Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Columbus and the Flat Earth - I

When I was a child, every history book taught that in Columbus' day people believed the earth was flat, and that if you sailed too close to the edge, you would fall off. Are our children still being taught this lie as "history"?

Ever since I was old enough to think independently I have marveled that anyone could have believed such a thing. For about thirty-five years I have gone to libraries in my travels searching for a history book that might explain where this lie originated. So far I have only been able to determine that it does not appear in any history book I have looked at written before (about) the start of the twentieth century.

In 1908, W. W. Rouse Ball wrote "A Short Account of the History of Mathematics." Although this book does not mention Columbus, it does shed a lot of light on the level of knowledge men had about Astronomy in Columbus' day. Here are some of the details

Anaxagoras was born in 500 B.C. and died in 428 B.C. He asserted that the Sun was larger than Greece. This opinion together with some of his other theories about physics caused him to be prosecuted and convicted for impiety because most people believed the Gods were directly responsible for what he called "natural" events.

Aristarchus of Samos, born in 310 B.C., asserted as a working hypothesis, that the sun was the center of the universe, and that the Earth revolved round the sun. While his measurements were not very close, his propositions on the size of the sun and moon were accurate in principle.

Eratosthenes was born at Cyrene in 275 B.C. He determined the radius of the Earth to be 3925 miles, which is very near the truth. How did he do this? He noticed that on a given day of the year, shadows were measurably longer at one town than at another town further south. By carefully measuring the north-south distance between the two towns and the lengths of the shadows at noon he was able to calculate the length of a degree (about 68.5 miles) of latitude on the surface of the earth, and from that the circumference.

Hipparchus was born about 160 B.C. at Nicaea in Bithynia. You need a fairly good understanding of basic astronomy to grasp the significance of his accomplishments. You should also keep in mind the fact that he had no telescopes or accurate clocks. Hipparchus determined the duration of the year to within six minutes of its true value. He calculated the inclination of the ecliptic and equator as 23 degrees 51 minutes. It was actually 23 degrees 46 minutes at that time. He estimated the annual precession of the equinoxes as 59 seconds; it is 50.2 seconds. He stated the lunar parallax as 57 minutes, which is nearly correct. He worked out the eccentricity of the earth's orbit as 1/24; it is very approximately 1/30. He determined the perigee and mean motion of the sun and of the moon, and he calculated the extent of the shifting of the plane of the moon's motion. Finally, he obtained the synodic motion of the five planets then known (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).

Lacking Newton's theory of universal gravitation, these ancient mathematicians made extensive use of circles within circles, known as epicycles, to explain these motions. Hipparchus supposed that the moon moved with uniform velocity in a circle, the Earth occupying a position near (but not at) the center of this circle. They described this by saying that the moon's orbit is an epicycle of the first order. The longitude of the moon obtained by this hypothesis is fairly correct for a few revolutions, and can be made correct for any length of time by further supposing that the apse line moves forward about three degrees a month, thus giving a correction for eviction.

The sun's motion was explained in a similar manner. This theory accounted for all the facts which could be determined with the instruments then in use, and in particular enabled Newton to calculate the details of eclipses with considerable accuracy.

It is not intended that you understand all the terminology in these paragraphs - just that you realize how much was understood long before the time of Christ, and to establish as strongly as possible that while the nature of the motions of the heavenly bodies was incorrectly understood, the Earth was known to be a sphere.

Ptolemy, whose work is founded on the writings of Hipparchus, and who observed the sky at Alexandria from 125 to 150 A.D., did not advance the theory of astronomy, but presented the views of the older writer with a completeness and elegance that made it the standard. In fact, no further advances in astronomy were made until the time of Copernicus. Ptolemy's second book is devoted chiefly to the phenomena depending on the Earth being a sphere. In this book Ptolemy remarks that the explanations for the observed motions would be much simplified if the Earth were supposed to rotate on its axis once a day, but he states that this hypothesis is inconsistent with known facts (namely the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe).

Gerbert of Aquitaine was born about 950 A.D. He is especially famous for his construction of terrestrial and celestial globes. He became Pope in 999 A.D. with the name Sylvester II.

The oldest globe still in existence was made in 1492 by Martin Behaim. The November 1986 National Geographic magazine had a photo, but since I couldn’t find that one, here is a photo from Greaves & Thomas.


Behaim used Ptolemy's circumference for the Earth, which was a quarter too small (because of an error in the translation of the writings of Eratosthenes), leaving no room for the yet "undiscovered" Western Hemisphere. Columbus likely met Behaim in Portugal. This explains why Columbus thought he had reached Cipangu (Japan) after 68 days at sea, and why he called the people he found there Indians.

Nicolas Copernicus, born in 1473, conjectured that the Earth and planets all revolved around the sun. He did not attempt to prove this but advocated it only on the ground that it gave a simple explanation of natural phenomena. Galileo on 1632 was the first to try to supply a proof of this hypothesis.

Nobody thought the earth was flat. Nobody. Not ever. Even the most ignorant seaman knew from experience that as ships traveled toward the horizon they could be observed to disappear little by little over the curved edge.


Columbus carried with him a Nautical Almanac. At one point the local Indians became reluctant to continue supplying the Spanish sailors with food and other supplies. To encourage their assistance, Columbus predicted a Solar eclipse. The Indians WERE favorably impressed. Certainly Columbus had never heard of a "flat" earth theory.

Columbus "discovered" the "new world" in 1492. In reality, this is another lie. The American Indians were already here. It is virtually certain that many other European, Asian, and even African explorers visited the Americas before Columbus "discovered" them.

The Assyrian king Naram-Sin may have been involved in active trade with the Americas more than 2000 years before the time of Christ.

Hui Shen and a group of other Buddhist monks may have visited Central America and Mexico in 458 A.D.

There is the semi-legendary tale of Saint Brendan who may have visited the Americas some time around 512-530 AD.

Norse, or Viking, journeys to North America around 1000 AD are supported by both historical and archaeological evidence, and there are numerous cognates between Old Norse and the languages of some American Indian tribes of New England. See the 15,000 comparisons of Old Norse and Algonquin in Reider T. Sherman’s "The Viking and the Red Man, the Old Norse Origin of the Algonquin Language" (1940),

The Jaredites, Mulekites, Lamanites, and Nephites of the Book of Mormon may be cited as further examples. And there are, apparently, many others.

Not only did people from other parts of the world undoubtedly visit the Americas before Columbus, but there is considerable evidence that people from the Americas visited Europe anciently too. Jack Forbes, director of Native American studies at UC-Davis, has found several references to dark skinned people referred to as "Indos" (because the Europeans knew they came from across the ocean and thought India was "over there") visiting various European countries. (See the August 3, 1989 Oakland Tribune)

We can conclusively dispense with the notion that people in Columbus' day thought the Earth was flat. And yet the lie persists. Most people today still believe it. Every Columbus day I am reminded how little most Americans know about history. When I try to discuss these things they often say, "who cares?"

I remember a college professor I had who taught an unlikely story about the English author Thomas Moore (1779-1852). According to this account, Moore's beautiful young wife contracted Smallpox while he was traveling on the European continent, and was horribly disfigured by it. When he returned from his long journey she refused to see him. To reassure her of his Unconditional Love he penned the lines:

Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,
Which I gaze on so fondly today,
Were to change by to-morrow, and fleet in my arms,
Like fairy-gifts fading away,
Thou wouldst still be ador'd, as this moment thou art,
Let thy loveliness fade as it will,
And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdantly still.
It is not while beauty and youth are thine own,
And thy cheeks unprofan'd by a tear,
That the fervor and faith of a soul can be known,
To which time will but make thee more dear;
No, the heart that has truly lov'd never forgets,
But as truly loves on to the close,
As the sun-flower turns on her God when he sets,
The same look which she turn'd when he rose.

Questioning the validity of this story, I obtained a biography of Moore and found that he was not married when he penned those lines - to accompany a tune as part of his work to compile a series of Irish melodies. His eventual wife never had Smallpox. But it was a nice story. A real tear-jerker.

This particular professor liked it so much that he continued to use it in his classes even after receiving my well documented correct account of the particulars.

And so it is and will probably remain with Columbus.

My next post will present information I’ve obtained about Columbus and the Flat Earth since the Internet, and most especially Google, have come along.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home