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Exhibit Celebrates Centuries-Old Maps That Influenced Google

By Mary Johnson | March 14, 2012 8:52am
Gerard Mercator was well-known for his map projection, as well as for his hugely influential, three-volume atlas.
Gerard Mercator was well-known for his map projection, as well as for his hugely influential, three-volume atlas.
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New York Public Library

MIDTOWN — Google Maps may be the cutting edge way to navigate one's surroundings, but to create it tech whizzes relied on a centuries old formula developed by a Flemish geographer and cartographer named Gerard Mercator.

With 2012 marking the 500th anniversary of Mercator’s birth, the New York Public Library will display several of Mercator’s expertly drawn maps, drafted with ancient technology that is still being used today.

“His contributions to the field have had an incredible staying power throughout history,” said Matthew Knutzen, the geospatial librarian at the New York Public Library, at an opening reception for the exhibition Monday. “It exists and it’s expressed in all the mapmaking systems we see on the web today.”

Mercator was born in 1512 in Flanders, a small town in Belgium. At the age of 26, he drafted his first world map. Several decades later, in 1569, he created a global map projection system that revolutionized mapmaking for sailors, helping them to accurately follow a compass reading, Knutzen explained.

When he died in 1594, Mercator had nearly completed an epic, three-volume atlas, which was published a year after his death.

Despite the passage of centuries, Mercator’s influence still runs rampant through one of the world’s most influential technology companies.

“Google Maps uses the Mercator projection,” said Gregor Rothfuss, 35, the technical lead for Google Maps user interface in Chelsea. “He came up with the formula.”

Mercator’s projection tackles the challenge of depicting a three-dimensional world in two dimensions, Rothfuss explained.

“If you imagine wrapping a newspaper around a globe, you can’t do that neatly,” said Rothfuss, who attended the opening night reception on Monday.

But Mercator was able to develop a mathematical formula that helped ease the translation of globe to map.

Mercator’s projection is widely used, Rothfuss said, but like all map projections, it isn’t perfect. Mercator’s method tends to exaggerate the size of large geographic areas, like continents or the north and south poles, Rothfuss said.

But it causes very little distortion when used for areas on a more human scale, like plotting distances within a few miles, Rothfuss explained.

“That’s why it’s still so heavily used,” he added. “Overall, I think Mercator would be proud to see that, even today, we use his stuff and that every one of us is a mapmaker.”

The "Mercator at 500" exhibit at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street will run until the end of September.