Redrawing France with the "La Hire Map"

Posted on July 18, 2019

By Joe Catanzaro - SCRC Volunteer

Today's blog post is written by Joe Catanzaro, an SCRC Volunteer who specializes in processing and describing maps. Read on to learn more about a pivotal moment in cartography captured in our collections.

“Your work has cost me a large part of my state!” - King Louis XIV

Title page for map of "France, Corrected from ye Observations Made By the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris" by John Senex, 1708. The map features etching illustrations of King Louis XIV, framed alongside a man dressed in military garb, including a sword and helmet. Another individual towards the bottom of the page holds a crown.
The Senex Map

Twenty percent of the land area “disappeared” from the map of France on May 1, 1682. On that date, members of the French Royal Academy of Sciences, presented a map of the coastal-outline of France to King Louis XIV as he had commissioned them. “Draw a map of the whole of France with the greatest accuracy possible,” he commanded. The map, titled “Carte de France corrigée par ordre du Roi sur les observations de Mss. de l’Académie des Sciences,” exposed previous maps of France to be some 160,000 square kilometers larger than reality. Known widely as the “La Hire map,” for one of its authors, Philippe de la Hire, it is the first national survey to use the most current science, modern trigonometric methods, and state of the art instruments. It precisely fixed points of latitude and longitude resulting in an outline of the coast of France accurate still today. It became the framework map for the production of 186 large scale topographic maps displaying the interior of all of France.

The “La Hire map” shows the corrected coastline of France as a dark line next to a lighter shaded line of the coastline on a map made by Nicolas Sanson, the “Father of French Cartography.” Sanson published mostly small scale maps and atlases for the leisure viewing and entertainment of those wealthy enough to afford them. They were inadequate for the King’s purpose. King Louis required detailed, large-scale maps of all of France to advance his commercial, political and military agenda.

The northwest coast of France as illustrated on the Senex map. The newly drawn coast line is considerably different than the previous map projection. The previous coastline is outlined in black. The updated boundaries of France are colored in blue-green.
The northwest coast of France as shown on the Senex map. Note the difference in latitude and longitude of the town of Brest between the map and the outlined coast.

Among the maps in the collection of Colonel John Womack Wright (John Womack Wright Papers, UA 5.056) housed in Special Collections is one

published by John Senex, noted English geographer of the period. Titled “France. Corrected from ye Observations Made by the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, 1708,” the Senex map dramatically portrays the 160,000 square kilometer error in the mapping of France. Superimposed upon the previously accepted boundaries as determined by Sanson and Dutch cartographers is a map of the coastal-outline of France according to La Hire. The Senex map points out dramatically the errors in determining the latitude and longitude of fixed points.

Since La Hire, map makers employed advances in science and engineering to produce accurate large scale topographical maps. Thanks to the efforts of members of the French Royal Academy of Sciences, cartography was transformed from little more than an art form to a science.


References and More to Explore:

Finding aid for the John Womack Wright Papers (UA 5.056) on the Special Collections Research Center database.

Digitized version of “Carte de France corrigée par ordre du Roi sur les observations de Mss. de l’Académie des Sciences" from the Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France).

Learn more about the life and work of Philippe de la Hire.

Learn more about the life and work of John Senex.