Today, we make maps into a user-friendly
information system. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
The atlas was a most
peculiar invention. To see how it came into being,
let's meet two Flemish friends. They were Gerardus Mercator and Abraham
Mercator, born in 1512,
was older by 15 years. He was an intellectual, a
mathematician, and an innovator. He went on to
become the great Renaissance mapmaker. He gave us
the Mercator projection. He published a world map
in that projection in 1569.
Ortelius trained as an engraver -- an
artist/craftsman. In 1554 he went into business
buying and selling maps. For Ortelius, maps were
merchandise. He'd collect maps and redraw them.
He'd decorate their borders and the empty reaches
of land and sea. He'd mount them on silk and render
them in color.
Mercator also saw the map as a work of art. His own
map of the world was an artistic triumph as well as
an intellectual one. He knew good work, and he had
a very high opinion of Ortelius.
Mercator's world map had one nasty drawback. It was
huge. It was meant to hang on a wall. Old maps were
like that. For minor place-names to be readable,
the map had to be immense.
Up-to-date maps were serious business for seagoing
Netherlands traders. Finally, a trader named
Hooftman came to Ortelius and said, in effect,
"Can't you chop these bedsheets into two-foot
squares and publish the map of the world in a
Ortelius wasn't thinking in terms of books, but,
with Mercator's help, he collected the best maps
around. He created the book Hooftman had asked for.
In 1570 he made the first atlas.
He didn't call it an atlas. He called it a Theatre
of the Round World. It sold like hot-cakes and went
into one improved printing after another. Praise
followed it. People called Ortelius a great
intellectual. Mercator himself praised Ortelius for
"the faithfulness with which you bring out
It was 1585 before the aging Mercator published the
first volume of his own world map in book form. By
then Ortelius was the more famous of the two. Sir
Francis Drake took his maps to sea. For a while,
Mercator walked in his young friend's shadow.
Mercator, as much a theologian as a cartographer,
titled his new book Atlas, or Cosmographical
Meditations upon the Creation of the
Universe. In his engraved title page, he was first
to summon the image of the mythical Atlas,
condemned to carry the world on his shoulders.
Mercator may've given the atlas its name and much
of its substance to boot. Yet we'd be foolish to
forget Ortelius. You see, atlases came into being
for a very modern reason. They were created when a
trader simply hired a craftsman to recast crucially
important information -- into a user-friendly form.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wilford, J.N., The Mapmakers. New York:
Vintage Books, 1982. (See especially Chapters 5 and
Boorstin, D., The Discoverers. New
York: Random House, 1983, Chapter, 36, Knowledge
Osley, A.S., Mercator: A monograph on the
lettering of maps, etc. in the 16th century
Netherlands with a facsimile and translation of his
treatise on the italic hand and a translation of
Ghim's VITA MERCATORIS. New York:
Watson-Guptill Publications, 1969.
See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica
entries under Ortelius and Mercator.
I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special
Collections, UH Library, for pointing out to me the
commercial origin of Ortelius's atlas. Special
Collections at UH holds the following original, and
fine facsimile, source material:
Ortelius, A., Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Antwerp:
Standaard Uitgeverij, 1970. Facsimile reproduction
of the 1570 edition.
Mercator, G., Gerard Mercator's Map of the world
(1569) in the form of an atlas in the Maritiem
Museum "Prins Hendrik" at Rotterdam; reproduced on
the scale of the original and issued by the
Maritiem Museum "Prins Hendrik" and the editors of
Image mundi, Rotterdam: 1961. (This facsimile of
Mercator's map of the world has been reduced to
atlas form for convenience. The original, of
course, had not been.)
Mercator, G., Historia mundi : or, Mercator's atlas
; containing his Cosmographical description of the
fabricke and figure of the world. Lately rectified
in divers places, as also beautified and enlarged
with new mappes and tables; by the studious
industry of Ivdocvs Hondy (Tr. Wye Saltonstall),
London: Printed by T. Cotes for Michael Sparke and
Samuel Cartwright, 1635 [i.e., 1637]. (This is one
of the later editions of Mercator's original atlas
which, by the way, went to three volumes, the last
of which was published after his death in 1594.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
| Search Episodes
| Index |
Home | Next Episode