How Mercator's projection went bad

Authors: Michele Abee*, University of North Carolina - Greensboro
Topics: History of Geography, Cartography
Keywords: History of Cartography, History of Geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 5:00 PM / 6:40 PM
Room: Virginia C, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Mercator’s projection was indirectly validated by science. In 1569, Mercator’s projection revolutionized cartography, navigation, and after the Scientific Revolution it revolutionized the display of scientific data. From the mid-sixteenth to the start of the eighteenth century, Mercator’s projection was used by explorers and navigators to plot their routes and discoveries while at sea. Once the explorer’s discoveries and data reached geographic societies and universities it was accumulated and prepared for publication, still on Mercator’s projection, especially at the world scale. As such it became the widely used projection for world maps and atlases, for which is was ill suited, not only because it fit the page well, but because it had a reputation of being used by the professional and intellectual community. The legacy of the Scientific Revolution allowed for the development of the geographic discipline into a more theoretical and data driven science. The rise of thematic cartography and the increase of literacy and availability of knowledge further propelled the distribution and diffusion of Mercator’s projection. While these publications were designed for fellow academics and scientists who may well have been aware of the degree of the distortions of Mercator’s projection, they often became the basis of maps and atlases that were prepared for a far less discerning general audience including elementary school children. Thus, Mercator’s influenced how the majority would come to conceptualize the world. This paper explains how and why Mercator's projection became a popular projection of choice for the display of world maps.

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