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He Mapped The World, And We Saw Ourselves

Gerardus Mercator's maps gave us a truer view of our world and the means to explore it. i i

Gerardus Mercator's maps gave us a truer view of our world and the means to explore it. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress
Gerardus Mercator's maps gave us a truer view of our world and the means to explore it.

Gerardus Mercator's maps gave us a truer view of our world and the means to explore it.

Library of Congress

Gerardus Mercator changed the way we see the world. Of how many men can that be said so literally?

He was born 500 years ago in Flanders, studied astronomy and mathematics, and drew his first major world map in 1538. He was imprisoned for heresy in 1544 — the charge probably had more to do with his Protestantism than science — but he was released after seven months and later moved to Duisburg.

Before Mercator, maps were often acts of imagination. Some mapmakers put in a Heaven above all that looked as detailed as the Seven Hills of Rome. Many drew dragons and serpents in uncharted places. Maps depicted hopes, and fears appeared almost as much as rivers and mountains.

But Mercator took into account sightings made on the great voyages of discovery of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. He made dragons into decorations, and drew curves into continents that suggested the way they stretched across an Earth that men were beginning to know — from experience and observation, not just theory — was not flat. He figured out math to depict the curves of the Earth as straight lines, so that sailors could plot courses.

Mercator's maps were highly imperfect, to be sure, drawn of a world that Europeans had only fractionally explored by the mid-16th century. But they were maps as we understand the term now. They could guide travelers from Point A to Point B, from Flanders to the Papal States. They could steer mariners from Europe to the New World. People could unroll Mercator's maps and hold a picture of the world in their hands, and open windows in their minds.

His maps made people travelers, if only mentally, and even if Greenland looked as large as Africa on his maps, and Australia appeared to be some huge splat — well, modern global positioning maps can miss a lot of turns on a drive between Akron and Dayton, too.

In recent times, people have pointed out the drawbacks and biases of the Mercator Projection map. The real world is an orbiting sphere, not framed artwork. Europe is not necessarily at the center, North America and Europe are not up, and Africa and Australia are not down. You can see new maps these days that have been drawn to make that point, and tellingly show Asia at the center, or Africa and Australia on top. It's a view that may make even more sense from the depths of outer space.

But in a time when most people never got to venture much further than the place in which they were born, Gerardus Mercator's maps gave us not only a truer view of our world, but the means to go out and explore it.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small