Today, let's meet the greatest mapmaker. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Gerardus Mercator was born
Gerhard Kremer in the Netherlands in 1512. He
Latinized his name when he entered the University.
A new visual world was opening like a flower around
Mercator. Ships came back from the Americas with
stories and drawings of a wondrous new land. All
that information fed the Renaissance belief that
you learn by looking closely and critically at the
external world. In a hundred years that new visual
sense would give birth to modern experimental
But now Mercator studied theology along with
mathematics, astronomy, and geography. Then he
began creating his own pictures -- his own maps --
of the world around him. When he was 25 he
published a map of Palestine. Then he surveyed and
mapped Flanders. In 1541 he made a globe of the
world for the emperor.
He was also hip deep in reformation theology. When
authorities rounded up suspected Lutherans, they
took in Mercator. The ones who recanted were to be
mercifully beheaded or maybe buried alive. The rest
were to be burned at the stake. Mercator's parish
priest interceded to save his life. After that
Mercator shut up about religion and took work as a
cosmographer in Germany.
There he mapped Europe and Britain. But larger maps
were a problem. For years mapmakers had tried to
figure out how to draw a flat map of our spherical
planet. The best they'd managed had all the grace
of a flattened orange peel.
Mercator solved that by making the lines of
longitude run straight up and down. He stretched
the map more and more toward each pole. He
published this remarkable map in 1569.
So what if Greenland did look bigger than South
America! It was simple, clear, and wonderfully
useful to sailors who had to keep track of
longitude. In the last few years we've replaced
Mercator's projection with even more complex orange
peels. But no orange peel can match Mercator's
projection for simple clarity.
If any one thing marked the Renaissance, it was a
new conviction that we could know by seeing. It was
a visual age, and Mercator was acutely aware that
the quality of his pictures was crucial. He was a
superb artist in the new medium of copperplate
engraving. He devoted one whole book to questions
of calligraphy. It was a manual on how to label
maps with Italic lettering.
We bandy the term Renaissance Man without asking
what it really means. Mercator's life tells us. As
a theologian, he tried to give us a new way to see
the face of God. When that failed, he turned right
about and gave us the technical means for seeing
Earth whole. And in that he acted out another
Renaissance belief -- that all learning, sacred or
profane, leads to God.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wilford, J.N., The Mapmakers. New York:
Vintage Books, 1982. (See especially Chapters 5 and
Boorstin, D., The Discoverers.New
York: Random House, 1983. (See several scattered
references to Mercator.)
Osley, A.S., Mercator: A monograph on the
lettering of maps, etc. in the 16th century
Netherlands with a facsimile and translation of his
treatise on the italic hand and a translation of
Ghim's VITA MERCATORIS. New York:
Watson-Guptill Publications, 1969.
Mercator, G., Gerard Mercator's Map of the world
(1569) in the form of an atlas in the Maritime
Museum "Prins Hendrik" at Rotterdam; reproduced on
the scale of the original and issued by the
Maritiem Museum "Prins Hendrik" and the editors of
Image mundi, Rotterdam: 1961.
Mercator, G., Historia mundi : or, Mercator's
atlas; containing his Cosmographical
description of the fabricke and figure of the
world. Lately rectified in divers places, as also
beautified and enlarged with new mappes and tables;
by the studious industry of Ivdocvs Hondy (Tr. Wye
Saltonstall), London: Printed by T. Cotes for
Michael Sparke and Samuel Cartwright, 1635 [i.e.,
See also Enclopaedia Britannica and
Dictionary of Scientific Biography
entries under Mercator.
For more on Mercator see Episode 889 on Abraham Ortelius.
Although Ortelius made the first Atlas (or world
map in book form), Mercator coined the term
Atlas in the engraved title page of his Atlas. That
title page is shown (courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library) in the thumbnail below.
Click on the thumbnail for a
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
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