The Peters projection (1973), also called the Gall-Peters projection, is an equal-area projection, a way to show the round Earth as a rectangle while keeping all the areas that are equal on Earth equal on the map. It comes at the cost of making some continents and countries appear narrower than they are.
Its glory days were the 1970s and 1980s when it was beloved by the likes of UNESCO, UNICEF, Oxfam and the pope. Cartographers hated it, mainly because it was the work of an outsider.
It was invented by Arno Peters, a German historian, in 1973 – and by James Gall, a Scottish pastor, in 1855. And maybe by Marinus of Tyre too, in AD 100 or so.
Gall thought it was kind of interesting, while Peters thought it was the way, the truth and the light.
In the 1950s Peters wrote a world history book for East and West German schools. He did not like the Eurocentrism of most world histories in the West. Like how they pretty much start in the middle of history with Greece and Rome and then act like nothing much was going on in the world during the Western Dark Ages. So by design he gave equal time periods equal space.
He wanted a map to go with the book, one just as un-Eurocentric, one that gave equal areas, you know, equal areas.
Back then world maps in the West most commonly used the Mercator projection (1569). It was Eurocentric: Europe seems larger than South America while North America seems larger than Africa – when in fact both continents are much smaller than that.
Meanwhile, Rand McNally, an American map publisher, was also working on a new projection. In 1961 they asked Canadian cartographer Arthur Robinson to make one that was not too distorted and pleasing to the eye. It would become the most common projection in the West, the one National Geographic used in the 1990s:
In Robinson’s projection Europe and North America still appear bigger than they are.
Peters and Robinson each thought his own map was the most accurate, the most objective.
In making a flat map of a round world there will be distortions no matter what you do. You have to make trade-offs depending on the purpose of the map.
Mercator, for example, probably would not care that Greenland is freakishly huge on his map because it was not meant for schoolteachers of geography but ship captains of east-west sea trade.
What neither Peters nor Robinson seemed to understand, but which the Peters projection made plain to others, is that map-making is a political act, that every map has biases.
Even Peters himself did not completely escape his own Eurocentrism: Europe’s shape is way less distorted than Africa’s and it is still top and centre.
Source: “A History of the World in Twelve Maps” (2012) by Jerry Brotton.