands) and both Drake's Nova Albion and San Diego on the island itself.
Unmade in Japan
The last representation of California as an island (in red): detail of a map published in 1865 by Shuzo Sato in Japan.
Strange Maps #980
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
(1) Continuing her husband Henry's mapmaking business after his death in 1662, Anne Seile is one of the first female mapmakers we know of.
Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
What's dead may never die, it seems<p>The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called Brain<em>Ex</em>. Brain<em>Ex </em>is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.</p><p>Brain<em>Ex</em> pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.</p><p>The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if Brain<em>Ex</em> can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.</p><p>As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.</p><p>The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.</p><p>"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told <em><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/pig-brains-partially-revived-what-it-means-for-medicine-death-ethics/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a>.</em></p>
An ethical gray matter<p>Before anyone gets an <em>Island of Dr. Moreau</em> vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.</p><p>The Brain<em>Ex</em> solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness. </p><p>Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death. </p><p>Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?</p><p>"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/science/brain-dead-pigs.html" target="_blank">the <em>New York Times</em></a>. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."</p><p>One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.</p><p>The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01216-4#ref-CR2" target="_blank">told <em>Nature</em></a> that if Brain<em>Ex</em> were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.</p><p>"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.</p><p>It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.</p><p>Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? <a href="https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/after-death-youre-aware-that-youve-died-scientists-claim" target="_blank">The distress of a partially alive brain</a>? </p><p>The dilemma is unprecedented.</p>
Setting new boundaries<p>Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, <em>Frankenstein</em>. As Farahany told <em>National Geographic</em>: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have <em>Frankenstein</em>, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."</p><p>She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.</p>
Starting and running a business takes more than a good idea and the desire to not have a boss.
- Anyone can start a business and be an entrepreneur, but the reality is that most businesses will fail. Building something successful from the ground up takes hard work, passion, intelligence, and a network of people who are equally as smart and passionate as you are. It also requires the ability to accept and learn from your failures.
- In this video, entrepreneurs in various industries including 3D printing, fashion, hygiene, capital investments, aerospace, and biotechnology share what they've learned over the years about relationships, setting and attaining goals, growth, and what happens when things don't go according to plan.
- "People who start businesses for the exit, most of them will fail because there's just no true passion behind it," says Miki Agrawal, co-founder of THINX and TUSHY. A key point of Agrawal's advice is that if you can't see yourself in something for 10 years, you shouldn't do it.
After a decade of failed attempts, scientists successfully bounced photons off of a reflector aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, some 240,000 miles from Earth.
- Laser experiments can reveal precisely how far away an object is from Earth.
- For years scientists have been bouncing light off of reflectors on the lunar surface that were installed during the Apollo era, but these reflectors have become less efficient over time.
- The recent success could reveal the cause of the degradation, and also lead to new discoveries about the Moon's evolution.
A close-up photograph of the laser reflecting panel deployed by Apollo 14 astronauts on the Moon in 1971.
NASA<p>The technology isn't quite new. During the Apollo era, astronauts installed on the lunar surface five reflecting panels, each containing at least 100 mirrors that reflect back to whichever direction it's coming from. By bouncing light off these panels, scientists have been able to learn, for example, that the Moon is drifting away from Earth at a rate of about 1.5 inches per year.<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Now that we've been collecting data for 50 years, we can see trends that we wouldn't have been able to see otherwise," Erwan Mazarico, a planetary scientist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/laser-beams-reflected-between-earth-and-moon-boost-science" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">said</a>. "Laser-ranging science is a long game."</p>
NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)
NASA<p>But the long game poses a problem: Over time, the panels on the Moon have become less efficient at bouncing light back to Earth. Some scientists suspect it's because dust, kicked up by micrometeorites, has settled on the surface of the panels, causing them to overheat. And if that's the case, scientists need to know for sure.</p><p>That's where the recent LRO laser experiment comes in. If scientists find discrepancies between the data sent back by the LRO reflector and those on the lunar surface, it could reveal what's causing the lunar reflectors to become less efficient. They could then account for these discrepancies in their models.</p>