Describing the world with Gerardus Mercator

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”

Find maps galore at Marylebone Information ServiceWhile the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark, may have been happy with a blank map, some of us are rather more demanding.

So, what better day to consider maps on the internet, than the 600th anniversary of the birth of Gerardus Mercator, born 5 March 1512? Mercator was the great Renaissance cartographer, whose map of the world has formed the basis for almost every subsequent atlas.

If you want a look at Mercator’s Atlas (compiled in 1570), you can use the British Library’s marvellous Turning the Page technology to browse it with a useful explanatory text (Great Britain is on page 15). Mercator’s Projection is a term many of us will remember from school geography classes and there’s a handy explanation of what it actually means, for the mathematically inclined, by a mathemetician at the university of British Columbia. For the rest of us, it’s probably enough to know that bearings on the globe are everywhere equal to bearings on the map; for example, north on the globe is always upward on the map and landmasses are exaggerated in size the further they are from the Equator – thus, Greenland is shown as the same size as Africa (in fact Africa is 14 times larger).

Despite Mercator’s failings, other world maps such as the Peters Projection have never quite caught on (despite being some heavy product placement on The West Wing) and it’s Mercator that is the basis for most online mapping systems.

There are some splendid atlases in Westminster Libraries. One of the most notable is the Times Atlas of the World, now in its 13th edition and available to gloat over at Marylebone Information Service. The Information Service has a large collection of atlases political, social and historical as well as three sets of Ordnance Survey maps. These come in several difference scales – most popular are the 1:50,000 Landranger series  (‘the pink ones’), which can be borrowed from the lending libraries,  though walkers often prefer the 1 : 25,000 Explorer series (the ‘orange ones’). Marylebone and Westminster Archives also both have a full set of Westminster 1 : 1250 maps which show every building and, handily, show where the tube lines go underground. Also held at Marylebone are the Cassini historical maps, fascinating for anyone interested in local history.

Those who like that sort of thing will want to visit the History section of the Westminster Libraries  Gateway to Websites and check out the MAPCO Map and Plan Collection Online which has a display of 18th and 19th century maps of London and the rest of Britain. Particularly fascinating is Stanford’s Library Map Of London And Its Suburbs 1864 which shows London from Streatham Common in the South to Crouch End in the North, and from Shepherds Bush in the West to the East India Docks in the West to a scale of 6 inches to the mile.

Check out the Environment & Geography section of the Gateway for some more contemporary maps such as Streetmap and Google Maps (no matter how often one plays with the Streetview option, it’s still really cool…). Don’t forget that the Westminster Council homepage also has a useful map of local services which you can use to find your nearest library or other organization.

Of course, maps aren’t just for looking at. They’re for plotting travel and adventure. Obviously it would be lovely if we could all be like the famed naturalist  Doctor Dolittle (the proper one, not the Eddie Murphy travesty, obviously) and plan our holidays by randomly sticking a pin in an atlas but there are worse ways of choosing a day trip (you might want to confine yourself to a map of Southern England for this one) or even a long weekend (the Rough Guide to England is your friend here).

Once you’ve chosen your destination, see what the Transport & Tourism section of the Gateway can offer. Transportdirect is excellent for planning your journey, whether by car or by public transport while the National Rail site will help you find the cheapest train ticket and Lonely Planet will give you some good tips for how to adapt to foreign parts (should you have inadvertently stuck your pin North of Watford).

Find maps galore at Marylebone Information Service

So, take a look at Mercator’s marvelous map and maybe wonder how we would see the world (and find our way anywhere) without him and other brilliant cartographers to describe it for us.



2 responses to “Describing the world with Gerardus Mercator

  1. Pingback: 42 | Books & the City

  2. Pingback: Get lost | Books & the City

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