Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Guaranteeing a Long Lifetime for ‘America’s Birth Certificate’ 

It’s more than 500 years old, portrays the entire world as it was known in the 16th century and occupies an impressive 1.2 meters by 2.4 meters (4 feet by 8 feet) when all 12 of its panels are brought together. But what’s really special about the Waldseemüller Map is a single word in the lower left hand corner: America. 

This sheet (bottom) from the lower left corner of the 12 that make up the Library of Congress Waldseemüller map
This sheet from the lower left corner of the 12 that make up the Waldseemüller Map marks the first time the word "America" was used for the newly discovered lands. The full map also shows the outline of North and South America, as well as the Isthmus of Panama, and was the first to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean.
Credit: Library of Congress

The map, created by German scholar, cleric and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507, features the first documented use of the name “America” for the lands of the Western Hemisphere. Today, “America’s Birth Certificate,” as it is known, resides at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., safe within a 3.7-square-meter (40-square-foot) hermetically sealed glass and aluminum encasement designed and manufactured by engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  

The map’s protective armor is based on the design currently used to preserve the Charters of Freedom documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights) for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

NIST technician putting bolts into the map encasement
NIST technician Dana Strawbridge bolts the top frame of the map encasement to its base during a test sealing prior to shipping to the Library of Congress.
Credit: NIST

Like the Charters encasements, the Waldseemüller Map case features a seamless frame and base machined from two solid pieces of aluminum; non-reflective, tempered and laminated glass; an inert gas (argon) atmosphere instead of chemically reactive and degrading oxygen; 92 bolts that provide a 20-year seal but can be removed to enable access to the document; and built-in sensitive monitoring devices to ensure 24/7 maintenance of the proper internal environment. However, it posed a unique manufacturing challenge for its NIST creators because this case was six times larger than any of the ones fabricated for the Charters of Freedom. The final product they created in 2007 is the largest encasement ever built for a single paper document and weighs about 998 kilograms (2,200 pounds). In fact, the glass alone contributes nearly a fourth—227 kilograms (500 pounds)—of that total.

NIST Encasement Now Protecting "America's Birth Certificate"
NIST Encasement Now Protecting "America's Birth Certificate"

Read the original 2007 press release about the encasement project.

Did You Know...?

  • The name America honors Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, the first person to suggest that the lands reached by Christopher Columbus starting in 1492 were part of a new continent and not an extension of Asia.
  • The official Latin name of the Waldseemüller Map is Universalis cosmographia secunda Ptholemei traditionem et Americi Vespucci aliorum que lustrationes, which translates to “A drawing of the whole Earth following the tradition of Ptolemy and the travels of Amerigo Vespucci and others.”
  • Less than a decade after he drew his famous map, Martin Waldseemüller had second thoughts about naming the New World for Vespucci, probably due to a debate at the time over the authenticity of Vespucci’s travels. An atlas published by Waldseemüller in 1513 simply refers to the Americas as Terra Incognita, or “Unknown Land.”

– Michael E. Newman

Created June 20, 2017, Updated February 13, 2019