Mercator, father of the atlas, turns 500

Mar 6, 2012

Cartographer, philosopher and mathematician Gerhard Mercator, who lived and died in the German city of Duisburg, was born 500 years ago.

It was a time of optimism, of departure. Seafarers discovered new continents, Copernicus discovered that the planets circled around the sun, and a renegade monk by the name of Martin Luther rebelled openly against the Roman Catholic Church.

Born in Flanders on 5 March, 1512, Gheert Kramer could not anticipate that he would one day become a world-renowned cartographer. But a rich uncle who wanted him to pursue a religious career paid for his latin lessons. Hence, Gheert studied Latin, and in line with the fashion of the times, took on a different name. "Kramer" – or "merchant" in English – became "mercator" in Latin.

Gerhard Mercator turned out to be a young man eager to learn. He pursued an ambitious goal: to capture the new world that was emerging with exact measurements, and to illustrate these new parts of the world graphically.

Scholar and 'heretic'

In the university city of Leuven, Mercator met people who promoted his interests: mathematicians, cartographers and copper-plate engravers. They taught him the basics of his later, scientific work. Then, in the city of Antwerp, Mercator set up his own shop. He drew maps, built globes and collected directions left by seafarers.

Business went exceedingly well – until Mercator was thrown into jail, charged with "Lutheran behaviour" for his critical thinking about the bible and questioning whether God could have created the Earth from nothing.

Maps and atlases

Map of the world Enlarge image (© picture-alliance / akg-images) Spending seven months in jail proved traumatic for Mercator, and seven years after this experience, like many other intellectuals, he left the Netherlands for Germany.

In the city of Duisburg, a university was being built and Mercator was offered a professorship. But the university's opening was delayed and Mercator ended up teaching at a local school instead. Cartography remained his main profession and for over 40 years he drew maps based on the latest scientific insights, engraving them onto copper plates. It was the most fruitful period of his life, in which he completed his renowned 18-panel map of Europe.

But Mercator was aiming for something even more ambitious. He had a plan to describe Heaven and Earth in a way that included theology and history. He called the project "atlas", named after a Mauretanian astrononomer. Mercator wanted to explain the entire cosmos with this work, which was supposed to contain texts about the creation of the world as well as comments on states and their histories. Mercator worked on the project until his death, but in the end it was the maps which turned the "atlas" into a bestseller. To this day, the word "atlas" means a book in which maps are collected.

© Deitsche Welle

Mercator, father of the atlas, turns 500

Portrait of German cartographer and mathematician Gerhard Mercator, father of the atlas