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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
(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.
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.
Welcome to the world's newest motorsport: manned multicopter races that exceed speeds of 100 mph.
- Airspeeder is a company that aims to put on high-speed races featuring electric flying vehicles.
- The so-called Speeders are able to fly at speeds of up to 120 mph.
- The motorsport aims to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector, which could usher in the age of air taxis.
Credit: Airspeeder<p>To prevent crashes, Airspeeder is working with the companies Acronis and Teknov8 to develop "high-speed collision avoidance" systems for its Speeders.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"As they compete, Speeders will utilise cutting-edge LiDAR and Machine Vision technology to ensure close but safe racing, with defined and digitally governed no-fly areas surrounding spectators and officials," Airspeeder wrote in a <a href="https://airspeeder.com/news/2020/9/7/airspeeder-worlds-first-flying-electric-car-racing-series-partners-with-cyber-protection-leader-acronis-34g4k" target="_blank">blog post</a>.</p>
Credit: Airspeeder<p>Beyond motorsports, Airspeeder hopes to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector. This sector is where companies like <a href="https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/business-aviation/2020-01-07/hyundai-and-uber-announce-evtol-air-taxi-partnership" target="_blank">Uber, Hyundai</a>, and Airbus are working to develop air taxis, which could someday take the ridesharing industry into the skies. By 2040, the autonomous urban aircraft industry could be worth $1.5 trillion, according to a <a href="https://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/autonomous-aircraft" target="_blank">2019 report</a> from Morgan Stanley.</p><p>Still, many technical and regulatory hurdles remain. Matt Pearson, Airspeeder's founder and CEO, thinks the futuristic motorsport will help to not only speed up that process, but also pave the way for self-driving cars.</p>
Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.
Minimoons<p>Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_RH120" target="_blank">2006 RH120</a>, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_CD3" target="_blank">2020 CD3</a>, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.</p><p>2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.</p><div id="37962" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4c0fc8a2cba6536ea4cd960ebed3e6e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1307729521869611008" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture… https://t.co/F5utxRvN6Z</div> — Tony Dunn (@Tony Dunn)<a href="https://twitter.com/tony873004/statuses/1307729521869611008">1600621989.0</a></blockquote></div>
Identifying 2020 SO<p>The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank">average rate of travel</a> <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rock" target="_blank">moon rocks</a> sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.</p><p>For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.</p><p>So, what is it? <a href="https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/" target="_blank">NASA estimates</a> that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveyor 2 mission</a> that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.</p><p>When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2010.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDk3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1MTQ1MX0.HGknDwqp0GmeuczKY_AS7vrPG7KMFUc_XO95tNoI2xo/img.jpg?width=980" id="e5cda" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85eb1f790d8c3ee5b261f7ba13eaa5e1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Centaur rocket stage" />
Centaur rocket stage
What we may be able to learn<p>Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.</p><p>While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.</p><p>Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.</p>
From cryonics to time travel, here are some of the (highly speculative) methods that might someday be used to bring people back to life.
- Alexey Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, researchers belonging to the transhumanism movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways technology might someday make resurrection possible.
- The methods are highly speculative, ranging from cryonics to digital reconstruction of individual personalities.
- Surveys suggest most people would not choose to live forever if given the option.
Immortality and identity<p>The paper defines life as a "continued stream of subjective experiences" and death as the permanent end of that stream. Immortality, to them, is a "life stream without end," and resurrection is the "continuation of that same stream of experiences after an arbitrarily long gap."</p><p>Another key clarification is the identity problem: How would you know that a downloaded copy of yourself really was going to be <em>you? </em>Couldn't it just be a convincing yet incomplete and fundamentally distinct representation of your brain?</p><p>If you believe that your copy is not <em>you</em>, that implies you believe there's something more to your identity than the (currently) quantifiable information contained within your brain and body, according to the researchers. In other words, your "informational identity" does not constitute your true identity.</p><p>In this scenario, there must exist what the researchers call a "non-informational identity carrier" (NIIC). This could be something like a "soul." It could be "qualia," which are the unmeasurable "subjective experiences which could be unique to every person." Or maybe it doesn't exist at all.</p><p>It's no matter: The researchers say resurrection, in some form, should be possible in either scenario.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If no 'soul' exist[s], resurrection is possible via information preservation; if soul[s] exist, resurrection is possible via returning of the "soul" into the new body. But some forms of NIIC are also very fragile and mortal, like continuity," the researchers noted.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The problem of the nature of human identity could be solved by future superintelligent AI, but for now it cannot be definitively solved. This means that we should try to preserve as much identity as possible and not refuse any approaches to life extension and resurrection even if they contradict our intuitions about identity, as our notions of identity could change later."</p>
Potential resurrection methods<p>Turchin and Chernyakov outline seven broad categories of potential resurrection methods, ranked from the most plausible to most speculative.<br></p><p>The first category includes methods practiced while the person is alive, like cryonics, plastination, and preserving brain tissue through processes like chemical fixation. The researchers noted that there have been "suggestions that the claustrum, hypothalamus, or even a single neuron is the neural correlate of consciousness," so it may be possible to preserve just that part of a person, and later implant it into another organism.</p><p>Other methods get far stranger. For example, one method includes super-intelligent AI that uses a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyson_sphere#:~:text=A%20Dyson%20sphere%20is%20a,percentage%20of%20its%20power%20output." target="_blank">Dyson sphere</a> to harness the power of the sun to "power enormous calculation engines" that would "reconstruct" people who collected a sufficient amount of data on their identities.</p>
Turchin<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The main idea of a resurrection-simulation is that if one takes the DNA of a past person and subjects it to the same developmental condition, as well as correcting the development based on some known outcomes, it is possible to create a model of a past person which is very close to the original," the researchers wrote.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"DNA samples of most people who lived in past 1 to 2 centuries could be extracted via global archeology. After the moment of death, the simulated person is moved into some form of the afterlife, perhaps similar to his religious expectations, where he meets his relatives."</p><p>Delving further into sci-fi territory, another resurrection method would use time-travel technology.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If there will at some point be technology that allows travel to the past, then our future descendants will be able to directly save people dying in the past by collecting their brains at the moment of death and replacing them with replicas," the paper states.</p><p>How? Sending tiny robots back in time.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"A nanorobot could be sent several billion years before now, where it could secretly replicate and sow nanotech within all living being[s] without affecting the course of history. At the moment of death, such nanorobots could be activated to collect data about the brain and preserve it somewhere until its future resurrection; thus, there would be no need for forward time travel."</p>
Pixabay<p>The paper <a href="https://www.academia.edu/36998733/Classification_of_the_approaches_to_the_technological_resurrection" target="_blank">goes on to outline some more resurrection methods</a>, including ones that involve parallel worlds, aliens, and clones, along with a good, old-fashioned possibility: God exists and one day he resurrects us. </p><p>In short, it's all extremely speculative.</p><p>But the aim of the paper was to catalogue known potential ways humans might be able to cheat death. For Turchin, that's not some far-off project: In addition to studying global risks and transhumanism, the Russian researcher heads the <a href="http://immortality-roadmap.com/" target="_blank">Immortality Roadmap</a>, which, similar to the 2018 paper, outlines various ways in which we might someday achieve immortality.</p><p>Although it may take centuries before humans come close to "digital immortality," Turchin believes that life-extension technology could allow some modern people to survive long enough to see it happen. </p><p>Want a shot at being among them? Beyond the obvious, like staying healthy, the Immortality Roadmap suggests you start collecting extensive data on yourself: diaries, video recordings, DNA information, EEGs, complex creative objects — all of which could someday be used to digitally "reconstruct" your identity.</p>But odds are you're not interested. Although Turchin and other scientists are bent on finding ways to avoid death and extend life indefinitely, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/may/16/dying-still-taboo-subject-poll" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">surveys</a> <a href="https://quillette.com/2018/03/02/would-you-opt-for-immortality/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">repeatedly</a> <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutesvanity-fair-poll-the-afterlife/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">show</a> that most people would not opt to live forever if given the choice.