The man who put the world on the map

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Gerard Mercator, the famous cartographer, was born in Rupelmonde in 1512. Next year his city of birth will celebrate his five hundredth birthday in style with exhibitions and other activities. Mercator made it to eighth position when the Greatest Belgian of all time was elected in 2005. The cartographer’s real name was Gerard Kremer or De Cremer, but true to the tradition of his time, he gave his name a Latin twist to suit his field of study. He studied at the Louvain University where the founder of anatomy, Vesalius, was a fellow student. Following his studies and apprenticeship, Mercator embarked on a career as independent instrument maker and established himself as geographer and globe maker on commission of important clients such as Emperor Charles V. During his studies he often faced major contradictions and struggled to reconcile his empirical observations with the Bible. In 1544 he was incarcerated in the Earl's Tower in his hometown on suspicions of heresy, in particular of being a follower of the Protestant faith and Luther.  After seven months in prison he was released, but eventually left Flanders many years later to live in Duisburg, where a new university was established. There he managed to publish his most important works, including the groundbreaking first ever map of Europe. Mercator’s most crucial innovation to this day is the so-called Mercator projection. With his world map published in 1569 he presented a new method to portray the globe on a two-dimensional, angle-preserving map. This means that angles between the different directions on the map correspond to the directions on the earth’s surface. As it is impossible to project the spherical surface of the earth on a flat surface without distortion, Mercator’s cylindrical map projection uses these distortions to render them user-friendly for nautical purposes. Mercator is also important as the first person to coin the word ‘atlas’ for a collection of maps in book form. Unfortunately he did not see the completion of his first atlas which was completed by his son Rumold in 1595, one year after Mercator’s death. One of the eye-catchers of next year’s celebration will be the exhibition Mercator Digitaal Mercator digitally which will take place at the SteM, the urban museum of Sint-Niklaas. It will show the Sint-Niklaas museum’s collection of wall maps, atlases and globes in a digital presentation with computer animation and video reports, 3D technology and interactive touch screens. At the end of the exhibition visitors will be given the opportunity to digitally page through three Mercator atlases dating back to 1584, 1595 and 1607. But there’s much more to the Mercator year celebrations, including an exhibit of his own library, touristic walks, a Kinetic Art Project ‘Homo Universalis’ and an international cartographic conference organised in collaboration with the SteM and University of Ghent.

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