Sunday’s Google Doodle celebrates the publication of the first modern atlas from cartographer Abraham Ortelius. He was also the first to propose the idea that the continents were once connected to each other in a giant landmass, but natural forces caused the lands to break off. This idea would eventually be known as continental drift, which would take another 300 years for it to be properly explored by science.
On May 20 in 1570, Abraham Ortelius published Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (or Theatre of the World), which is considered the first modern atlas. At the time, cartographers had a multitude of maps of different parts of the world, but it was Ortelius who put 53 maps together to form the atlas. It was the publication of this atlas that is considered the start of the Golden Age of Netherlandish cartography, which lasted until the 1670s.
When creating the atlas, Ortelius placed the land masses in a logical order. It was when he put forth the idea that the lands were once connected as one large land mass. In Dynamic Earth: The Story of Plate Tectonics (1996), author W. Jacquelyne Kious wrote that Ortelius suggested the Americas were “torn away from Europe and Africa . . . by earthquakes and floods.” It wasn’t until 1912 when Alfred Wegener hypothesized that the continents were at one time one, which he called “Urkontinent” or “primal continent.”
Born on April 14, 1527, in Antwerp — which was then part of Habsburg Netherlands, but now is Belgium — Ortelius became a map engraver in 1547 and published his first map in 1564. In Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Ortelius added multiple sea monsters, which was a common belief at the time. He also credited 87 cartographers in the bibliography, although 33 were the ones who made the maps he used while the rest were cartographers he knew of at the time.
Ortelius died in Antwerp in 1598. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum continued to be published and translated into multiple languages until 1612.
More than 400 years later, while humans already mapped out the Earth, the drive to explore is now pointed to the stars. The latest images from the Hubble Space Telescope showed how nearby galaxies have a similar structure as the Milky Way and could help astronomers understand why a galaxy takes a spiral shape.