The Economics of Maps

17 November 2006 at 5:10 pm Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

I’ve always loved maps. Maybe I should have specialized in economic geography, like my friend Pierre Desrochers. Anyway, I enjoyed reading this EH.Net review of Mary Sponberg Pedley’s The Commerce of Cartography: Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-century France and England (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Maps are information goods, characterized by strong increasing returns and frequently sold through unorthodox marketing strategies. Economists have studied competition among telephone directories — part of an interesting “nothing-new-under-the-sun” theme — but I don’t recall seeing anything on competition among cartographers.

Excerpt from Susan Danforth’s review:

As a map curator, I recall students and researchers over the years who felt certain that as soon as a new place was “discovered,” as soon as a significant event was reported, it would certainly appear on a map, because it made sense that the “public” would demand and support the publication of scientifically accurate, up-to-date maps. So it is interesting to read that the French cartographer Guillaume Delisle was praised by his contemporaries for adding new information to his maps slowly, so as not to shock his public. Other eighteenth-century commentators were happy to see that mapmakers left outdated information on maps “just in case.” Perhaps the island in the middle of the Pacific that hadn’t been seen in fifty years was there after all. What mapmaker would want to be responsible for a shipwreck? “In the end,” Pedley says, “what sold maps was price. A copy or counterfeit was as good as the real thing to the consumer.”

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Institutions.

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