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The historical Dufour Map of Switzerland

Among the numerous cartographic works that were published in the 19th century in various European countries, the appearance of the first official map of Switzerland, known as the Dufour Map, caused quite a stir. The original printed version is exhibited at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich and in the Parliament Building in Berne as a national symbol.

Dufour Map

Significance for Switzerland

From today's point of view, an appreciation of the Topographic Map of Switzerland 1:100,000 initially calls to mind a map image, which established Switzerland's ongoing international reputation in cartography. At the same time, the map embodies impressive cultural history and political achievement by showing for the first time the federalist diversity of the different cantons in a nationwide, uniform representation. It thus becomes a symbol for the emergence of the modern Swiss nation founded in 1848.

Even if maps are replaced by new editions or new map series, they do not lose their value. They convey images of past landscapes and are important sources for their history. 

Symbolism of the map at the Swiss National Museum

The Dufour map provides numerous historical reference points. The author of this mapping task, Guillaume-Henri Dufour, was a general during the Sonderbund war and a founding member of the International Red Cross IRC.

The map itself bears witness to its time. Borders between cantons, which were the most noticeable lines on older maps, lose importance when compared to topography and national borders, an evolution that reflects the birth of the modern Federal state. A comparison between the Dufour map and earlier versions and later national maps shows the changes made to the landscape by the Swiss population: with the construction of houses, railways and dams, you can see where people lived and worked. Finally, the topographical map of Switzerland to a scale of 1:100,000 bears witness to another sign of the times: the attraction of the Alps. The hatching gives the impression of depth in an almost tactile manner and recalls the fascination that the mountains must have held for the Swiss and visitors at the time. This in turn led to more tourism and better transportation links with the Alps.

The topographical map of Switzerland to a scale of 1:100,000 can be admired in two locations at the Swiss National Museum: firstly in the “History of Switzerland” exhibition and secondly when entering the new building, which was opened in August 2016.

Symbolism of the map in the House of Parliament

As part of the renovation of the parliament buildings, completed in November 2008, the topographic map of Switzerland, better known as the Dufour Map, was placed in a prominent position. You will find it at the main visitors’ entrance.

The House of Parliament, designed by Hans Wilhelm Auer, an architect from St. Gallen, was built by Swiss craftsmen using Swiss materials and decorated by Swiss artists. It is one of the most important symbols of the Swiss Confederation, and for all Swiss citizens it represents the epitome of Swiss politics.

At the visitors’ entrance, designed by Bernese architects Aebi & Vincent, the Topographic Map of Switzerland – also called the Dufour Map – blends in with the theme of the symbols of Switzerland. Similarly to the scene depicting the foundation of Switzerland in 1291 located in the center of the main entrance, the Topographic Map of Switzerland is the allegory of the new foundation of the Swiss Confederation in 1848. Side by side with the group taking the oath in Rütli, the history of Switzerland unfolds from the beginning to modern times.

The map shows all of the landscapes in Switzerland and the actual borders with neighboring countries. It refers to the political structure of the Confederation, which consists of cantons whose elected representatives govern the country in this building.

Furthermore, the Topographic Map of Switzerland stands for metaphorical values such as accuracy, precision and the pioneering work of Switzerland and, in a broader sense, also for tradition, integration and multilingual cohabitation.

History of the Topographic Map of Switzerland 1:100 000

In 1832 the Commission for Topographical Surveys developed a complete concept for surveying and mapping the entire Swiss territory. In 1832 Dufour was nominated Director of Surveys by the Legislative Assembly. The arrangement of the sheets that he foresaw – the complete set of maps consists of 25 separate sheets – is still used today for the 1:100 000 scale national map.

Once the general survey had been completed, Dufour was able to issue instructions for the detailed surveys. In certain cantons it was possible to have recourse to existing surveys. Every year, Dufour was required to present a progress report to the Legislative Assembly, and from 1848 to the Federal Council.

By 1861 the surveys and maps were complete. The last sheet was printed in 1865 and the Topographical Bureau was transferred to Berne. Between 1845–1865, 57 952 copies of the Topographical Map of Switzerland were printed.


First-order triangulation and the measurement of altitude

The triangulation method was adopted to provide the geometrical basis and framework of the map. This meant superimposing a network of triangles over the territory. Based on an exact measurement of distance in Grossen Moos and above all by measuring the angles of all the points of the triangles, the so-called triangulation points, their coordinates could be calculated. In this way the first accurate geometric reference network for the whole country came into being, one that made the link between the regions to the North and to the South of the Alps.

In order to fix the height of the mountains not only in relation to each other, a point was needed, a so-called height horizon, the precise height of which above sea-level needs to be known. But Switzerland has no borders with the sea, so how can the height above sea level be measured? The reference point for determining the level of the land is the Pierre du Niton, the larger of the two boulders in the harbour of Geneva. It was selected in 1820 by Dufour himself - at that time in his capacity as the Geneva cantonal engineer - and serves as the reference point for all height measurements in Switzerland. Its height was originally determined via corroboration with French reference points, but later on accurate measurements were carried out vs. the tide gauges installed in neighbouring countries.

The life of Guillaume-Henri Dufour

Guillaume-Henri Dufour was born in Constance but grew up in Geneva where he studied the humanities and physics.

He continued his education in Paris (Ecole Polytechnique) and in Metz (Ecole supérieure d'application du génie).

Served in the French army. Dufour made his career in the Swiss army and was co-founder of the military school in Thun, where he also instructed Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Chief engineer of the Canton of Geneva

Responsible for surveying and establishing the "Topographic Map of Switzerland 1:100,000" which was later called the Dufour Map.

Dufour's suggestion for a national flag was accepted.

One of the five founders of the later International Committee of the Red Cross.

Dufour died at the age of 89 in Les Eaux-Vives. He received a state funeral attended by over 60,000 people from all over Switzerland.


Federal Office of Topography swisstopo Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern
+41 58 469 01 11
+41 58 469 04 59


Opening hours

Monday to Thursday
7.45 to 11.45 a.m.
1.30 to 5 p.m.
7.45 to 11.45 a.m.
1.30 to 4 p.m.

Map collection – enquiries by phone:

Mondays and Thursdays
10 to 11.45 a.m.

Federal Office of Topography swisstopo

Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern


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