Martin Waldseemüller

The German geographer and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller (ca. 1470-ca. 1518) was the first to suggest that the newly discovered landmass in the New World should be called America.

Martin Waldseemüller was born at Radolfzell on the Bodensee and matriculated at the University of Freiburg in 1490. Much of Waldseemüller's early life is obscure. He first comes to light as a member of the group of humanist scholars and geographers which thrived at the court of Duke René II of Lorraine and influenced later-16th-century German interest in geography. News of the discoveries in the New World traveled quickly to transalpine Europe, and Alsace and Lorraine soon became important centers of interest and study in the discoveries and their consequences.

When copies of the letters of Amerigo Vespucci arrived at the court, they generated even more interest in the New World, and in 1507 Waldseemüller published a volume called Cosmographiae introductio, which contained a description of the New World as well as a translation of Vespucci's letters. Seeking a name for the new lands, Waldseemüller (who had not then heard of Christopher Columbus) suggested that they be called America, after Vespucci. Although Waldseemüller later suggested a revision when he became aware of Columbus's role in the discoveries, his original suggestion had become too popular. America remained the common designation for the new continents, and Waldseemüller retained the nickname "the godfather of America."

Also in 1507, Waldseemüller published another work which was to have immense influence on later cartography, his great world map. This woodcut map, engraved on 12 blocks, became one of the earliest examples of humanist interest in New World cartography. In the same year Waldseemüller also constructed a globe. For the next 30 years these were the standard examples of their kind. In 1511 Waldseemüller made a large-scale map of Europe and in 1513 did new maps for the great Strassburg edition of the works of Ptolemy.

J. H. Parry characterized Waldseemüller's work as follows: he was "an important transitional figure in the history of cartography. He was not an original scientist, but an encyclopaedic and intelligent interpreter. His maps, his globe, and his Cosmographiae introductio form an impressive body of old and new geography which to some extent anticipated the equally popular and still more fruitful work of Mercator." Waldseemüller was also an example of an intellectual type whose work in the 16th and 17th centuries would contribute to the popularization of the considerable body of knowledge about the world and man which had to be spread, absorbed, and acted upon by an increasingly larger public.


Further Reading on Martin Waldseemüller

There is no biography of Waldseemüller in English. Good accounts of his era and early cartography are Ronald V. Tooley, Maps and Map-makers (1949; rev. ed. 1952), and J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (1963).