Educated at Purdue and Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a chemical engineer, he had a lifetime interest in map projections as a hobby, but found the calculations tedious without the benefit of expensive calculators or computers. At a cartography conference in 1976, he learned of the need for a map projection that would suit the special needs of LandSat satellite imagery. He had recently been able to purchase a pocket calculator (TI-59) of his own and set to work creating what became known as the space-oblique mercator projection, which he provided to the United States Geological Survey at no charge.
He was subsequently offered a job within the United States Geological Survey within two years, where his work apparently led him to the eventual publication of the definitive technical guide to map projections entitled Map Projections: A Working Manual among other works.
He also authored Flattening the Earth: Two Thousand Years of Map Projections which details the historical development of hundreds of map projections. Snyder developed at least one other projection, called GS50, which uses a complex polynomial to project the 50 United States. states with minimal distortion.
He taught courses on map projection at George Mason University. He was president of the American Cartographic Association from 1990–1991 and also served as a secretary to the Washington Map Society.
John Snyder died April 28, 1997.