• An atlas is a book or collection of maps. Many atlases also contain facts and history about certain places. There are many kinds of specialized atlases, such as road atlases and historical atlases. There are also star atlases, which give the location and placement of stars, planets and other celestial objects.

    Besides showing maps of all the countries and continents, a world atlas may also provide facts about the countries. Individual maps of major cities or other points of interest may also be included in a world atlas. Population statistics, the location of natural resources, cultural and religious information and political data are frequently found in an atlas.

    Although people have been using maps for thousands of years, civilizations really didnt begin producing large atlases until the 1500s. During this time, European and Asian countries were exploring the world through trade and colonization. They depended on atlases to guide them through unfamiliar territory. As European explorers mapped the "New World" (the Americas), they also updated atlases with their discoveries.

    In 1595, a collection of maps prepared by the Flemish mapmaker Gerardus Mercator was published with the word "atlas" in the title. Atlas referred to a portrait of King Atlas, a mythical African monarch. King Atlas invented the first celestial globe. A celestial globe is a ball-shaped map of the stars and constellations. Celestial globes were very important in navigation, when sailors used stars to determine their position at sea. Mercator showed King Atlas to demonstrate his importance to navigation. This was the first time the term was applied to a collection of maps. Eventually, "atlas" came to be used for any book of maps.

    Map of the northern sky.

    Carrying the World
    on his Shoulders

    The mythological creature Atlas is often associated, and pictured, on atlases. Atlas was a giant (called a Titan) who was forced to carry the Earth and the heavens (usually pictured as a sphere) on his back.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    atlas Noun

    a collection of maps.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atlas
    celestial Adjective

    having to do with the sky or heavens.

    celestial globe Noun

    spherical model of the stars and planets visible in the night sky around the Earth.

    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Key Components of Civilization
    colonization Noun

    spreading of a species into a new habitat or ecosystem, and establishing a healthy population there.

    constellation Noun

    group of stars that form a recognizable shape.

    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    Flemish Noun

    people and culture native to the area surrounding region of Flanders, in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.

    monarch Noun

    king or queen.

    natural resource Noun

    a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.

    navigation Noun

    art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.

    Encyclopedic Entry: navigation
    New World Noun

    the Western Hemisphere, made up of the Americas and their islands.

    population Noun

    total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

    statistics Noun

    the collection and analysis of sets of numbers.