scale, in cartography, the ratio of the distance between two points on a map to the real distance between the two corresponding points portrayed. The scale may be expressed in three ways: numerically, as a ratio or a fraction, e.g., 1:100,000 or 1/100,000; verbally, e.g., "one inch to one mile" (not "one inch equals one mile"); and graphically, by marking distances on a sample line. The last method has the advantage that the scale remains true even if the map is enlarged or reduced mechanically. The first method is particularly useful since any unit of measurement may be used; e.g., if one uses metric units, a scale of 1:100,000 would mean that one centimeter on the map represents one kilometer on the earth's surface (since 100,000 centimeters equals one kilometer). The more the size of features on the map approaches the features' actual size on the earth's surface, the larger the scale of the map is said to be. A large-scale map usually shows more detail than does a small-scale map, but covers a smaller area than does a small-scale map of the same size.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.