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The earliest atlases were not called by that name at the time of their publication, as it was introduced in 1595 by Gerardus Mercator.
The first book that in hindsight could be called an atlas that was constructed from the calculations of Claudius Ptolemy, a geographer working in Alexandria circa A.D. 150. The first edition was published in Bologna in 1477 and was illustrated with a set of 27 maps, though scholars say that it is not known whether the printed maps were engraved versions of original maps made by Ptolemy, or whether they were constructed by medieval Greek scholars from Ptolemy's text.
From about 1544, many maps were produced, especially in the important trading centers of Rome and Venice. Each publisher worked together, producing maps based upon their own needs and interests. The maps often varied dramatically in size. Over time, it became common to bind the maps together into composite works. Although the term atlas was not in use in 1544, these works are now called "IATO" atlases - (Italian, Assembled to Order) or more frequently "Lafreri atlases" after one of the leading publishers of the period.
Abraham Ortelius is credited with issuing the first modern atlas on May 20, 1570. His Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, contained 53 map-sheets covering the countries of the World. This work was the first book of its kind to reduce the best available maps to a uniform size. It was an immediate critical and commercial achievement.
However, use of the word "atlas" for a bound collection of maps was not to come into use until the 1595 publication of Gerardus Mercator's "Atlas, Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes De Fabrica Mundi ..." (Atlas, or Description of the Universe) (Duisburg, 1585-1595).
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