Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Gerardus Mercator: Father of Modern Mapmaking

Gerardus Mercator: Father of Modern Mapmaking

Ann R. Heinrichs
Nonfiction  Series
For ages 10 and up
Capstone Press, 2007   ISBN: 978-0756533120

Gerardus Mercator, or Gerard Kremer as he was before he changed his name when he became a university scholar, came from a family which was very poor. His parents moved several times trying to find a better situation for themselves but they always struggled to feed and clothe themselves and their children. When Gerard was only fourteen his father died. His mother would never have been able to pay for his schooling so his uncle Gisbert took on the job of providing for Gerard.

A year later, wanting to give Gerard as good an education as possible, Uncle Gisbert arranged for his nephew to go to another school in the town of ?s-Hertogenbosch. And so fifteen year old Gerard left his hometown and his mother in Flanders and began a new phase of his life.

Gerard did well in the school and it was at this time that he first developed an interest in Geography. He studied the work of Ptolemy and learned how to write with a clear and attractive hand. This would stand him in good stead in the future when he would have to write things on the maps that he created.

In 1532 he went to the University of Louvain to get a degree. It was at this time that Gerard changed his name to Gerardus Mercator. It was traditional for young men to take a Latin name when they went to university. As a member of the university Gerardus had to follow a code of strict rules. He could not, under any circumstances, waver from the beliefs of the university. This was hard for Gerardus because he came to believe over time that some of Aristotle's teachings were incorrect, but Aristotle's writings were sacrosanct and Gerardus had to keep his thoughts to himself.

If was therefore with a feeling of relief that Gerardus left the university after completing his degree. At least now he was able to "think freely." Gerardus decided that he wanted to be a geographer and thankfully one of his old teachers was willing to teach him the mathematical skills that he would need to pursue this profession. Gerardus did so well that his teacher, Gemma Frisius, decided to take him on as an apprentice in his business. Thus it was that Gerardus learned how to engrave copper plates so that maps could be printed off them. He also learned how to make globes and scientific instruments.

Once he had learned all that Frisius and his partner could teach him Gerardus struck out on his own and set up his own business. So at the age of twenty four Gerardus got a little house in Louvain and found a wife to take care of him and share his life. Thanks to his skill and his ability to gather sound and new information about other lands, it was not long before Gerardus had a thriving concern to take care of. He created beautiful and highly detailed maps and one-of-a-kind globes. He also worked on the problem of creating maps which sailors could use for navigation, and he experimented with ways in which to portray the round Earth's surface on a flat piece of paper. He would eventually solve this latter problem so well that his Gerardus projection method of mapmaking would become a format which mapmakers still use today.

In this well written and very interesting title in the "Signature Lives" series, the author not only tells the story of one of the world's most extraordinary mapmakers, but she also shows her readers what it might have been like to live in Gerardus' world. Today we take so many of our liberties for granted, liberties which Gerardus did not have. For example Gerardus was imprisoned for many months simply because the authorities suspected him of having ideas that strayed off the accepted path. Indeed he ended up choosing to move so that he could live in a place where he would not be persecuted for his ideas. Seeing what it was like to live in Europe hundreds of years ago certainly makes us appreciate our lives today a bit more.