Inside the Collection

A fun map for Mercator’s 500th birthday

Map drawn according to Mercator’s principle in 1795
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Object A7624.

This map, drawn according to Mercator’s principle in 1795, is part of a board game. Spin a number, embark on a virtual journey heading south-east from the Azores, experience success and setbacks, learn some geography, and perhaps win by being first to arrive in London, the city where Bowles Geographical Game of the World was created.

Map detail from Bowles Geographical Game of the World
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Object A7624.

We are used to seeing the world in the way that Gerardus Mercator drew it – although our maps show Bass Strait and many other features that were unknown to European mapmakers in 1795.

Detail showing Australia from Bowles Geographical Game of the World, 1795
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Object A7624.

Mercator was born on 5 March 1512, so the maps of his day were different again, but the principle of his projection has remained the same. The problem he addressed was how to represent the surface of a sphere on a flat sheet of paper or fabric. The shapes of the continents can only be represented truly on a globe, but globes are inconvenient to carry, limited in the amount of detail they display, and not terribly useful for a navigator needing to chart a course.

Terrestrial globe based on Mercator's projection
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Object H4641.

His solution was to imagine a cylinder of paper just touching a globe around the equator and projecting each place on the globe onto the paper (as if a light shining from inside the globe cast a detailed shadow on the paper). This system has the advantage that directions from place to place are accurate, which is very helpful for navigators. Its main disadvantage is that distances are magnified, and areas highly distorted, near the North and South Poles. Land lying on the Arctic Circle, for instance, is spread over the same length on the map as land lying on the Equator.

Many other projections have been developed since Mercator unveiled his in 1569, to address the same basic problem in ways that suit particular needs. For playing a game, Mercator’s projection is just fine. Perhaps in the future, rather than spinning a teetotum to select a number of steps to take on a flat map, we’ll spin a virtual globe with our fingers and explore the world in any way we wish.

5 responses to “A fun map for Mercator’s 500th birthday

  • I own a game of the world map, but in the bottom right of the actual map is printed “published as the act directs 12th August 1790”.The one I have came down the family and I have had it conserved.

      • Sorry Debbie for the delay but I’ve just remembered to look at your site again! The USA link could figure as some of my family went to America as Methodist evangelists. One of my Victorian forebears came back to England along with some small artefacts which I rescued from being thrown away, the map being one of them. One of my sons, David A Shenton, has married an American girl and is now a well known New York musician.
        I’ll give him the map!

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