Today, December 2, is the 412th anniversary of the death of Gerhardus Mercator, patron of this website. Every year at this time — to be honest, this is the first year — we run a self-indulgent feature on our namesake.
First of all, perhaps we should clarify the pronunciation of his name. This has been a matter of some dispute amongst our readers. Our preferred pronunciation is Mer-CAY-tor-Net, with the accent on the second syllable. But however you pronounce it, so long as you spell it correctly, you will be able to find it on the web. The "net" has been appended to give the name some geeky cachet. For those readers interested in the minutiae of orthography, we capitalise the M of Mercator and the N of Net.
Why Mercator? Well, most high school geography students could give you a clue. Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) was a great Renaissance cartographer whose work shaped the identity of the modern world. Using the latest reports of new discoveries, he created innovative maps which became known throughout Europe. A creative and skillful craftsman, he invented the map projection which bears his name and coined the term “atlas”. His first map made history: it was the first to use the term North America and the first to depict the New World as stretching from the northern to the southern hemisphere.
Mercator was born in 1512 in Flanders as Gerard de Cremere, but adopted the name Gerardus Mercator (which means merchant in Latin) as a young man. He lived through the turbulent years of the Reformation and participated in fierce intellectual battles. He was even jailed for seven months on suspicion of being a Lutheran, although it appears that he was actually a faithful Catholic. An interest in mathematics eventually led him into map-making at a time when Europeans’ knowledge of the globe was increasing at an unprecedented rate.
In 1569 he created the first Mercator projection: a wall map of the world on 18 separate sheets entitled: “New and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe properly adapted for its use in navigation”. Its novel feature was that lines of longitude, latitude and rhomb lines all appeared as straight lines on the map. Its defect, of course, was that the land masses at the top and bottom are enlarged and distorted. Greenland, for instance, is immense — larger than South America. The Antarctic looks bigger than the combined areas of all the other continents. Nonetheless, in the days before global positioning systems, his maps were essential for hardy souls venturing upon unknown seas in search of wealth, knowledge, and adventure.
Mercator’s life and work are metaphors for what we aspire to: craftsmanship, setting accurate courses, venturing upon stormy, uncharted seas and opening up new worlds. His maps were accurate in the centre and distorted at both poles — a good image of MercatorNet’s editorial policy of balance and accuracy.
The challenges of the 21st century call for courage, learning and intelligence. This is what our readers will find at this website dedicated to his memory. Even after four hundred years, we still need maps to navigate foggy seas and narrow straits. We hope to provide them.
Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.