How Abraham Ortelius Changed Geography Forever

The name Abraham Ortelius sounds like the name out of a dystopian novel. But in fact he is a real person out of real history, and what he did changed geography forever. As with many obscure people, their inventions and discoveries resulted in things so commonplace we take them for granted or generally ignore them – until we need them.

If you are unfamiliar with the science of cartography, it is the field where precise locations of land areas are, commonly known as mapmaking. Ortelius was the inventor of the atlas. His first atlas contained 53 maps, and was also published in German and Spanish languages. What we use as geolocation is not a new millennium thing but was created more than 500 years ago. Siri, eat your heart out.

But as a mapmaker Ortelius also noticed something about the shape of the individual continents. He noticed they were something like a jigsaw puzzle, where coastal lines seemed to fit together, albeit not perfectly. As time went on he would present the theory of continental drift, but limit his theory to the coasts of Europe, Africa, and “the Americas.” The technical term for this is contextual juxtaposition, a phrase you can use at dinner parties or political debates. What is more interesting is that he theorized that the contents were separated as a result of earthquakes and floods which ruptured the land masses. His theory would be proven correct some 400 years later.

By the way, the inclusion of the jigsaw puzzle analogy above was not by accident. Ortelius and his mapmaking would also lead to another creation – the jigsaw puzzle. According to puzzlewarehouse.com, the first puzzle was created by cutting up sections of a map, pasting them on to wood, and voila! The jigsaw puzzle lives on in digital form as well, so like the atlas, some things are always useful. As an aside, the jigsaw puzzle was used to work with autistic children in 1962.

If you are thinking that Abraham Ortelius was a genius, you are not far off. One reason is that people who are geniuses tend to be quirky in some way. So when is an atlas not simply an atlas? When it is connected to a religious cult (of sorts). He has been connected to a religion knows as the Family of Love and it is believed the atlas was a result of his religious beliefs.

If you look not too closely at his original map it was in the shape of a heart. (There is a technical name for this as well – a cordiform projection.) One of the reasons for choosing this shape is the heart, along with several other shapes connected to the map, were believed to have special powers. The map itself was considered to be talismanic, possessing certain magical or supernatural powers. In other words, the atlas was not created simply as a way to visually represent the world, but to give Ortelius and perhaps its possessors certain special powers.

Remember that the first atlas had only 53 copies made, as mass publication methods had not yet been discovered. So it is logical to presume Ortelius thought only a small number of people would actually have access to these special powers, though they may have not been limited to his Family of Love religion. There is a journal article on this, “Abraham Ortelius and the Hermetic Meaning of the Cordiform Projection” for the JStor academic types.

You might think after reading this last paragraph that Ortelius was some kind of religious nut job. In fact, during his lifetime the Family of love was considered to be radical, and even heretical because of its beliefs. Yet the history shows he was 500 years ahead of science in the creation of the atlas, and another 400 years ahead of scientists in his theory of continental drift. And he did make the jigsaw puzzle possible. From a historical perspective there often is a connection between scientific discoveries and religious beliefs. Ortelius did not ignore the real world nor did he ignore the supernatural world during his work. It can be asked whether the atlas and Ortelius’ discoveries will someday become another part of ancient history. Until then, remember he changed geography and at least one scientific theory.


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