Arthur Howard Robinson

1915 - 2004

Arthur H. Robinson died on October 10, 2004, after a brief illness. Robinson was President of the AAG in 1963 and is widely known for his creation of the Robinson Map Projection.

Born in Montreal, Canada on January 5, 1915, he received his early education in the U.S. and England. He earned a BA at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (1936), an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1938), and a PhD at Ohio State University (1947). From mid- 1941 until 1946, Robinson worked in Washington, DC, with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, and for most of that time he was Chief of the Map Division. In that position he supervised numerous types of cartographic work, including the preparation of nearly 5,000 maps, in support of the global war effort. During the war he was commissioned in the Army with the initial rank of captain, and was later promoted to major. For his distinguished service in the OSS he received the Legion of Merit.

In 1945 the University of Wisconsin- Madison offered Robinson a faculty position in the Department of Geography, and he began teaching there in 1946. He rose to become professor of geography and, in 1967, Lawrence Martin Professor of Cartography. He retired in 1980 with the rank of professor emeritus. During his long career he produced fifteen books and monographs, one of which, Elements of Cartography, went through six editions and became a preeminent textbook in cartography. However, he is probably best known to the public for the creation of the Robinson Projection, a map projection that he referred to as “a portrait of the earth.” In 1988 the National Geographic Society adopted that projection as its standard for producing world maps. The Robinson Projection was adopted by agencies of the U.S. government and many other users. Robinson’s work was internationally recognized, and among his many honors were two honorary degrees (from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and from Ohio State University), the Distinguished Service Award and the Helen Culver Gold Medal from the Geographic Society of Chicago, the Carl Mannerfelt Medal of the International Cartographic Association, the Silver Medal of the British Cartographic Society, the Osborn Maitland Miller Medal of the American Geographical Society, and the John Oliver LaGorce Medal of the National Geographic Society. He served as President of the International Cartographic Association, and as Vice President and President of the Association of American Geographers.

Arthur H. Robinson (Necrology). 2004. AAG Newsletter 39(11): 21.

Perhaps no single individual has had a greater impact on defining American cartography of the twentieth century. During his career, Arthur Howard Robinson defined the field of cartography and firmly established it as a set of elementary theories, hypotheses, principles, and concepts. Along the way he served as a model academician, deftly juggling teaching (production of students), research, and professional service. Known as Robbie to his friends, colleagues, and graduate students, Arthur Robinson set an example that few, if any, have emulated.

AHR was born on 5 January 1915 in Montreal of American parents. He died on 10 October 2004 in Madison, Wisconsin. He received his primary and secondary education in Northfield, Minnesota, and Oxford, Ohio, obtained a BA at Miami (Ohio) University with a major in History, an MA from the University of Wisconsin—Madison in Geography, and the PhD degree from The Ohio State University under Professor Guy Harold-Smith.

Robbie married Mary Elizabeth Coffin in December 1938 (Mary Lib died in January 1992). They had two children, Dr. Stephen M. Robinson and Dr. Patricia A. Robinson. In 1993 Robbie married his high school sweetheart Martha Elizabeth Rodabaugh Phillips, who survives him.

Robbie was born into an academic family. His father was a professor of history, who introduced him at an early age to travel and history. After Robbie’s compulsory education, which included a year at the Friends school in Saffron Walden, England, he graduated from McGuffey High School in Oxford, Ohio, and enrolled at Miami University. He majored in history with a minor in geography and a second minor in art. His exposure to art began early in his life with his paternal grandmother who was a noncommercial artist. While completing his undergraduate minor in art at Miami, he experimented with oil painting. His sister, also an artist, taught art at The Ohio State University and the University of Hawaii.

This training and exposure to art allowed him to help finance his graduate education by drafting maps for professors and others at both Wisconsin and Ohio State. He also freelanced the maps in several geography books, which gave him experience in the practical worlds of graphic arts materials and production.

One of the topics that Robbie often liked to talk about was the map he made for the Ohio Board of Liquor Control in 1936, which he considered his first map. The map combined the legal information on local options on the selling of beer and spirits, which varied from county to county in the state of Ohio, and the location of liquor stores.

As with many academics, World War II affected Robbie’s career. In 1941, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Richard Hartshorne, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was appointed to head the Geography Division of the newly created Branch of Research and Analysis in the Department of Intelligence (which later became the Office of Strategic Services, and subsequently the Central Intelligence Agency). Hartshorne was certain that his branch would be greatly involved with maps and after searching his academic network for the right individual, Hartshorne recruited Robbie, then 26 and a teaching assistant in geography at The Ohio State University, to join him in Washington. Robbie’s job was to develop capabilities in map making and map intelligence for wartime strategic analysis and planning. Robbie quickly rose to the position of Chief of the Map Division of the Office of Strategic Services. As the war began to wind down, he was recruited by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and accepted a faculty position beginning in September 1945, a position that he assumed in person in January 1946. He received the U.S. Army Legion of Merit Award in 1946 for his wartime services.

Assuming teaching duties in Madison in January 1946, Robbie began his extraordinary academic career as many academics do, teaching classes and working on finishing his PhD (ABD) at The Ohio State University. His dissertation, “Foundations of Cartographic Methodology,” was completed in 1949, and became the basis for his first book, The Look of Maps, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1952 (Robinson 1952). Robbie spent his entire academic career at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, retiring in 1980 to the status of Professor Emeritus.

Robbie’s Academic Life’s Work

 In 1937 during Robbie’s studies for the MS, cartography course offerings at the University of Wisconsin—Madison consisted of a one-semester course covering map projections and statistical mapping. By Robbie’s retirement in 1980, curricula leading to both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cartography, a full-service cartographic laboratory, and a well-organized map library with a full-time map librarian existed. In addition, Robbie had produced fifteen books and monographs, fifty professional papers (he added to this number of writings after his retirement), and numerous miscellaneous publications such as maps, maps in books, reviews, and encyclopedia entries. Robbie’s professional contributions fall roughly into four areas: (1) map design, (2) analytical cartography, (3) history of thematic cartography, and (4) cartographic philosophy and education.

Map Design

Robbie’s lifelong interest in map design undoubtedly grew from influences on him as a child coupled with an innate artistic ability. But in 1952 the appearance of his The Look of Maps was revolutionary for cartography and geography. Although maps had been considered useful objects, both practical and secretive throughout history, no cartographer had specifically addressed them, in English, as visualizations—a term in constant use by cartographers today. In The Look of Maps, Robbie drew attention to the synergistic overlap of artistic knowledge with the practical problems faced by cartographers. The practical problems of map making that he dealt with and solved during his wartime experience often relied on basic artistic principles. In one sense, The Look of Maps was a natural outgrowth of these experiences as it represented a true marriage of the beauty and enrichment of art to the precision and accuracy of engineering drafting.

Nothing like this treatise had appeared in English before. The only English-language cartography book was General Cartography (Raisz 1948)

By 1956, Robbie’s design interest had fostered James Flannery’s dissertation on the perception of graduate circles. This led to Robbie’s first graduate seminar on psychophysics in 1962, a seminar to which he invited the active participation of a faculty member from the Psychology Department, Dr. Fred Mote. Four of Robbie’s subsequent PhD students were part of that seminal seminar. Psychophysical studies of cartographic symbols remained a convenient master’s thesis topic for several years; the logical deductive structure of such studies lending itself easily to a yearlong master’s project. The Gestalt of a map, however, eventually overtook these studies. The value of the psychophysical studies suffered further by the introduction of computer technologies that in general transferred the control of designing a map from a few well-trained professionals to every person with access to a desktop or laptop computer. This larger group of user and makers seemingly were more responsive to the synthetic approach of the Gestalt to communicate their messages.

Following closely on the experiments of the psychophysics of map symbols was the reassessment of the basic paradigm of cartography. From a static portrayal of data, the map became recognized as a communication medium. Although the communication paradigm was readily accepted, it also fell victim to the computer revolution in cartography. One would hope that these bodies of inquiry will reappear as electronic technology is finally totally embedded in the cartographer’s bag of techniques.

Robinson followed his The Look of Maps with several other important publications on map design. “The Curve of the Grey Spectrum” (Robinson 1959), “Psychological Aspects of Color in Cartography” (Robinson 1967a), Dot Area Symbols in Cartography: The Influence of Pattern on Their Perception with Henry W. Castner (Robinson and Castner 1969), and finally “Research in Cartographic Design” (Robinson 1977).

Analytical Cartography

Today it seems almost impossible to envision a geography without spatial analysis. Yet the quantitative revolution in geography came after World War II. During Robbie’s early years at the University of Wisconsin an interdisciplinary group of faculty members from midwestern universities met to discuss using statistics in geography and cartography. The group, consisting of faculty from Chicago, Northwestern, and Madison, included many-well known names: William Krumbein, geologist from Northwestern; Ed Espenshade from Chicago; Reid Bryson and John Weaver from Madison; along with Robbie and others. From these informal seminars came such published works as “The Necessity of Weighting Values in Correlation Analysis of Areal Data” (Robinson 1956), “A Method for Describing Quantitatively the Correspondence of Geographical Distributions” (Robinson and Bryson 1957), “The Cartographic Representation of the Statistical Surface” (Robinson 1961), “A Correlation and Regression Analysis Applied to Rural Farm Population Densities in the Great Plains” (Robinson, Lindberg, and Brinkman 1961), “Mapping the Correspondence of Isarithmic Maps” (Robinson 1962), “On the Analysis and Comparison of Statistical Surfaces” (Robinson and Caroe 1967), and The Fidelity of Isopleth Maps (Robinson and Hsu 1970).

Robbie repeatedly declared that he lacked the mathematical and statistical knowledge to work with quantitative data, yet he intuitively knew that it was important to the field and encouraged his students and others to work on problems in analytical cartography. He also conceptually understood basic statistical methods as well as basic geometry.

One must include in this section Robbie’s work with projections. Up until the widespread use of computers in cartography, the study, creation, and use of projections was one area requiring advanced mathematical skills on the part of cartographers. Even today with the aid of electronic technology, the derivation and creation of map projections for specific needs remains perhaps the most mathematically involved specialization in cartography.

Early in his career, Robbie wrote a number of articles related to map projections, including “An Analytical Approach to Map Projections” (Robinson 1949), and “The Use of Deformational Data in Evaluating Map Projections” (Robinson 1951). In his later career, Robbie worked on the explication of the selection of map projections for cartographic neophytes. This work included three monographs published by the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (Robinson 1986, 1988; Robinson and Snyder 1991). But perhaps his most noted contribution to the public awareness of map projections was his devising of the Robinson Projection in 1965 under contract with Rand McNally.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Robinson set out to devise a compromise map projection (one that maintained no property of the earth’s surface curvature) yet visually (to his experienced eye) violated no property to an attention-attracting degree. The Robinson Projection (actually the fourth that he worked on, which he liked to call the Orthophanic Projection) was compiled and drafted by hand by graduate students at Wisconsin (see Figure 1)

Even though the creation would appear to be design related, Robbie allowed the noted map projection authority, John Snyder, then working for the USGS National Mapping Division to make slight alterations on the Robinson so that a table of coordinates could be assembled for the computer generation of the projection. The result of this only furthered the use of the popular projection. Again we see Robbie’s integration of the art with the science. In “A New Map Projection: Its Development and Characteristics” (Robinson 1974), this important contribution is recorded.

History of Thematic Cartography

Some of Robbie’s greatest research contributions were in the field of the history of thematic cartography, a branch of cartography he loved and to which he always returned after forays into other branches. It became his area of focus during his late career.

By 1955, Robbie was a full professor and chair of the department at Wisconsin. He had “made it” as a pioneering academic and he felt that he could devote some time to following his early love of history. One aspect in particular consumed his interests: the beginnings of thematic maps and their methodologies. “The 1837 Maps of Henry Drury Harness” (Robinson 1955) was a prime example of this interest. “The Thematic Maps of Charles Joseph Minard” (Robinson 1967b), “Humboldt’s Isothermal Lines: A Milestone in Thematic Cartography” (Robinson and Wallis 1967), “The Genealogy of the Isopleth” (Robinson 1971), “The Elusive Longitude” (Robinson 1973), and “Nathaniel Blackmore’s Plaine Chart of Nova Scotia: Isobaths in the Open Sea” (Robinson 1976) are other examples of this lifelong interest. These articles appearing over a twenty-year time span contributed directly to the compilations of two basic reference books. These two books, Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography (Robinson 1982) and Cartographical Innovations: An Historical International Handbook of Mapping Terms to 1900 (Robinson and Wallis 1987), are necessary reference books for any serious cartographer researching the long history of the field.

Robbie’s recognition as an expert on thematic mapping history led to his full membership, as representative from the United States, on the International Cartographic Association (ICA) Commission on the History of Cartography, and to his position as a corresponding member of the ICA Commission on Technical Terms.

Philosophy and Education 

Considering his experiences and his research activities, it is not surprising that Robbie had an impact on education in cartography in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. It is difficult to overestimate this impact. He has sometimes been referred to as the dean of American cartography and rightfully so. He (1) presented his conception of the field to his fellow geographers, (2) produced the most important English-language textbook in cartography of the twentieth century, (3) produced numerous solidly researched published articles on several aspects of the field, and (4) expressed his philosophy of maps. A recent memorial issue of the journal Cartographic Perspectives (Freundschuh 2005) lists more than 120 graduate professionals in the field directly stemming from Robbie’s teaching at Wisconsin.

By 1954 Robbie was noted enough within the geography establishment in America to be asked to write a chapter for the midcentury status report called American Geography: Inventory and Prospect. His chapter on “Geographic Cartography” (Robinson 1954) was received and accepted as “the word” on cartography, presenting not only a well-thought-through overview of the field, but also incorporating his own vision for the field. This was followed in 1965 by “The Potential Contribution of Cartography in Liberal Education” (Robinson 1965). This essay, in addition to laying forth Robbie’s philosophy, laid a basis for a curriculum in cartography, independent of geography, but remaining closely allied. A curriculum, however, begs for textbooks and ancillary readings. Robinson published The Elements of Cartography (Robinson 1953), and by 1965 Elements was in its second edition and preeminent in use in U.S. colleges and universities. Work on the third edition had begun. Elements set forth the fundamentals of cartographic education, and insidiously his philosophy. Quoting from the dust cover of the first edition, “Presents cartography as an intellectual art and science rather than as a sterile system of drafting and drawing procedures” (Tyner 2005)

In 1976, The Nature of Maps: Essays Toward an Understanding of Maps and Mapping (Robinson and Petchenik 1976) appeared. This small volume of six essays embodies some of Robbie’s long-term thinking about maps and mapping. Born out of a firm belief that a need for a general theory of cartography existed, Robinson and Petchenik presented their essays as an introduction to such a theory. They were very much aware of the incompleteness and deficiencies in their work, yet in their desire “to move forward significantly we must have a deeper understanding of the characteristics and processes by which the map acquires meaning from its maker and evokes meaning in its user—a general theory of cartography” (Robinson and Petchenik 1976, xi).

Therefore although Robbie worked within the recognized discipline of geography and the national geographic establishment, he firmly established cartography, producing a basic textbook that remained preeminent for almost four decades of the twentieth century, and he set the stage for and began a modern discussion of the basic philosophy of maps.

Service to the Profession

We have already discussed Robbie’s service to the nation and the profession during World War II, but that only scratches the surface “so to speak,” which incidentally was a favorite expression of his. Robbie played important roles in three professional organizations: the ICA, the Association of American Geographers (AAG), and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM).

Robbie served as president of the ICA from 1972 until 1976. Taking over the office at the ICA meetings in Ottawa following the International Geographic Union meetings in Montreal in 1972, Robbie led the ICA for four years. The ICA meeting in Madrid 1974 is remembered as one of the outstanding meetings of the organization, with the opening session speaker being King Juan Carlos of Spain and Robbie conducting the King through the international map exhibit that was assembled for the meetings. In 1976 Robbie finished his term as ICA president in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, where he had to diplomatically intervene to get the Israeli delegate admitted to the USSR, and had to select between two competing delegations from India for voting purposes. He went on to serve as past president on the executive committee from 1976 to 1980. He chaired the ICA Committee on Statutes from 1976 until 1984. He was a full member of the ICA Commission on the History of Cartography beginning in 1976 and a corresponding member of Commission II (Technical Terms) from 1964 to 1972.

Nationally, Robbie served on the ACSM Board of Directors from 1952 to 1954, and on the Cartography Division Board of Directors from 1966 to 1969. He became vice chair in 1970 and succeeded to chairman of the Cartography Division from 1971 to 1972. He was instrumental in the creation of The American Cartographer with its first issue appearing in 1974, and served as its first editor until 1976.

Within the AAG, Robbie served on the AAG Council from 1960 to 1964, serving as vice president of the organization in 1962 and 1963 and as its president from 1963 to 1964.

Robbie’s other involvements were many and included serving as cartographic advisor to the Field Enterprises Education Corp/World Book Childcraft International Inc. from 1962 to 1981, member of the Advisory Committee to the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography at the Newberry Library in Chicago, consultant to Rand McNally and to the American Geographical Society, and giving expert testimony to the Supreme Court of Ontario and the Supreme Court of the United States. He served as a member of the Governor’s Committee on State Mapping in Wisconsin and initiated and promoted legislation to establish the Office of the State Cartographer. He was co-editor of the International Yearbook of Cartography from 1961 to 1973 and contributing editor to the Canadian Cartographer from 1966 to 1973.

As noted at the outset, Robbie put his vision of cartography into practice at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He established curricula at the BA/BS and MA/MS levels at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Anyone who has worked at establishing a new curriculum at a large university knows the endless committees and meetings that must precede its acceptance. Robbie not only established the curricula, but they were joint curricula administered by the Geography Department in the College of Letters and Sciences and the Department of Civil Engineering in the College of Engineering. Therefore each College’s committee structure had to be appeased. Robbie also created the position of State Cartographer within the Civil Service of the State of Wisconsin. This required the same perseverance and persistence to navigate the committees, define the criteria, and finally to place the position within the civil service structure.

Personal Characteristics

To those of us who knew him well, five of Robbie’s personal characteristics stand out: (1) an open-mindedness to change, (2) nonpresumptiveness about others coupled with a nonpretentiousness of self, (3) ability to take the long-term view and plan accordingly, (4) the importance of making major decisions in a calm and rational manner and setting, and (5) self-discipline. Robbie’s classical liberal education in high school and at Miami University, followed by his master’s at the University of Wisconsin and final graduate study at The Ohio State University coupled with the frequent intellectual discussions around the family table, prepared him well for a lifetime of willingness to listen to the opinions of others. He could borrow and craft from these opinions and in combination with his own logic and finely honed intuition, create personal and academic plans of note. These skills allowed him to make decisions that could stand the tests of argument yet could be revised to fit the time and place of the current circumstance. In short, he was a comprehensive thinker and master planner and politician.

Robbie received many awards during his career including two honorary degrees: one from Miami (Ohio) University and one from The Ohio State University. He was a Guggenheim Research Fellow in 1964 and again in 1978. He received the Carl Mannerfelt Gold Medal from the ICA in 1981, the Helen Culver Gold Medal from the Geographic Society of Chicago in 1983, the John Oliver LaGorce Medal from the National Geographic Society in 1988, and the O. M. Miller award of the American Geographical Society in 1998.

Finally, from all of us who knew Robbie and learned both under his tutelage and by working with him, we mourn the passing of one who contributed to our knowledge and to our own well-being. At the same time we rejoice in being able to be the recipients of his pioneering work in establishing cartography as a solid field, closely aligned with geography and geographic information science. To Arthur H. Robinson we owe a depth of appreciation for which the words “Thank you, Robbie” seem completely inadequate.

Referenced Bibliography of Robinson Publications 

  • 1949. An analytical approach to map projections. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 39:283-90.
  • 1951. The use of deformational data in evaluating map projections. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 41:58-74.
  • 1952. The look of maps. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
  • 1953. Elements of cartography. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • 1954. Geographical cartography. In American geography: Inventory and prospect, ed. P. E. James and C. F. Jones, 553-77. New York: Syracuse University Press.
  • 1955. The 1837 maps of Henry Drury Harness. Geographical Journal 121:440-50.
  • 1956. The necessity of weighting values in correlation analysis of areal data. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 46:233-36.
  • 1957. (with R. A. Bryson) A method for describing quantitatively the correspondence of geographical distributions. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 47:379-91.
  • 1959. The curve of the grey spectrum: A review. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 49:457-60.
  • 1961. The cartographic representation of the statistical surface. International Yearbook of Cartography 1:53-63.
  • 1961. (with J. B. Lindberg and L.W. Brinkman) Acorrelation and regression analysis applied to rural farm population densities in the Great Plains. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 51:211-21.
  • 1962. Mapping the correspondence of isarithmic maps. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 52:414-25.
  • 1965. The potential contribution of cartography in liberal education. In Geography in liberal education, 34-47. Association of American Geographers.
  • 1967a. Psychological aspects of color in cartography. International Yearbook of Cartography 7:50-9.
  • 1967b. The thematic maps of Charles Joseph Minard. Imago Mundi 21:95-108.
  • 1967. (with L. Caroe) On the analysis and comparison of statistical surfaces. In Quantitative geography: Part 1. Northwestern University Studies in Geography 13:252-76.
  • 1967. (with H.Wallis) Humboldt’s isothermal lines: A milestone in thematic cartography. The Cartographic Journal 4:119-23.
  • 1969. (with H. Castner) Dot area symbols in cartography: The influence of pattern on their perception. Technical Monograph CA-4. Washington, DC: Cartography Division, American Congress on Surveying and Mapping.
  • 1970. (with M.-L. Hsu) The fidelity of isopleth maps. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • 1971. The genealogy of the isopleth. The Cartographic Journal 8:49-53.
  • 1973. The elusive longitude. Surveying and Mapping 33:447-54.
  • 1974. A new map projection: Its development and characteristics. International Yearbook of Cartography 14:145-55.
  • 1976. Nathaniel Blackmore’s plaine chart of Nova Scotia: Isobaths in the open sea? Imago Mundi 28:137-44.
  • 1976. (with B. Petchenik) The nature of maps: Essays toward an understanding of maps and mapping. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • 1977. Research in cartographic design. The American Cartographer 4:163-69.
  • 1982. Early thematic mapping in the history of cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • 1986. Which map is best? Special Publication No. 1. Falls Church, VA: American Cartographic Association, American Congress on Surveying and Mapping.
  • 1987. (with H. Wallis) Cartographical innovations: An historical international handbook of mapping terms to 1900. St. Albans, Herts: Campfield Press.
  • 1988. Choosing a world map. Special Publication No. 2. Falls Church, VA: American Cartographic Association, American Congress on Surveying and Mapping.
  • 1991. (with J. P. Snyder) Matching the map projection to the need. Special Publication No. 3. Bethesda, MD: American Cartographic Association, American Congress on Surveying and Mapping.


  • 1. Freundschuh, S. (ed) (2005) Cartographic Perspectives p. 51. — Spring
  • 2. Petchenik, B. Taylor, D. R. F. (ed) (1983) A mapmaker’s perspective on map design research 1950-1980. Graphic communication and design in contemporary cartography, pp. 37-68. Wiley , New York
  • 3. Raisz, E. (1938) General cartography McGraw-Hill , New York
  • 4. Raisz, E. (1948) General cartography, 2nd ed., McGraw-Hill , New York
  • 5. Tyner, J. (2005) Elements of cartography: Tracing fifty years of academic cartography. Cartographic Perspectives 51 , pp. 4-13.

Morrison, Joel, “Arthur Howard Robinson, 1915-2004.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98, no. 1 (2008): 232-238