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Mercator was not just a maker of maps

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Callie JonesGerhard cremer was born in Rupelmonde, Flanders, on 5 March 1512. After his father died a well connected uncle sent him to a school in the Netherlands that prepared poor but bright boys for the Catholic priesthood. There he developed a talent for calligraphy by copying out religious tracts. He also latinised his name to Gerardus Mercator Rupelmundanus. We know him today simply as Mercator.

In 1530 Mercator entered the University of Louvain. He met Gemma Frisius, a physician, mathematician and scientific instrument maker, who taught him how to apply mathematics to astronomy, cartography and navigation, and Gaspar van der Heyden, a goldsmith and engraver, in whose workshop he acquired his engraving skills.

Initially Mercator collaborated with his mentors to construct maps and globes but he soon began working independently. He produced maps of Flanders and the Holy Land then, in 1538, his first world map. His precise lettering on engraved copper blocks enabled him to print vastly more detail than had been seen on earlier maps. He even published a short manual that influenced the adoption of italic lettering in cartography.

Mercator had become a superb engraver, an outstanding calligrapher and a leading scientific instrument maker. But in 1544 he was accused of heresy and imprisoned for seven months, narrowly avoiding execution.

He made a new start in Duisburg, Germany, where he became cosmographer to the Duke of Cleve, taught at a local grammar school and constructed a celestial globe based on Copernicus’s model of the universe. He made high quality scientific and surgical instruments and revolutionised navigation by introducing Mercator’s Projection, which in modified form is still used for charts and maps. He also gave us the word “atlas” for a book of maps.

In his later years he planned a new world atlas and embarked on a huge project to describe the world’s creation and subsequent history. He painstakingly gathered the data he needed, sifting, comparing and rejecting until he was happy to commit the results to copper. He updated Ptolemy’s Old World maps and published a 36,000-word treatise on the biblical creation, but by then he was approaching his 80th year, almost twice the average lifespan of the time.

Mercator’s life almost spanned the 16th century but after decades of close,  focused work in variable light his vision lost its sharpness. He took euphrasia (eyebright) dissolved in “good Rhineland wine” to ease the condition. Then in 1590 a stroke left him partially paralysed and almost blind; another took his power of speech. He fought back bravely but even with his family’s help his last great project remained unfinished when he died on 2 December 1594.

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