frontspiece

Mercator and the first Atlas

Today is the birthday of Gerardus Mercator, born March 5, 1512 in a small town in Belgium.  Philosopher, cartographer and tinkerer, Mercator (born Gerardus de Cremer or Kremer) made his living making mathematical instruments and engraving maps for others.  Jailed at 32 for his religious beliefs, he spent 7 months in prison.  At 40, he opened a map-making workshop in Duisberg and began making maps in earnest.  In 1569 he devised a new way of projecting the spherical dimensions of a globe onto a flat paper and the Mercator Projection was born.  The word cartography, however, would not enter English until the 1840s!  Also spelled chartography (though this usage has fallen away), the word cartography is a combination of the Latin word charta meaning a paper, card or chart (see also Magna Charta Libertatum) and the Ancient Greek word graphein meaning to write.  Mercator also coined the word atlas, encouraging his peer Abraham Ortellius to create the first atlas.  Ortellius was the first to imagine that the continents had at one time been connected, today known as plate tectonic theory.  The word atlas entered English in 1636 as a translation of Atlas, sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi published in 1585 and translated in 1636.  Mercator had an illustration of the Ancient Greek mythological figure Atlas as his frontspiece.  Today there are many different types of projections used in maps to illustrate in 2 dimension the contours of the globe, but Mercator was first.  Notice also that the map is remarkably accurate where land was known but less so in the New World.  Mercator lived a long an fruitful life, dying at 82 in 1594.

Image of Mercator’s first world map in the public domain.