The World’s First Atlas

Today’s Google Doodle is a particular treat for a map lover like me: it commemorates the publication in 1570 of the world’s first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.


As Forbes explains, Ortelius’ work was an unusual concept at the time: an expertly-crafted book of similarly-sized maps neatly organized by geography.

It was the work of cartographer Abraham Ortelius, who collected the maps, added his own notes, and had the book printed from specially-engraved copper plates. It contains one of the earliest allusions to what would later become the theory of continental drift, and it’s full of the names of the leading scientists and cartographers of the late sixteenth century – people like Gerardus Mercator, whose method of representing the round globe on a flat map is still in use today. Ortelius did almost none of the actual surveying or drawing for the maps in his book; his role was to bring them all together with descriptions and references. So he cited the names of the 33 cartographers whose work he used – another first, in a period when rules about plagiarism would horrify most college professors today. He also included a list of 54 more professional cartographers.

The 53 maps in the atlas represented everything western Europeans in 1570 knew about the shape of the world. Of course, there was a lot that western Europeans in 1570 didn’t know about the shape of the world – starting with Australia and Antarctica. Europeans wouldn’t stumble across Australia until 30 years after Ortelius published his first edition, and it would take another two hundred years for James Cook to discover Antarctica. But Ortelius’ maps do depict Terra Australis, a hypothetical southern continent located about where Antarctica turned out to be.

This seminal work in cartographic history would mark the start of the century-long “Golden Age of Netherlandish Cartography,” in which cities and universities in what are today Belgium and the Netherlands (such as Ortelius’ hometown of Antwerp) would be global hubs of globe-making, printing, bookselling, engraving, and instrument-making. Many innovations in cartography would emerge or take root here, including the now ubiquitous Mercator projection, by German-Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator (who came up with the idea around the same time Ortelius’ atlas was published).


Abraham Ortelius (Peter Paul Rubens, 1633)

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