Origin of ordinary things: The atlas

Atlas. / Net photo.

In atlas is a collection of various maps of the earth or a specific region of the earth. Maps that make up atlases are traditionally bound as books. These are either hardcover for reference atlases, or softcover for atlases that are meant to serve as travel guides. 

According to ThoughtCo, the earliest known atlas is associated with the Greco-Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy. His work, Geographia, was the first published book of cartography, consisting of the knowledge of the world’s geography that was known around the time of the second century. Maps and manuscripts were written by hand at the time. Geographia’s earliest surviving publications date back to 1475. 


The voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and Amerigo Vespucci increased knowledge of the world’s geography in the late 1400s. Johannes Ruysch, a European cartographer and explorer, created a new map of the world in 1507 that became very popular. It was reprinted in a Roman edition of Geographia that year. Another edition of Geographia was published in 1513 and it connected North and South America. 


According to britannica.com, Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570; Theatre of the World) is generally thought to be the first modern atlas. Another monument of 16th Century cartography is the Lafréri Atlas, containing maps compiled by gifted Italian cartographers between 1556 and 1575.


In the following century, the Dutch reigned supreme in the production of high-quality atlases, as evidenced by the works of Mercator. French atlases in the 18th Century were less ornate but were equal in accuracy and richness of content to the maps of the Dutch and Italians. German atlases of the same period were burdened with enormous detail, numerous insets, pictures, and notes. Among the most widely used great atlases of modern times, indexing 250,000 to 500,000 place-names, are Andree’s ‘Allgemeiner Handatlas’ (1881–1930), the Russian ‘Atlas Mira’ (first published 1954), and the London Times’s ‘Atlas of the World’, 5 vol. (1955–59).

The first edition consisted of 70 different maps. Like Geographia, ‘Theater of the World’ was extremely popular and it was printed in numerous editions from 1570 to 1724.

In 1633, a Dutch cartographer and publisher named Henricus Hondius designed an ornately decorated world map that appeared in an edition of Flemish geographer Gerard Mercator’s atlas, originally published in 1595. 

The works by Ortelius and Mercator are said to represent the beginning of the Golden Age of Dutch cartography. This is the period when atlases grew in popularity and became more modern. The Dutch continued to produce many volumes of atlases throughout the 18th Century, while cartographers in other parts of Europe also began to print their works. The French and British began to produce more maps in the late 18th Century, as well as sea atlases because of their increased maritime and trade activities.

By the 19th century, atlases began to get very detailed. They looked at specific areas such as cities, instead of whole countries and/or regions of the world. With the advent of modern printing techniques, the number of atlases published also began to increase. Technological advances such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have allowed modern atlases to include thematic maps that show various statistics of an area.


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