On December 2, 1594, died Gerardus Mercator, the best-known mapmaker of all time.
He was born on March 5, 1512, in Rupelmonde, Flanders (now Belgium).
After earning a master’s degree in philosophy and theology from the University of Louvain in 1532, and also improved his artistic and mechanical skills, mastering calligraphy, engraving, and instrument making.
In collaboration with mathematician and astronomer Gemma Frisius (1508-55) and engraver Gaspar à Myrica, Mercator constructed a terrestrial globe in 1536.
His most important innovation was a map, embodying what was later known as the Mercator projection, on which parallels and meridians are rendered as straight lines spaced so as to produce at any point an accurate ratio of latitude to longitude. He also introduced the term atlas for a collection of maps.
Because he was a Protestant in a Catholic dominated region, Mercator was arrested for heresy in 1544 and imprisoned for several months. He moved permanently to Duisberg (now in Germany) in 1552, where he was free to practice his religion. He taught grammar school and became court cosmographer to Duke Wilhelm of Cleve.
Between 1554 and 1564 Mercator completed maps of Lorraine, the British Isles, and Europe, and perfected his projection method, which he applied to the 1569 world map that became his most famous accomplishment.
In his later years, Mercator printed an updated edition of Ptolemy’s cartographic works and compiled a collection of accurate, detailed maps of western and southern Europe that remained unfinished at his death. A completed version of this collection, which was the first map collection to be titled Atlas, was published in 1595 (after Mercator’s death) by his son.
Mercator died in Duisberg on December 2, 1594.
Mercator’s great contribution to cartography is that he changed its nature with the help of his artistic enhancements and forever altered ocean navigation with his projection method, which was the most influential invention of early cartography.
His talents in calligraphy and engraving inspired next generations of cartographers. His work andimportance of Mercator’s projection method began to be recognized only at the end of the sixteenth century, after his death.
The Mercator projection is still used for most flat maps in modern cartography despite its gross distortion of high latitude land masses, such as Greenland and Antarctica, on many world maps.