Mercator's 1569 edition was a large planisphere measuring 202 by 124 cm, printed in eighteen separate sheets. As in all cylindrical projections, parallels and meridians are straight and perpendicular to each other. In accomplishing this, the unavoidable east-west stretching of the map, which increases as distance away from the equator increases, is accompanied in the Mercator projection by a corresponding north-south stretching, so that at every point location the east-west scale is the same as the north-south scale, making the projection conformal. Being a conformal projection, angles are preserved around all locations.
Because the linear scale of a Mercator map increases with latitude, it distorts the size of geographical objects far from the equator and conveys a distorted perception of the overall geometry of the planet. At latitudes greater than 70° north or south the Mercator projection is practically unusable, since the linear scale becomes infinitely high at the poles. A Mercator map can therefore never fully show the polar areas (as long as the projection is based on a cylinder centered on the Earth’s rotation axis; see the Transverse Mercator projection for another application).
All lines of constant bearing (rhumbs or loxodromes—those making constant angles with the meridians) are represented by straight segments on a Mercator map. The two properties, conformality and straight rhumb lines, make this projection uniquely suited to marine navigation: courses and bearings are measured using wind roses or protractors, and the corresponding directions are easily transferred from point to point, on the map, with the help of a parallel ruler (for example).
The name and explanations given by Mercator to his world map (Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendata: "new and augmented description of Earth corrected for the use of sailors") show that it was expressly conceived for the use of marine navigation. Although the method of construction is not explained by the author, Mercator probably used a graphical method, transferring some rhumb lines previously plotted on a globe to a square graticule (grid formed by lines of latitude and longitude), and then adjusting the spacing between parallels so that those lines became straight, making the same angle with the meridians as in the globe.
The development of the Mercator projection represented a major breakthrough in the nautical cartography of the 16th century. However, it was much ahead of its time, since the old navigational and surveying techniques were not compatible with its use in navigation. Two main problems prevented its immediate application: the impossibility of determining the longitude at sea with adequate accuracy and the fact that magnetic directions, instead of geographical directions, were used in navigation. Only in the middle of the 18th century, after the marine chronometer was invented and the spatial distribution of magnetic declination was known, could the Mercator projection be fully adopted by navigators.
Several authors are associated with the development of Mercator projection: