Fathers of data visualization: Gerardus Mercator 1512-1594

In 1569, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator presented his most well-known work, a cylindrical map projection of the world known as the Mercator projection. This map became standard for nautical purposes because it gave navigators the ability to sail across any of the world’s oceans by following approximately straight paths. In fact, although modern atlases no longer use the Mercator projection, it is still commonly used for navigation in areas close to the equator where distortion of the straight lines is minimal.

In spite of Mercator's fame as a cartographer, his main source of income was due to his craftsmanship of mathematical instruments. Mercator's own independent map-making began only when he first produced a map of Palestine, followed by a map of the world in 1538. He had a long-term plan to produce individual regional maps that would result in a complete world map. This proved to be a difficult undertaking at the time: maps quickly became outdated thanks to an increase in information provided from explorations of the earth, and information was often contradictory, leaving the task of choosing the correct data to use to cartographers. Nonetheless, Mercator was a dedicated man who created globes, corrected the positions of the stars in Copernicus’s model of the universe, and produced a new map of Europe in 1554. At this time, he was considered the leading European map maker.

In 1578, Mercator published corrected and updated versions of Ptolemy's maps in as the first part of his atlas, a term which he coined himself. Additions to the atlas in 1585 included a series of maps of France, Germany and the Netherlands. Thanks to his deviations from the previous standards set by Ptolemy, Mercator established himself as one of the most influential geographers. He “…liked, little by little, not only the description of the earth, but also the structure of the whole machinery of the world, whose numerous elements are not known by anyone to date.” Mercator used the information available to him to visualize a more accurate depiction of the world in which he lived, making him a forefather of datavisualization.

Gerardus Mercator’s son, Rumold, continued his father’s work, designing the world map pictured.