Gerard Mercator

Flemish geographer and mathematician, Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), also known as Gerard De Cremer, ranks as one of the greatest cartographers in history, not only for the extremely fine maps he produced, but also for the innovations that he introduced into cartographic science. Until the end of the sixteenth century, Ptolemy’s concept of depicting sections of the world in trapezoidal configurations, like gores from a globe, had predominated. Mercator, however, stated that small sections of the earth were not significantly distorted toward the poles if longitude lines were represented as parallel, rather than angled as on a globe. The main advantage of this new “Mercator projection” was that a straight line on the map represented a straight compass line, allowing for much easier navigation for sailors.  This development soon became the established convention.

Mercator started his cartographic career in 1537, but he also was an instrument maker, globe maker, calligrapher, and engraver.  Through his constant accumulation of new geographic and cosmological data, Mercator was able to produce the most accurate and current maps of his day, which unlike most of his contemporaries’ maps were mostly original work. Among his important separate maps were a six sheet map of Europe (1554) and his seminal, 18-sheet planisphere (1569), which introduced the Mercator projection.  His maps not only are excellent cartographically, but they are aesthetically superb as well, with beautiful cartouches, silken seas and other exquisite ornamentation.

About the same time that his friend Abraham Ortelius was working on his atlas of the world, Mercator came up with the idea of producing an even more ambitious magnus opus.  This was to be a complete description of creation, heaven, the earth and the seas.  The scope of this work meant that Mercator was only able to finish a small part of is it, but such was his influence that the title he chose for this projected work, “Atlas,” has now become the generic name for all collections of maps.

The first volume of Mercator’s Atlas was published in 1585, the second in 1589, with the third appearing only after his 1594 death, completed by his son Rumold.  Later, Jodocus Hondius (1563-1611), who shared a vision similar to Mercator’s, took up Mercator’s ambitious project, purchasing Mercator’s plates in 1604 and publishing a series of editions of the Mercator-Hondius Atlas, beginning in 1606. This series of constantly updated atlases reflected Hondius’ continued pursuit of geographical knowledge and craftsmanship in order to produce a superior work.

Below is a selection of maps by Gerard Mercator.