Google Doodle celebrates the 503rd birthday of map genius Gerardus Mercator

5 Mar 2015

Gerardus Mercator's map of Europe. Image via Tartu University Library

One of the grandfathers of modern navigation Gerardus Mercator is being rightly celebrated in Google Doodle form today in honour of his 503rd birthday.

Born in modern-day Belgium in 1512, Mercator in his adult life was what would be called today a ‘cartiophile’ – lover of maps. Despite spending his days earning his keep as a craftsman creating mathematical instruments, he would spend much of his spare time working on his own map creations.

Starting with a map of Palestine in 1537, Mercator would go on to produce a map of the world a year later and a map of his own land, the County of Flanders in 1540, but his passion was curtailed somewhat after being thrown in jail for heresy in 1544 due to what the authorities thought was Mercator’s suspicious Protestant beliefs.

His big break came in 1552 when he moved to Duisburg in modern-day Germany following his release from captivity. He established his first dedicated cartography shop in Duisburg, where he continued to develop a number of maps, while also teaching mathematics at a local university.


The Google Doodle – a stylised Google logo – in honour of cartographer, philosopher and mathematician Gerardus Mercator on internet search giant Google’s homepage

Atlas, to coin a phrase

While Mercator’s legacy lays him claim as the person who coined the term ‘atlas’ as a collection of maps, arguably his greatest achievement was the development of a whole new means of nautical navigation, that being the inclusion of longitude and latitude lines to give sailors a better representation of their current bearing.

As Mercator grew older – much longer than what would have been common at the time – he teamed up with a man named Abraham Ortelius to compile the first world atlas in 1570 known as the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

Of course, the atlas was only a representation of what was thought to be the world at that time.

Before he died in 1594, at the age of 82, Mercator went on to become the world’s leading maker of globes, 22 of which are still in existence today.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic