Celebrating Unusual Maps: The Winning Dymaxion Redux and Cahill's Butterfly

By Wesley Fenlon

The Dymaxion is an iconic, though little-used, map. Cahill's butterfly is even more obscure, but may be an even better 2D representation of the Earth.

Earlier this year we wrote about the revival of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion map, which has long been a favorite of triangle-loving cartographers. The Buckminster Fuller Institute held a contest for map lovers to submit a Dymax Redux design, reinterpreting the classic shape of the Dymaxion with a new visual appearance. The Dymaxion unfolds the globe into a series of triangles, designed to preserve the size and shape of the Earth's landmasses. The winner of the contest was the Dymaxion Woodocean World, a gorgeous woodcut Fuller map.

The Dymaxion competition has also revived a bit of a cartographer competition, as Wired describes in Projection Smackdown: Cahill's Butterfly vs. the Dymaxion Map. The Dymaxion map is presented as a more accurate competitor to the popular Mercator projection, which distorts the sizes of continents. But the lesser-known Cahill Butterfly may be more accurate still.

Cahill "proposed skinning the globe into eight triangular lobes, a method invented by Leonardo Da Vinci," Wired writes. "Rather than arrange them into a clover, as Da Vinci did, Cahill made a butterfly shape. He was interested in balance, and obsessed with his projection’s aesthetic. And his math was not too shabby either. The lobes – also called gores – are each exactly 90 degrees wide and run 10,000 km along the edge. There is practically no distortion along the edges of each lobe. The lines of latitude and longitude shrink towards the middle of each lobe. The overall effect is a map that can be scaled to any size, and errors that are easy to calculate and correct."

Image via geographer-at-large.blogspot.com.

Fuller's Dymaxion map presents the world from an uncommon vantage point. There's no "right" way to look at the map, nothing that suggests North America should be "above" South America, and so on. Wired points out one problem that the Dymaxion map has that Cahill's butterfly avoids, however.

"Take a look at the United States on the Fuller map," Wired writes. "See the diagonal line that bisects the country? Notice the graticules? They run away from the seam at different angles, a pattern that repeats itself across the entire map. Every facet of the Dymaxion map has a different pattern of longitude and latitude. There isn’t a single large landmass on the planet that’s free from bent meridians and broken parallels."

Neither map is exactly great for navigation, but the butterfly map at least preserves longitude and latitude. The Dymaxion Redux competition helped a new audience appreciate Fuller's map; maybe someday, someone will do the same for Cahill's butterfly.