The year 2012 marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), the Flemish geographer, engraver, and maker of scientific instruments, maps, and globes. In celebration of the occasion, The New York Public Library is hosting Mercator at 500, an exhibition of extraordinary cartographic works — some of which have not been displayed in decades — that not only illuminate the brilliant mind and skillful hand of the cartographer himself, but also highlight his esteemed position and enduring legacy within the long arc of the history of cartography and geography.
Mercator’s contributions have had incredible staying power. His first world map (1538) built upon and improved state-of-the-art mathematical cartography, and was augmented with geographic data from New World discoveries. His pioneering global map projection system (1569) was a boon to mariners and seafarers, while his Ptolemaic atlases helped to revive both the gazetteers (place dictionaries) and map projection systems of the Classical world. His epic, three-volume atlas series made possible a more modern conception of the known world in the 16th century.
This legacy endures today, expressed in the spatial revolution taking place on desktop, tablet, and mobile devices worldwide. Every Google Maps search for a place name or driving directions relies on technology with roots deeply embedded in the past. A great debt is owed to the librarians, geographers, and compilers of the ancient world, whose achievements have made possible such cutting-edge technologies as gazetteers that translate named locations into latitude and longitude, as well as the mapping systems that help us project those locations onto a map. A great innovator, Gerard Mercator created some of the first modern maps and atlases; in doing so, he built a bridge to the present using ancient mapping technologies that still play a vital role in today’s information ecosystem.