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Geographic coordinate system facts for kids

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Map of Earth showing lines of latitude (horizontally) and longitude (vertically), Eckert VI projection; large version (pdf, 1.8MB)

A geographical coordinate system is a coordinate system. This means that every place can be specified by a set of three numbers, called coordinates.

A full circle can be divided into 360 degrees (or 360°); this was first done by the Babylonians; Ancient Greeks, like Ptolemy later extended the theory.

Today, degrees are divided further. There are minutes, and seconds; 1 minute (or 1') in this context is 1/60 of a degree; 1 second (or 1") is 1/60 of a minute.

The first concept needed is called latitude (Lat, or the Greek symbol "phi", \scriptstyle{\phi}\,\!). For it, the Earth is cut up into 180 circles, from the Equator at 0°. The poles are at 90°, the North Pole is at 90° N(orth), the South Pole is at 90° S(outh). Places with the same latitude are on a circle, around the Earth.

The other concept is called longitude (Long, or the Greek symbol "lambda", \scriptstyle{\lambda}\,\!), sometimes referred to as "meridian". The 0° longitude line (or zero meridian) goes through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Greenwich is a part of London. Then lines are drawn in a similar way; the opposite (or "antipodal") meridian of Greenwich is considered both 180°W(est), and 180°E(ast).

The third number is the height, altitude, or depth. This is given with respect to some fixed (usually easily calculable point). One of these is called mean sea level.


The invention of a geographic coordinate system is generally credited to Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who composed his now-lost Geography at the Library of Alexandria in the 3rd century BC. A century later, Hipparchus of Nicaea improved on this system by determining latitude from stellar measurements rather than solar altitude and determining longitude by timings of lunar eclipses, rather than dead reckoning. In the 1st or 2nd century, Marinus of Tyre compiled an extensive gazetteer and mathematically-plotted world map using coordinates measured east from a prime meridian at the westernmost known land, designated the Fortunate Isles, off the coast of western Africa around the Canary or Cape Verde Islands, and measured north or south of the island of Rhodes off Asia Minor. Ptolemy credited him with the full adoption of longitude and latitude, rather than measuring latitude in terms of the length of the midsummer day.

Ptolemy's 2nd-century Geography used the same prime meridian but measured latitude from the Equator instead. After their work was translated into Arabic in the 9th century, Al-Khwārizmī's Book of the Description of the Earth corrected Marinus' and Ptolemy's errors regarding the length of the Mediterranean Sea, causing medieval Arabic cartography to use a prime meridian around 10° east of Ptolemy's line. Mathematical cartography resumed in Europe following Maximus Planudes' recovery of Ptolemy's text a little before 1300; the text was translated into Latin at Florence by Jacobus Angelus around 1407.

In 1884, the United States hosted the International Meridian Conference, attended by representatives from twenty-five nations. Twenty-two of them agreed to adopt the longitude of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England as the zero-reference line. The Dominican Republic voted against the motion, while France and Brazil abstained. France adopted Greenwich Mean Time in place of local determinations by the Paris Observatory in 1911.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Coordenadas geográficas para niños

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