The Life of Gerard Mercator

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Part 2: Fame and Fortune

The mapmaker Mercator then produced maps of Palestine, Flanders, and the world as a whole. (This last map was the first to label North America by that name.) It is important to remember that at the time Mercator was drawing his maps, not too much was known about large parts of the world. In Europe in the 16th Century, explorers had brought back many things from Asia, Africa, and the Americas; one thing they didn't always bring back was accurate maps of the land they had "discovered." Thus, the mapmakers of the time had to rely on what they had. Mercator was one of the first mapmakers to base his maps on his own travels and observations, and this greatly contributed to the accuracy of his maps.

After a brief stint in prison for a public disagreement with local authorities, Mercator returned to his worki, this time moving to Duisburg and opening up a map shop. He found such great success that he and his family soon moved into the richest part of the city. The child of a poor father, Gerard Mercator never again had to worry about money, for himself or his family.

In 1554, Mercator produced a six-panel map of Europe that had extraordinary detail in it. He continued to work and travel. He even got a job as a court mapmaker, drawing maps for Duke Wilhelm of Cleve.

In 1569, Mercator unveiled his famous projection, a new way of making a map that was designed to show accurate distances between various points. It was on 18 panels and was enormous.

Nine years later, he produced his own world atlas, featuring a large series of maps of the known world. (He was also the first to use the term atlas, naming his map collection after the mythological figure who was said to hold up the world on his broad shoulders). A significant part of this atlas was an updating and correction of the maps from the beloved Greek mapmaker Ptolemy.

All of these things cemented his reputation as the most famous mapmaker in Europe. He was paid well for his work, and he was much in demand. He was also the father of five more children.

In 1590, however, he suffered the first of three strokes, the last of which would leave him unable to carry on his work. When he died five years later, he left a number of maps unfinished. These were completed by his son.

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