Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638)

The son of a herring merchant, Willem Janszoon Blaeu went to the island of Ven to study under the noted astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). Brahe’s tutelage effectively amounted to an apprenticeship: between six and twelve young men at a time would act as his assistants and refine their skills in the related disciplines of mathematics, astronomy, geography, cartography, and instrument making. Blaeu and Brahe’s friendship, often cited in biographies of Blaeu (but rarely in those of Brahe) has likely been exaggerated, but Brahe would later recommend Blaeu’s globemaking skills. Blaeu returned to Amsterdam and established himself as a successful printer, cartographer, globemaker, and instrument maker. He applied his astronomical training to more accurately measure the circumference of the Earth and wrote books aimed at improving navigation. Towards the end of his life, he was the official cartographer of the powerful Dutch East India Company. Beyond the fields of cartography and astronomy, he additionally invented the “Dutch press,” a modified version of the printing press that included a counterweight to allow the platen to rise automatically. It remained in use until the cast-iron press invented by Charles Stanhope in the early 1800s.

This exhibit contains three maps associated with Blaeu: