Who was Mercator?

Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) was a great Renaissance cartographer whose work shaped the identity of the modern world. Using the latest reports of new discoveries, he created innovative maps which became known throughout Europe. A creative and skillful craftsman, he invented the map projection which bears his name and coined the term “atlas”. His first map made history: it was the first to use the term North America and the first to depict the New World as stretching from the northern to the southern hemisphere.

Mercator was born in 1512 in Flanders as Gerard de Cremere, but adopted the name Gerardus Mercator (which means merchant in Latin) as a young man. He lived through the turbulent years of the Reformation and participated in fierce intellectual battles. He was even jailed for seven months on suspicion of being a Lutheran, although it appears that he was actually a good Catholic. An interest in mathematics eventually led him into map-making at a time when Europeans’ knowledge of the globe was increasing at an unprecedented rate.

In 1569 he created the first Mercator projection: a wall map of the world on 18 separate sheets entitled: “New and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe properly adapted for its use in navigation”. Its novel feature was that lines of longitude, latitude and rhomb lines all appeared as straight lines on the map. Its defect, of course, was that the land masses at the top and bottom are enlarged and distorted. Nonetheless it became essential for hardy souls venturing upon unknown seas in search of wealth, knowledge, and adventure.

Mercator’s life and work are metaphors for what we aspire to: craftsmanship, setting accurate courses, opening up new worlds and venturing upon stormy, uncharted seas. His maps were accurate in the center and distorted at either side — a good image of Mercatornet’s editorial policy of balance and accuracy.