The concept of atlas, in its modern sense, was the brainchild of early modern Netherlandish cartographers, geographers and cosmographers, most notably Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius. 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 seventeenth 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.