Historical Background

The development of atlases can be divided into different stages.

The first stage of atlas development is defined by Ptolemy's Guide to Geography (Geographike hyphegesis), which dates back to the second century AD. In volume 8 of the guide Ptolemy included instructions on how to show the Earth in maps and also included 26 maps. The guide was unknown until it was translated into Arabic around 800 BC. Not until it was translated into Latin in 1409 in Italy did it have an impact on the development of cartography and atlases in particular. Later (1477) other printed versions of the Guide to Geography were available, which also included the maps. In the sixteenth century, mainly in Italy, later also in Germany and France, more map collections were published in book form, which followed the order of maps suggested by Ptolemy. The Guide to Geography can thus be seen as an early example of an atlas.

The first consistently structured atlas (Theatrum orbis terrarum) was produced by the Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius and published in 1570, though its maps only shared a consistent format and print technique (etching) but lacked uniform orientation, content, and visualization. The work of the Dutch German cartographer Gerardus Mercator (Atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura, posthumously published in 1595) introduced the term atlas for a collection of maps in book form, which was also more consistent than earlier map collections.

New developments in the field of atlas cartography took place during the seventeenth and eighteenth century in France. Advances in the quality of atlases are mainly based on higher accuracy in land surveying techniques and tools and therefore more accurate maps. In the nineteenth-century new printing and reproduction technology facilitated the production of various types of atlases. Prominent examples are general reference atlases like the German Stieler Handatlas or the American Rand McNally Atlas.

Current developments in computer technology have led to new types of maps and atlases. Not only has the production of atlases changed due to new technologies but also the use of maps and of atlases is strongly affected. Digital technology applied in atlas production and use offers new ways to communicate spatial information.