EARLY last summer, cartographers at the National Geographic Society here were putting the final touches on the latest edition of the Society's atlas, the first in nearly a decade and one of its biggest publishing events in years. But at the last minute history refused to cooperate.
As the presses started rolling there was still no word on the final detail of the biggest map-making story of the post-war era decade: whether the capital of a united Germany would be Bonn or Berlin. With time running out, the editors decided to put stars on both cities.
``We wanted to be timely and up to date with the atlas but no one was willing to make the call,'' recalls John Garver, National Geographic's chief cartographer.
Finally, on Sept. 21, a late call came from the German Embassy: the East and West German parliaments had just voted for Berlin. After a hasty conference, senior Geographic officials decided to stop the presses, close down the bindery, and print new maps.
The switch cost $100,000 and left the Society with 2,000 unusable atlases, probably soon to become collectors' items. But when new atlas goes on sale next month, it will be the first to record the historic events that have reshaped Europe.
``It was all quite nerve racking,'' says Barbara Hand of the Geographic's public affairs office. ``This is probably our most challenging world atlas.''
The small drama played out last month in Washington illustrates the problem of keeping up in a world of political change that threatens to make every existing map, atlas, and globe obsolete.
The changes, probably the most extensive since decolonization transformed the map of Africa during the 1960s, may also presage a boom market for mapmakers.
``Atlases always sell well. But given how quickly the world is changing more people are interested in geography than every before,'' Ms. Hand says.
Historically, mapmakers have been slow to react to world events. Explaining why this is so, one publisher points to a decision by the African nation of Mauritania to abandon its claim to the southern half of the former Spanish Sahara just weeks after he decided to record it in the latest edition of his atlas.
``The attitude has been, let's wait a few years a see what happens,'' says Denny Silverman, a Washington map store manager. ``They've been burned in the past and don't like to jump the gun.''
BUT caution is fast becoming an anachronism in an age of instant communication, forcing mapmakers to find speedier ways to react to breaking events.
The crisis in the Gulf region, for example, prompted the Hammond company to issue an ``instant'' map of the region, just three weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
``There's a mini-boom in Mideast maps,'' says Conroy Erickson, public relations director of Rand-McNally, another leading United States mapmaker. ``With the involvement of the US in the area, a lot of people want to find out where the American troops are being sent.''
National Geographic, meanwhile, has taken the unprecedented step of planning two free updated inserts to its atlas during the next three years.
More risky have been pressures to anticipate events or even subtly allude to forces of change that could result in new national boundaries.
For example, National Geographic decided to print a map of unified Germany a month before the decision was formalized.
``We had to look into our crystal ball and see that the unification of Germany was inevitable,'' says Mr. Garver. ``But we held our breath when we decided to change the world before it actually happened.''
Hinting at the unraveling of the Soviet Union, meanwhile, Geographic is also taking the unusual step of dropping the designation ``SSR'' on the names of 15 of the 16 Soviet socialist republics.
``It indicates that there are movements of self-determination and independence taking place in the Soviet Union,'' Garver says.
Germany is not the only divided country to be reunified this year. Mapmakers have had to record the unification of Yemen, at the tip of the Arabian peninsula. They have also had to monitor political developments ranging from the independence of Namibia to separatism in Quebec.
Keeping up to date means watching even such topographical features as the Aral Sea in the Soviet Union. The sea has lost 40 percent of its surface area since 1960 because of evaporation and divertion of water for irrigation.
In deciding whether to record political changes, US map publishers say they often take their cue from the US State Department. Last year, for example, Burma changed its name to Myanmar. But since the US does not recognize the change, most new maps still identify the country as Burma.
Despite the pressure to keep up, some US mapmakers continue to take a more detached view of things.
``Germany is so major. Everyone who picks up an atlas will look to see what we've done with it,'' acknowledges the chief cartographer of another major US publishing company.
``Still,'' he adds, ``it's easy to overdramatize the degree of change as far as maps are concerned. It's not as if anyone who goes out and buys an atlas isn't going to be able to tell where Germany is after the unification.''