Map Maker Biography: Peter Apian (1495 – 1552)

Peter Apian or Petrus Apianus

Peter Apian

Peter Apian (1495 – 1552) born Peter Bienewitz and also known as Petrus Apianus, was one of four sons born to Martin and Gertrud Bienewitz. After studying mathematics, astronomy and cosmography at Leipzig University and Vienna, he quickly established a reputation as an outstanding mathematician who became a pioneer in astronomical and geographical instrumentation. He became one of the most successful popularizers of these subjects during the sixteenth century.

Apian was especially interested in cosmography. This field of study entailed providing a mathematical basis for the position of everything in the universe and required those specializing in it to be expert in astronomy, geography, mapmaking, surveying, and the use of mathematical instruments. Apian was well-suited to the field and early on became acquainted with people who would be of assistance in establishing himself as one of the more important intellectual figures of his day.

His first major work was Typus orbis universalis, a world map published in 1520 and based on the work of Martin Waldseemüller.  In 1521 he published a well-received geographical commentary on it. In 1524 Apian published another of his major works, Cosmographia seu descriptio totius orbis, based on Ptolemy. The Cosmographia describes the differences between different sciences including cosmography, geography and chorography. It defined terrestrial grids with the use of a simple diagram, described the use and importance of maps and surveying, of mathematical instruments, the difference between climate and weather, and it included sketches of the continents.

Typus orbis universalis by: Peter Apian, 1521

Initially the work enjoyed modest success, but later when renowned mathematician, cartographer and geographer Gemma Frisius published a modified version of the Cosmographia, it became one of the most popular texts of its time and was translated into all major European languages. Frisius had spent much time and effort on editing and enlarging Apian’s work, for it contained abundant material regarding instruments. Frisius was a maker of them, and all the instruments described and illustrated by Apian, whether wooden or of ivory or brass, were obtainable from Frisius’ workshop. This success, along with that of his earlier works led to the appointment of Apian as professor of mathematics at Bavaria’s University of Ingolstadt, a prestigious post which he retained until his death.

In the Cosmographia Apian suggested using lunar distances for determining longitude. In his second major work, Astronomicon Caesareum (1540), he suggests using solar eclipses for that purpose.  In the Astronomicon, he presents his pioneering work in the study of comets, and describes five in all, including Haley’s. Among many other observations, he noted that comets’ tails always point away from the sun. He also advised the use of mechanical devices to provide information on the positions and movements of celestial bodies. Of even greater importance was his publication Instrumentum sinuum sive primi mobilis in which he published the first known tables ever to calculate the sines for every minute, with the radius divided decimally.

The early 16th century was an exciting time to be mapping the world. Christopher Colombus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan had all made voyages, and new discoveries kept the world of science on tiptoe to glean the latest information about new places and peoples. Apian’s contribution to cartography was perhaps more as a scientist who applied the principles of math to cartography, and a compiler and publisher, rather than as a mapmaker.  His maps of Hungary and France survive as does his cordiform world map, but his map of Europe dating to 1534 is lost. By 1540 he had become wealthy and famous, had been knighted and granted many special privileges by Charles V.

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