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Frontispiece of the 1595 atlas of Mercator

An atlas is a collection of maps; it is typically a bundle of maps of Earth or of a region of Earth.

Atlases have traditionally been bound into book form, but today many atlases are in multimedia formats. In addition to presenting geographic features and political boundaries, many atlases often feature geopolitical, social, religious and economic statistics. They also have information about the map and places in it.


The use of the word "atlas" in a geographical context dates from 1595 when the German-Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator published Atlas Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura ("Atlas or cosmographical meditations upon the creation of the universe and the universe as created"). This title provides Mercator's definition of the word as a description of the creation and form of the whole universe, not simply as a collection of maps. The volume that was published posthumously one year after his death is a wide-ranging text but, as the editions evolved, it became simply a collection of maps and it is in that sense that the word was used from the middle of the 17th century. The neologism coined by Mercator was a mark of his respect for the Titan Atlas, the "King of Mauretania", whom he considered to be the first great geographer.[1]

History of atlases[edit]

The Maghreb (south-up) in Muhammad al-Idrisi's Nuzhat al-Mushtāq (نزهة المشتاق في اختراق الآفاق), also known as the Tabula Rogeriana (12th century).[2]
World map Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the Orb of the World) by Abraham Ortelius, 1570
Joan Blaeu's world map, originally prepared by Blaeu for his Atlas Maior, published in the first book of the Atlas van Loon (1664).
Imperii Orientalis et Circumjacentium Regionum by Guillaume Delisle (1742)

The first work that contained systematically arranged maps of uniform size representing the first modern atlas was prepared by Italian cartographer Pietro Coppo in the early 16th century; however, it was not published at that time, so it is conventionally not considered the first atlas. Rather, that title is awarded to the collection of maps Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by the Brabantian cartographer Abraham Ortelius printed in 1570.[citation needed]

Atlases published nowadays are quite different from those published in the 16th–19th centuries. Unlike today, most atlases were not bound and ready for the customer to buy, but their possible components were shelved separately. The client could select the contents to their liking, and have the maps coloured/gilded or not. The atlas was then bound. Thus, early printed atlases with the same title page can be different in contents.[3]

States began producing national atlases in the 19th century.[4]

Types of atlases[edit]

A travel atlas is made for easy use during travel, and often has spiral bindings, so it may be folded flat (for example, Geographers' A–Z Map Company's A–Z atlases). It has maps at a large zoom so the maps can be reviewed easily.[clarification needed] A travel atlas may also be referred to as a road map.[5]

A desk atlas is made similar to a reference book. It may be in hardback or paperback form.

There are atlases of the other planets (and their satellites) in the Solar System.[6]

Atlases of anatomy exist, mapping out organs of the human body or other organisms.[7]

Selected atlases[edit]

Some cartographically or commercially important atlases are:

17th century and earlier:

18th century:

19th century:

20th century:

21st century:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mercator's own account of the reasons for choosing King Atlas are given in the preface of the 1595 atlas. A translation by David Sullivan is available in a digital version of the atlas published by Octavo. The text is freely available at the New York Society Library Archived March 10, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, pdf page 104 (corresponding to p. 34 of Sullivan's text).
  2. ^ Idrīsī, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Šarīf Abū ʿAbd Allâh al- (1100?-1165?) Auteur du texte; texte, محمد بن محمد الإديسي Auteur du; texte, AL-IDRĪSĪ Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Auteur du (1250–1325). Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Idrīsī. Nuzhat al-muštāq fī iḫtirāq al-āfāq.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Jan Smits, Todd Fell (2011). Early printed atlases: shaping Plato's 'Forms' into bibliographic descriptions. In: Journal of map & geography libraries : advances in geospatial information, collections & archives, (ISSN 1542-0353), 7(2011)2, p. 184-210.
  4. ^ Short, John Rennie (2022). The Rise and Fall of the National Atlas in the Twentieth Century: Power, State and Territory. Anthem Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv2s2pp1m. ISBN 978-1-83998-304-7. JSTOR j.ctv2s2pp1m. S2CID 250944397.
  5. ^ "Road map". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 2012-05-31.
  6. ^ Greeley, Ronald; Batson, Raymond. The NASA Atlas of the Solar System. ISBN 978-0521561273.
  7. ^ Schwartz, John (2008-04-22). "The Body in Depth". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-05-07.

External links[edit]

Online atlases
History of atlases
Historical atlases online
Other links