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History of the Atlas

History | 7-14 yrs | Interactive, Learning Pod, Reading Pod

Who doesn’t know the importance of maps and atlas in our lives? Without the atlas, the world of cartographers and geographers would come to a standstill!

What is an Atlas?

An atlas is an encyclopedia of the geographical, political and other educational information regarding each part of the world which serves a number of purposes. The world atlas that is today easily accessible in libraries and bookstores has had a very vivid history.

Story of Atlas the titan

Let us first acquaint you with an interesting ancient Greek tale. Greek mythology consists of innumerable tales about giant beings known as Titans.  One such Titan was Atlas. Once upon a time, it so happened that the Titans waged a war against the Greek gods and lost. All the Titans who participated in the war, then, had to face the gods’ wrath. Atlas’s punishment was to hold the sky on his shoulders.  Atlas had no choice but to keep holding the sky up for years and years.

One day, a hero named Hercules came to see him.  Hercules was looking for certain golden apples and only Atlas knew where they grew. So, Hercules requested Atlas to go and get the golden apples and offered to hold the sky in his absence. Atlas consented to help Hercules and went in search of the golden apples after shifting the sky on Hercules’ shoulders. He soon came back with the golden apples, but refused to take the sky back on his shoulders from Hercules.  Seriously, who would want to take back a job like that?  Hercules then thought of a trick and requested Atlas to hold the sky for a while so that he could just put some pads on his shoulders to be more comfortable. Atlas agreed to do so and as soon as Atlas took back the sky, Hercules vamoosed from there with the golden apples. And, thus, Atlas was once again forced to hold the sky on his shoulders till eternity.

About 500 years ago, in 1585, Gerardus Mercator, a renowned cartographer from Germany made a book of maps.  On the first page of the book, this famous story of Atlas was narrated.  Ever since then, a book of maps has been called an Atlas.

Story of Atlas the king

Another popular belief is that the land of Mauritania (In the continent of Africa) was once ruled by King Atlas, who was a great mathematician, philosopher and astronomer who had invented the first celestial globe. Gerardus Mercator first called his collection of maps as an ‘Atlas’ to honour this legendary king.

Whatever may be the truth, one thing is sure that the word ‘Atlas’ owes its origin to either of the above stories. Now let us proceed further to know how the ancient maps came into existence.

Story of ‘Atlas’ the book

It is said that the first printed collection of maps was produced in AD 150 by the renowned geographer of those times, Claudius Ptolemy. It contained 27 hand-drawn maps. Over a period of time, early cartographers and geographers started introducing corrections and reforms in the further reproductions of the maps. But the students of geography and cartography (art of making maps) faced a lot of problems while studying these maps because of the lack of uniformity of sizes of various maps. It was a tedious job to study maps as rolling and unrolling of large maps was very difficult.

Even in the early 1500s, the geography of the globe was rarely known to anyone. It was not clear whether America was a part of Asia, if there was a vast body of sea at the top of the world or if Australia was connected to Antarctica. The invention of airplanes was several centuries away, so there was no easy way of finding out what the world looked like from above.

Cartographers had to garner, assimilate and coordinate the geographical information provided by explorers and sailors who kept sailing around the world. They used to imagine themselves floating in the air, and looking down at the world from the heights of heaven. This earned them the ire of several religious sects. Maps were ripped apart, cartographers’ homes were vandalized and their lives were threatened. Some brave heart cartographers boldly faced such challenges and strove relentlessly to devise new ways of making maps.

Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius

Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius were two such men. They were German from origin and worked together as associates. Mercator was a mathematician and cartographer who was skilled in the art of making maps and had a penchant for creative thinking. Ortelius was a trained and highly skilled artist/craftsman. In 1554, they ventured into the business of buying and selling maps. Mercator used to collect and study the maps while Ortelius decorated their borders and mounted them on silk and rendered them in colour.

Mercator soon came up with his world map, but it had one nasty drawback. It was huge! It was meant only to be hung on a wall and was not portable. Every ancient map was more or less like that! In order to include the names of the smallest of places and make them readable as well, the map had to be large in size. It so happened that one day a client named Hooftman came to meet Mercator and Ortelius and asked them to devise a way to chop the huge silken sheets into smaller pieces and publish the map of the world in a book.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

Ortelius collected the best maps around with the help of Mercator and created the book that their client Hooftman had asked for. In 1570, Ortelius made the first Atlas. However, he did not name it ‘Atlas’ at first. He called it ‘Theatrum Orbis Terrarum’ (theatre of the round world) and it had 53 uniform-sized maps in it.

This book of maps sold like hot cakes and several improved versions of this book soon hit the market. Ortelius became famous and people started respecting him for his cartography skills.
In 1585, Mercator published the first volume of his own world map in book form and titled this new book as ‘Atlas, or Cosmographical Meditations upon the Creation of the Universe’. The story of the mythological Atlas, as mentioned before, was written on the first page of this book. Now you know how the small book of maps that you every day carry in your school bag, was born.