Map making is a lost art these days because we all have multiple online map sources that cover pretty much the whole world. The age of exploration is over, and with the help of satellites, GPS, and computers every corner of the globe is surveyed and mapped.

But throughout history explorers, surveyors, and mapmakers were respected members of society who all were responsible for crafting maps one way or another. They held essential jobs and performed some of the most complex work in society. Explorers and sailors gathered precious data, some even drawing their maps during journeys; surveyors were responsible for plotting accessible areas and both supplied data to map makers who drew maps, either local or maps of lands they never visited.

Cartography, exploration, and surveying were much more critical than today because those disciplines gave shape to the world and charted substantial blank areas that were inaccessible to the majority of humans. And it was all done with relatively simple tools, some dating back to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Rome. Today we will talk about these tools and will show just how maps were made before modern technology came and wholly transformed cartography.

Tools used by explorers

Firstly, let’s look at tools and instruments used by explorers, who were often the only source of data for map makers and who’s unmatched bravery led to humanity conquering and plotting the world. Instruments used by explorers usually were for navigation, but the information they provided could also be used in mapping coasts and new, previously unknown territories.


alt This instrument was used to measure local latitude based on local time by measuring an inclined position in the sky of a celestial body, usually the Northern Star. Once the geodetic latitude was known, sailors and explorers could calculate their position and plot it on a map. It was used by astronomers but also by explorers and surveyors and was very important for sailors.

The mariner’s astrolabe was invented to be used on a rocky ship deck because the classic astrolabe wasn’t accurate when used on rocky decks, or during heavy winds.


alt Another instrument for measuring local latitude, the quadrant was more precise than astrolabe and used for measuring the time of day and longitude in addition to latitude. It was preferred instrument by many explorers, and it worked by measuring angles of celestial bodies (the sun and the Northern Star).

Jacob's staff

alt Jacob's staff or cross-staff was another tool used by explorers. It is a pole dotted with length markings and was used to determine angles and to calculate latitude, or distances between objects, and to calculate where a person is located on a map. It was later replaced by sextant, which was much more accurate.


alt One of the most known instruments used for measuring the angular distance between two visible objects. The device was usually used to measure the angle between the horizon and one of the visible astronomical objects (like the Sun at noon, or the Northern Star during the night), giving a person information needed to calculate latitude.

Further, by measuring lunar distance (angular distance between the Moon and another celestial body) between the Moon and another celestial body (usually the Northern Star) gave explorers means to calculate longitude. The sextant was extremely precise because it allowed users to take measurements relative to the horizon instead relative to the instrument (like the cross-staff, quadrant, and astrolabe) and is still used on ships as a backup navigation tool.

Magnetic Compass

This instrument is by far the most known and was, and still is, used by all sailors and explorers for navigation and creating charts. It is always reliable because it doesn’t require clear skies and is perfect for finding headings.

Traverse Board

alt This is a recording device used for recording direction sailed along with ship’s speed during a watch. The data was used to calculate the current position of a vessel on the chart or a map.


Charts were used for plotting positions of a ship or a ground expedition. Along with other navigation data (longitude and latitude), chart plots were used by cartographers for drawing maps.

Surveying Tools

Land surveying was used for creating map data about local, accessible areas, by determining positions of different points and objects and distances between those points and objects. Land surveying has lots of other uses, but today we are talking about cartography and will present tools used in the past for creating maps.


Similar to astrolabe but much larger and not designed for mobile usage, cosmolabe was used for surveying and navigation by measuring angles between different celestial bodies.


alt Dioptra is an ancient surveying instrument used for measuring angles between different visible points. The tool was used for a long time but ultimately was replaced by theodolite, sometimes during the sixteenth century.


alt A Theodolite is an important tool in land surveying that is used for measuring angles between two visible points. This can be done both in horizontal and vertical planes. A classic theodolite is made out of a telescope mounted on top of a non-movable base capable of rotating around horizontal and vertical axes, providing angular readouts of a point or object.

After delivering angle readouts of the first point, the telescope is moved in order to give readings of other locations while staying at the same position. These are later used for drawing map points.


alt A surveying tool used for angle measurements, graphometer is made out of diameter with two sights, compass placed in the middle of the diameter, and a semicircular limb holding diameter and compass, which is divided into 180 degrees. The instrument is mounted on staff and then used for calculating angles between two visible objects.


alt Alidade was used by surveyors to draw lines on charts or to measure angles between objects. The instruments were later used as a basis for theodolite as well as a part of a sextant.

Other tools

Surveyors used plenty of other tools such as measuring chains for measuring distances between objects, levels for establishing points in the same horizontal plane or relative heights of objects, measuring tapes, different staffs and rods used for leveling or marking positions of different points, and of course compass was used for angle measurement (in the form of prismatic compass which features angles plotted around its edges).

Tools used by map makers

And finally, we have the tools used by map makers. These tools were used mostly for precision map drawing.

Ten-point divider

alt This instrument is used for dividing distances between two points on a map. It helps cartographers to read distances and to divide drawn objects evenly.

Engineering Scales

alt Engineering scales are used for taking various measurements and for creating scaled copies by measuring distances on the original map and then calculating scaled distances used during the creation of a scaled copy.

Proportional divider

alt Another tool used in creating of scaled map copies. Map maker would set the scale difference, which was between 10 and 110 percent and then one end would be used to measure distance on the original map and the other end to mark measured distance on a scaled copy.

Map Measuring Tool

alt As its name implies, this tool is used for measuring distances on a map. Once you measure a distance between two points on a map, you can then calculate the actual distance by using measured distance and the map’s scale.

Stanley Improved Pantograph

alt Another tool used for creating scaled map copies. The tool was capable not only producing reduced scale copy but also drawing exact scale copy and enlarged copy.

Mechanical Protractor

alt This instrument is an angle measuring tool that helps map makers to accurately measure angles between two points on a map while maintaining true angles.

Rolling Parallel Rule

This tool is used for drawing parallel lines and aligning text on a map.

Rolling Disc Planimeter

alt Rolling Disc Planimeter is a complex tool that enables cartographers to measure the size of an area on a map. It traces the area’s outline, and then the dial reading shown on the instrument is used for calculating area’s size.

Mechanical Dashed Line Instrument

alt This one’s used for drawing map symbols like roads, state boundaries, rivers, mountains, buildings, etc.

Curve Drafting Set

A set of tools that helped map makers to draw arcs of geographic latitude and longitude as well as other types of curves.