Gerardus Mercator – The Man who Mapped the Planet

Mercator’s Map of Europe

On December 2, 1594, German cartographer, philosopher and mathematician Gerardus Mercator passed away. He is best known for his work in cartography, particular the world map of 1569 based on a new projection which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines. He was the first to use the term Atlas for a collection of maps.

Gerardus Mercator
(1512 – 1594)

The son of a shoemaker, Gerard De Kremer was the family’s sixth child and lived in Gangelt during most of his childhood. When the father passed away, Gerard and his siblings moved to Herzogenbusch, which is located about 80km south of Amsterdam. However, they received a good schooling education there and to his teachers belonged the famous humanist and teacher Georgius Macropedius. Mercator enrolled at the University of Löwen and graduated in 1532. In the following two years, he did a lot of research privately and started working for the astronomer and mathematician Gemma Frisius. He already created several globes and today, a crater on the moon is named after him. He was a great influence to Gerardus Mercator and was known to work very accurate. Frisius improved measuring instruments and found completely new ways to use mathematical operations to measure parts of the Earth.

In 1538, Mercator created his very first world map and at the same time, he published a map of Flanders which caused him quite a lot of attention by the King. The first globe was published and sold three years later, Mercator earned himself a good reputation.

One of the remaining globes
by Mercator

Unfortunately, the scientist was arrested due to heresy in 1544 and stayed in prison for several months. In the meantime, Melanchton’s Masterpiece ‘Initia Doctrinae Physicae‘ was published. The work influenced Mercator critically and both scientists started exchanging letters, which were found just recently. The first celestial globe was released by Mercator in 1551. Both were mostly sold as a pair and even today, about 20 of Mercator’s masterpieces exist. In the following period, Mercator started working as a teacher for mathematics and astronomy in Duisburg. The city’s university was founded after Mercator’s passing, but was named after him due to his significant achievements. One of his grammar school students followed Mercator’s footsteps and created a very accurate and detailed overview of Duisburg.

In 1569, Gerardus Mercator published his welll known big world map. This work made him famous around the globe and he also developed the so called ‘Mercator projection‘, which is a cylindrical map projection and became a standard for nautical purposes. In his later years, Mercator published a few philosophical works as well as a few theological writings like the world history ‘Chronologia‘. Just before his death, Mercator finished his famous work, ‘Atlas, sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et fabricati figura’ which was published by his son posthumously. 

At yovisto, you may enjoy a short documentary on Gerardus Mercator, his achievements and influence thoughout his life time and beyond.

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