Most of us think we know roughly what the Mercator projection is, and that it is still in use today, surviving various attempts to determine a more realistic one. But no full-length biography of the remarkable man who devised it has appeared in English until now.
This is a meticulously researched and very readable account of a young boy born in poverty, orphaned at an early age, yet educated at one of Europe's leading institutions of the time, a modest man who earned from his contemporaries the title of "prince of modern geographers".
In this age of greed, nationalism and divisive rule, it is refreshing to read of a man whose life was lived around the desire for harmony.
Mercator was born in 1512 in an area of violent conflict, social upheaval and religious revolution, and his parents moved away from their ancestral home to Rupelmonde, in Belgium, to avoid famine and plague.
Later Mercator, too, would move his family away when conflict intruded in his living space, first to Louvain and Antwerp and then to Duisberg. At university in Louvain, he met leaders of the humanist movement, and this influenced everything he did in his very long life. He died at the age of 82 at a time when few people lived half that long, and he was still struggling to complete his great work, a reconciliation of the world we live in from the creation, through a description of the heavens, a geographical representation of the earth, a genealogy of the kings who founded cities and kingdoms, and a chronology of world events.
His crucial realisation that it was possible to draw a map so that a sailor might navigate along a fixed line and reach his destination is only lightly touched on here. Strangely, sailors were slow to adapt to the new projection. Few know that Mercator wrote the first manual of the italic handwriting that had developed in Italy, and thus spread its use in northern Europe.
He was also the first to draw regional maps with an overlapping margin, so that two sheets might be fixed together. By preparing maps on a fixed scale and collecting them into a book, which he called (in Latin) "Atlas, or cosmographical reflections on the creation of the World and the formation of its parts", he gave us the word "atlas" for a collection of maps.
Mercator's two rivals, who reaped rich rewards for their work by better marketing and producing more garish products, were Ortelius and de Jode but, as Nicholas Crane writes, their books "consisted of maps copied from the work of various other cartographers... Researched and designed by one man, Mercator's maps had editorial consistency."
Throughout his life Mercator struggled to earn a living for his large family. He engraved nearly all his maps himself, and he fell back on the laborious task of producing globes when funds ran low. Perhaps for this reason he accepted for engraving a Catholic map of Britain despite the risk of upsetting local religious fanatics.
Mercator had close ties with scholars throughout Europe, but particularly with those in England. His great five-part work, published in its entirety only after his death, was dedicated to "Elizabeth, the most serene and most mighty Queen of England, France and Ireland".
Mercator strove continually to include only the most recent and accurate knowledge on his maps, and he even corrected plates before printing if better information was obtained.
Susan Gole is international chairman, International Map Collectors' Society.
Mercator: The Man who Mapped the Planet
Author - Nicholas Crane
ISBN - 0 297 64665 6
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 359