Martin Waldseemuller - The Man who put America on the Map

Know the Man Who Put America on the Map: Martin Waldseemuller

The Ptolemaic description of the world had seemed sufficient and satisfactory, until the Western Powers began sending out navigators to discover new sea-routes to India and China, spurred, of course, by tales of great wealth in those parts.
Prior to the Great Age of European Exploration and Discovery (1492-1522), all world maps were based on information left behind by the Ancient Greeks, particularly Ptolemy, the greatest geographer of the classical period. Martin Waldseemuller's map, which is described as the 'First New Map of the World', is an amazing, innovative work, that was printed in 1507. This map, undoubtedly the most radical one of its time, was drawn using the Ptolomaic projection, is titled 'Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptolemaei traditionem et Americi Vespucci aliorumque lustrationes'.

1. It was the first map that was printed separately and not as a part of a book.

2. It was the first, finely detailed map - and the first one of such immense dimensions - 2.3m. x 1.3m.

3. It needed twelve wood-blocks for its printing.

4. It was the first map in which the Earth was shown round, covering 360 degrees of longitude.

5. It was the first map where the North and South American continents were shown and labeled as 'America' - after Waldseemuller's main inspiration, Amerigo Vespucci.

6. It was the first map to show the entire coastline of Africa.

7. It was the first map to show the Pacific Ocean. This is perhaps its most remarkable feature - since it was printed six years before the Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa, became the first European to discover the Pacific, and fifteen years before Magellan and his crew rendered an accurate description of the ocean. It is still a great mystery how Waldseemuller correctly depicted the Pacific beforehand.

8. It was the first map to pin-point the exact location of Japan (called Zipangri). It should be remembered that no European had actually sighted Japan in 1507, and had heard about it only through Marco Polo's Travel Account.

Waldseemuller's map created a great sensation when it was published and quickly caught on with the Cartographers of the day. It was the beginning of modern map-making.

For a man who made such an important contribution to geography, we have surprisingly little personal information about Martin Waldseemuller.

He was born around 1470 in Radolfzell, a village on the shores of Lake Constance, and later studied for a Church Career, in Freiburg. Alongside, it is highly likely that he nurtured his interest in Geography and learned the necessary skills to become a Cartographer.

A brilliant student, he came to the attention of the great Patron of Arts, Rene II, the Duke of Lorraine, and was inducted into an elite, scholarly crowd that the Duke had assembled in 1505, to prepare a definitive map of the New Worlds that were being discovered. These people worked at the Saint Die des Voges Monastery, a short distance from Strasbourg.

The main source of information for map-making at the time was the well-detailed Four Voyage Accounts of the Italian Adventurer and Mercantile Mariner, Amerigo Vespucci. The Duke of Lorraine had managed to acquire a French translation from Lisbon and his cartographers used Vespucci's descriptive accounts of the New World, to prepare the new map. Along with the map, the scholars also published an elementary treatise on map-making and geography called 'Cosmographiae Introductio', in 1507. Later, in 1513, Waldseemuller produced a version of Ptolemy's 'Geographia' - it was considered the standard version until a better one was published by Munster, in 1540.

Waldseemuller's life after 1516 remains a mystery. There is no record of what happened to him, or where, when, and how, he died.
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