Mercator, the man who drew the map of the planet
Gerardus Mercator was born on 5 March 1512 in Rupelmonde, a small Belgian port near Antwerp. He studied philosophy and theology at the University of Leuven but, not wanting to become a philosopher, gave up his university studies. In 1534, Mercator began studying mathematics, astronomy and geography with the mathematician Gemma Frisius, who had opened a cartography workshop and was working with the engravers Van der Heyden and Bollaert or Graphius in Antwerp. Tycho Brahe and Kepler would praise the accuracy of the instruments he made.
In 1537, Mercator produced a work on his own for the first time, a map of the Holy Land that was designed to promote a "better understanding of the two Testaments". At the time, these types of maps were far from reliable. Some contained fewer than 30 names, and most of these were misplaced. Mercator's version contained over 400! The accuracy of this map earned Mercator the admiration of a number of his contemporaries.
In 1538, Mercator published his first world map. The geographer was the source of the first world projection of the globe used in nautical charts. The "Mercator Projection" was therefore used to provide navigators with an actual description of the contours of the lands, a process that would revolutionise cartography. Mercator is considered to be the founder of mathematical geography. In 1541, Mercator succeeded in one of his objectives, namely to produce a globe that was more accurate than those already available. The cartographer enjoyed the respect of Charles V who made him part of his household.
Mercator, along with 42 other Leuven residents was arrested in February 1544 for having written "suspect letters". He would only be released after seven months in prison; however, all his possessions were confiscated. In 1552, he left to settle in Duisburg, Germany, where there was greater religious tolerance.
In 1590, Mercator suffered a stroke which left him paralysed on the left side and prevented him from speaking, which made it extremely difficult for him to continue his work. However, he persisted in wanting to finish his life's work and persevered with the work until 1594 when he died on 2 December aged 82. His son, Rumold finished five maps. The complete collection of Mercator maps, entitled Atlas, was published in 1595. This was the first time that name was used to identify a collection of geographical maps. The Atlas also contained a study of the first chapter of Genesis. In it, Mercator defends the Word of God, the authenticity of which was being challenged by philosophers. Underlining how important this study was to him, he said "this will be the goal of all my labour". He is buried in Duisburg. In 1606, Joducus Hondius republished the Atlas. This expanded edition is printed in several languages and met with great success. Even today, our daily life is imbued with Mercator's legacy; every time we consult an atlas or use GPS, we are using his work!
To discover some of his works, visit the Mercator Museum in Sint-Niklaas: www.atlasobscura.com/places/mercator-museum.