LONDON TIMES – Obituary – December 10th, 2002


ARNO PETERS: Advocate of equality in all things who created an evenly proportioned world map


An historian by training, Arno Peters was best known for his world map, the Peters World Map, which brought him worldwide notoriety in the wake of its introduction at a press conference in Germany in 1974. The map, which was first published in an English-language version in 1983, became one of the most heavily debated images of the world, avoiding as it does the distortions of the Mercator projection, but at the cost of certain compressions of its own.

A man of remarkable charm and gentleness, Peters nevertheless courted controversy and drew some vitriol, especially from members of the cartographic establishment. There were those who contended that his world map projection plagiarised an earlier invention by the Rev James Gall, published in 1855 and known today as Gall’s stereographic projection. Gall’s map was in fact very slightly different from that of Peters, but it was not until relatively late in life that Peters became aware of its existence. In deference to Gall, in the last year of his life Peters altered the title of his version from the Peters Projection to the Peters World Map.

The guiding doctrine that ran through his thinking on history, cartography, politics and economics alike, is summed up by the word “equality”. His passionate belief in giving all an equal chance would seem innocent enough, but it was Peters’s insistence on applying it in the face of well-established bigotry in a number of different disciplines that brought him enemies and not a little misunderstanding. Peters maintained a steadfast equanimity in the face of criticism.

His map caught the eye of Willy Brandt, then Chancellor of a West Germany which was beginning to claim a world role. Brandt pounced on it as a powerful symbol of the equality of nations, no matter what their per capita income, and the map found its way on to the walls of every head and branch office of every United Nations agency.

In his cartographic thinking, Peters considered that most world maps in common use — especially his bête noire the Mercator projection, beloved of school atlases — seriously misled the reader through their gross exaggeration of scale towards the poles. His “equal-area” map redressed the balance, but the price to be paid was a distortion of shape, crushing the land towards the poles and stretching it across the equator.

The map was, however, a timely product in a world of globalisation, and its unusual shape inadvertently became an icon of left-wing thinking, selling more than 80 million copies worldwide in several languages. Perhaps its greatest contribution was to provoke thought and discussion about how we view our world.

Peters extended his concept of equality in mapping with the publication of the Peters Atlas of the World, which was first published in Britain in 1989 and went on to appear in versions in German, Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, and in the United States in the following year. It remains the only world atlas that shows all land areas at the same scale, regardless of their perceived importance, including uninhabited areas such as the Antarctic.

Peters’s chief publication outside cartography was his Synchronoptische Weltgeschichte (Synchronoptic World History) published in Germany in 1952 and not, so far, translated. It is a chronological chart in which each century from 3000BC is given equal space on the page.

In Peters’s opinion the increasing complexity of history, and our increased knowledge of its details near the present, was thus ironed out over this constant backdrop of time. But this view of history inevitably led to some strange anomalies: the 29th century BC received as much space as the 20th century AD, and the story of the Incas of Peru covered as many square inches as the history of Europe in the Middle Ages. The history was reissued in two volumes as the Große Synchronoptische Weltgeschichte in 1965 and has never been out of print.

Peters’s originality also extended to musical notation, where in an age of colour printing he viewed the use of black and white as unnecessarily restrictive. He invented a new notation using a different colour for each note on the scale, opening the world of music to many who thought they could never appreciate it. But established tradition proved too strong and the method was not widely adopted.

Arno Peters was born in Berlin in 1916 and educated there at the University of Berlin, where he studied history, the history of art and journalism. He received his PhD from the University of Berlin but he never held public office, working instead as a private scholar from 1941 onwards. In 1974 he co-founded the Institut für Universalgeschichte (Institute for Universal History) in Bremen, of which he became head and where he worked on his historical and geographical cartographical presentations, and on his theories of history. He was awarded an honorary professorship from the University of Bremen, and received many other accolades.

Self-effacing yet adept at publicising his work, Peters once said of himself: “I do not see myself as a creator, rather as a catalyst.” A resolute determination to succeed gave him boundless energy, impelling him to entertain projects which to others would seem doomed through their sheer magnitude.

An example was his proposal to alter the Greenwich Meridian to run through the Bering Strait on the longitude of the international dateline. Logical but impossibly costly to implement, it remains, perhaps, for some future cartographer reintroduce the idea. In the meantime the Meridian remains immovably at Greenwich.

Married three times, Arno Peters is survived by his wife Marzena and by seven children, four of his first marriage, one of his second and two of his third.

Arno Peters, cartographer and historian, was born in Berlin on May, 22, 1916. He died in Bremen on December 2, 2002, aged 86