Gerard Mercator

For over fifty years, Gerard Mercator (1512-1594) was the most highly regarded cartographer in the world.  His name is synonymous with the form of map projection still in use today.  Although he did not invent this type of projection, he was the first to apply it to navigational charts so the compass bearings could be plotted on charts in straight lines, solving an age-old problem of navigation at sea.

Mercator was born Gerard Kremer in 1512 in Rupelmonde, on the banks of the Schelde river in Flanders and studied in Louvain (both in modern Belgium).  Kremer being German for ‘merchant’, caused Gerard to choose the Latin name Mercator to become the merchant peddler, the global citizen, self made, multi-cultural opportunist operating across the boundaries of both Church and State.

In Louvain, he was taught by Gemma Frisius, Dutch writer, astronomer and mathematician, who had a strong influence on his early development.  He established himself in Louvain as a cartographer and instrument and globe maker.  At the age of twenty-five, he drew and engraved his first map (of the Holy Land) and went on to produce a map of Flanders (1540) supervising the surveying and completing the drafting and engraving himself.  The excellence of his work brought him the patronage of Charles V for whom he constructed a globe.  He became caught up in the persecution of Lutheran Protestants and charged with heresy, resulting in imprisonment.  Fear of further persecution may have influenced his move in 1552 to Duisburg, Germany where he continued the production of maps, globes and instruments.

In later life he devoted himself to his own edition of the maps in Ptolemy’s Geographia,and to the preparation of his three volume collection of maps, which was called an ‘Atlas’.  The first two parts of the Atlas were published in 1585 and 1589 and the third, with the first two making a complete edition, in 1595 the year after Mercator’s death.

Mercator’s son Rumold was responsible for the complete edition in 1595. A second complete edition was produced in 1602.  Mercator’s map plates were bought in 1604 by Jodocus Hondius who, with his sons, Jodocus II and Henricus, published enlarged editions, which dominated the map market for a quarter of a century thereafter.

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