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An Atlas for the World – The Story of Mercator and Modern Maps

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State Secrets Uncovered

During the “Age of Discovery” (1450 to 1650) brave ship captains went on expeditions all around the world. While we now fly around the globe with ease, in those earlier centuries no on had ever sailed across the large oceans (the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans) that make up 70 percent of the earth’s surface.

A key requirement for these explorations were accurate maps. However, maps in those days were state secrets. The former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin writes, Governments in those times “became obsessed with keeping maps secret. Maps of the world were exclusively for government use. It was then from quite an unexpected quarter that the policy of secrecy would be defeated. Not by spies but by a new technology – the printing press.”

The printing press allowed the mass of people to learn to read and to then demand books that would help them learn and gain knowledge. By the year 1480 onwards a variety of books began to be published and these included, for the first time, maps. Maps gave people a sense of where they lived, a perspective of their location with respect to their country, region, and the entire world. Books of maps (the word Atlas was still to be invented) were in great demand. Such books with illustrated maps could be enjoyed by people who were not used to reading lengthy books and wanted to look at illustrations.

However, the downside of all these technological developments was that there were no checks on the accuracy of maps, and many were published that were closer to fiction than reality. There was another serious problem, the earth is a sphere and maps were drawn on a flat piece of paper. All the early maps faced this problem of trying to reproduce on a sheet of paper, what was in reality three dimensional. This was a particular problem for ship captains and navigators. A straight line on a map was a curved line on the face of the spherical earth.

The Mercator Projection

Gerardus Mercator (1512 – 1594) was one of the most famous early cartographers (map makers). When we look at a modern map we are actually looking at an invention of Mercator.

Firstly, it was Mercator who placed Europe on the top (what we now call the North). So, for example, when we look at a map with New Delhi on the top and Kanyakumari on the bottom of the map, it is all due to Mercator! We could as easily have Australia on the top and Russia at the bottom of a map!

Secondly, Mercator tackled the problem of transforming the features on a three-dimensional sphere (the earth) into a map in two dimensions (flat piece of paper) by considering the earth like an orange. Imagine peeling the skin of an orange along cuts from the top of the orange to the bottom. Then carefully place these peeled skins of the orange flat on your table. Mercator then stretched the top of these orange skins so that there were no gaps. The result is that lines of longitude, from the North pole (top of the orange) to the South pole (bottom of the orange) become straight, parallel lines. Lines of latitude (East to West) were also straight lines, and the surface of the earth becomes a single large rectangle. The spherical earth was now represented as a grid of parallel lines of longitude and latitude. This allowed sailors to better navigate and identify their location accurately. Even now, with the advent of satellites, more than 90 percent of sailors use this “Mercator projection”.

One consequence of this Mercator projection is that countries in the far North and in the far South look much larger than countries along the equator. Greenland looks larger than India and ASEAN countries combined, while in actual fact it is smaller than the Arabian peninsula. Russia looks larger than the whole continent of Africa, while in reality it is less than a third in size. However, this is the map we all look at in school and that we have fixed in our minds when we image the world.

The “Atlas”

Mercator was a man full of energy and action. He studied philosophy, mathematics, history, and astronomy as well as became an excellent artist and instrument maker. He also founded a family business of map making. Mercator’s maps and globes were held to be the best for over half a century and were in great demand. All his family members contributed to the business and Mercator trained his sons and grandsons in becoming accurate map makers. Mercator also wrote a number of books and coined the word “Atlas”, which we now use so easily.

Mercator was born to a poor family. He was the son of a cobbler (shoemaker), yet through his talents and hard work made a great success of his life. Mercator could never have imagined that from his humble beginnings he would create a map that now influences billions of us whenever we imagine the earth.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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