To celebrate his 503rd birthday, Flemish mathematician and cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who in 1569 discovered how to create a flat map that takes into consideration the curvatures of the earth, has been honored in a new Google Doodle.
His theory, dubbed the “Mercator projection,” was a major breakthrough for navigation because for the first time sailors could plot a route using straight lines without constantly adjusting their compass readings.
However, because the projection lengthens the longitudinal parallels, the scale of objects enlarge dramatically as they near the north and south poles and the method becomes unusable at around 70 degrees north/south.
Mercator was ahead of his time, not living to see his discovery become fully employed, but “by the eighteenth century the projection had been adopted almost universally by European navigators,” TIME wrote in 2013.
The cartographer was born on March 5, 1512, in the town of Rupelmonde in Flanders (today a part of Belgium). He was educated in the Netherlands and in 1544 was jailed for heresy due to his protestant faith and frequent traveling for research. He died on Dec. 2, 1594.
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