Book Review: The World of Gerard Mercator

“The World of Gerard Mercator” by Andrew Taylor is an excellent biography of Gerard Mercator – someone who we have all heard of, but generally know very little. Taylor does a good job of putting him into both a historic and a cartographic context, and does his best to explain Mercator with the relatively limited information available. My main criticism of the book involves the images. Many of the maps are asking for large full color reproductions – something this small format black&white book cannot provide.

This book is technically not a geoweb book, but I am reviewing it here as of general interest to those who use the Mercator projection on a daily basis. For better or for worse, virtually all online map applications and web services use the Mercator projection. His name is well known, but who was he? As a cartographer, does he deserve this fame, or did he simply strike it lucky?

Of course reality is a mixture of both. Mercator was probably the best cartographer of his era who is remembered today though the ‘luck’ of his projection being adopted as the default global projection. It was already impossible for a cartographer to survey his own maps, and Mercator primarily used other people’s information and reports. Mercator had the probably unprecedented ability to determine which reports were accurate and which were not.

Taylor’s book starts by giving a cartographic history leading up to Mercator. This provides a lot of useful context. He covers the ideas of Ptolemy which dominated for almost 1500 years, and the Medieval T-O maps (of which the Hereford Mappa Mundi is the most famous). Early Renaissance cartographic progress following from the explorations of Colombus, Amerigo Verspicci and others; and Waldseemuller’s World Map are all covered.

This is then followed by a chronological description of Mercator’s life and achievements. Taylor describes how Mercator found the business of cartography, and how he quickly made a name for himself once he started. It then moves on his achievements in creating new maps and globes. Mercator also had a run-in with the Inquisition, but appears to have been  publically friendly to both Protestant and Catholic causes. In both cases he produced commissions of a strongly Catholic or Protestant nature.  Taylor attempts to describe Mercator’s thoughts on such issues but this is difficult with no written confirmation. If Mercator had strong feelings about the religious and political issues of the day, he was wise enough not to write them down.

Mercator’s projection and its genesis takes up a surprisingly short length of the book. In hindsight, I think this is correct, but it gives an idea of his wider achievements. Taylor gives a good description of the growing need for a projection that worked in the high latitudes. Unfortunately we only have Mercator’s description of how he came up with it. Even this cannot be fully trusted: Can we really believe that Mercator did not derive the basic mathematics behind his projection, as he claimed?

Taylor gives a good historical background to each step in the story. This is useful as few readers will be familiar with detailed Dutch/Belgian/German history in the 16th Century. From a 21st century perspective, a town siege might be a minor footnote of history, but would have forced major decisions from those who were present.

Most biographies have a number of central prints. This book has the illustrations spread throughout the book and printed in simple black and white. This results in more pictures and better (in context) locations for the pictures, but they are of lesser quality. Quality is fine for many drawings and images, but many of the maps are simply asking for large full-color reproductions. It simply isn’t possible to give such images justice in a small format book like this. A complementary large format coffee table book would be an ideal but pricey alternative.

I would have also preferred more technical information. This book clearly does not require the mathematical treatment of a USGS Technical Manual, but some explanations would have helped. For example, Ptolemy’s projections are mentioned but they are not described. All that would hve been required, would have been a couple of line drawings and two sample maps. Similarly, Mercator’s projection is described in text, but a diagram and formula would have helped greatly. This additional technical information would not have to be very in-depth, and could have been placed in an appendix.

So in conclusion, this is an excellent biography that describes someone we have all heard of but know little about. As well as providing a description of Mercator, his achievements, and surrounding geographic achievements; this book also includes a useful history of cartography up to Mercator. Many of the map illustrations do not do the maps justice, and a historical map atlas would be an ideal reading companion.

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