Before Google Maps, our ancestors were forced to pick up a thing called a book to learn about the world around them.
The first modern atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World), was published on this day by Abraham Ortelius, a Flemish cartographer and geographer. The latest map sheets and text were collected from scientists, geographers, and other cartographers, and then arranged by continent, region and state, and bound into book form.
Most of these collections weren't for navigational purposes but rather were educational decorations displayed by the wealthy. To highlight Ortelius' work, Google dedicated its animated doodle Sunday to his atlas.
Within one of Ortelius' atlas, we see the first suggestion that the world's continents were joined together before drifting to their current positions. Ortelius noted the geometrical similarity between the coasts of America and Europe-Africa and was the first to propose continental drift as the explanation.
Ortelius also included the occasional illustration of sea monsters attacking ships. These margin illustrations may seem like a playful ornamentation, but they were intended to educate viewers about what could be found in the sea.
"To our eyes, almost all of the sea monsters on all of these maps seem quite whimsical, but in fact, a lot of them were taken from what the cartographers viewed as scientific, authoritative books," author Chet Van Duzer said in a podcast with Lapham's Quarterly, a journal on history and ideas. "So most of the sea monsters reflect an effort on the part of the cartographer to be accurate in the depiction of what lived in the sea."
Ortelius was also one of the first cartographers to consistently cite the sources of the original maps he used.
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