Columbus did not discover the earth was round. Well, even if he did, he was nearly 2,000 years late.
The myth of Europeans believing in a “Flat Earth” is little more than propaganda, perhaps owing to Washington Irving’s 1828 biography of Columbus which is revisionist at best.
Pythagoras of Samos
There is documented proof that Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 – c. 495 BC), and Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) had already understood that the Earth was round. In fact, Aristotle even provided physical evidence from lunar eclipse and curvature of earth, known to all sailors who have ever observed a ship from the coast.
Eratosthenes of Cyrene
Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276 BC – 195 BC), a Greek mathematician, geographer and astronomer, is credited with accurate determination of the size of earth, the tilt of its axis and distance from sun, backed up with scientific calculations.
Using measurements of shadows during summer solstice (near Aswan on Tropic of Cancer) and further north (Alexandria), he saw there was a difference in angle (7 degree, 12 minutes). Estimating that it would mean, that the physical distance between the locations would be 3600 split by 7’12’’, or 1/50th of the earth’s circumference – he concluded that the circumference of earth was 50 times 500 miles (800 km), the actual distance between the cities. He arrived at 24,662 miles (39, 690 km) per his final calculation, which was accurate to within 2% error factor of the correct value!
So where did this whole false story come from, about the entire Europe laughing at Columbus and warning that his ship and crew would ‘fall of the earth’?
Like any educated European, he most likely knew the basic fact that the earth was round. “Columbus, like all educated people of his time, knew that the world was round.” (Zvi Dor-Ner, Columbus and the Age of Discovery. New York: William Morrow, 1991, p. 72.)
The trouble is Columbus hugely underestimated the earth’s circumference. He thought the Europe was wider than it truly was, and disagreed with Ptolemy’s estimate of the width of Asia. A self-taught man, he believed earth’s circumference was 18,000 miles while mathematicians and astronomers of the-then Europe estimated it to be 24,000 miles. Additionally, with his erroneous estimate of Asia, he argued that Japan must be only 3,000 miles to the east of Canary Island. (Sam Dargan, “Will the Real Christopher Columbus Please Stand Up, World, October 7, 1989, p. 20.)
So conventional wisdom said he would have to sail merely 8,000 miles to the east to reach the Orient, while he would require nearly twice as much to go reach the same through west.
If the educated Europeans were laughing at him, it was because Columbus got his math so wrong! No wonder he didn’t find any backers…
Besides bucking the usual trend, the other issue was that sailing for such a long time and distance would mean needing a huge ship to carry enough supplies of food and water for that long. Of course, they were unaware of the existence of American landmass, assuming the entire voyage would be over water.
Okay so Columbus’s crew WAS scared. But not about falling off the earth, but about dying of food and hunger, while their mad captain keeps looking for ‘India’…
Irving was a struggling fiction writer of 18th century America.
Fiction, you know, isn’t really based on facts – like Harry Potter, Santa Claus, and Columbus who discovered America …
Being a relatively new country, America of 18th century was still looking for national heroes.
Free from the English colonialization, they also denounced the English heroes of several centuries. Marco Polo had already discovered Asia, so they started celebrating this Italian guy, who worked for Spain, (and had bad math) as their hero.
The real credit for ‘discovering’ America goes to another Italian Giovanni Caboto, also called John Cabot by his British employers, who found Newfoundland (note the name – “new found land”) and helped the British colonialize the rest of the land we call ‘The United States’ today.
Columbus did discover something though (yay!). He found Haiti, Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas, but kept claiming until his death that he had found Asia.
Copernicus or Galileo didn’t discover the moving Earth
The basic elements of Ptolemaic astronomy, showing a planet on an epicycle (smaller dashed circle), a deferent (larger dashed circle), the eccentric (X) and an equant (larger black dot).
Copernicus (1473-1543) was not the first person to claim that the Earth rotates around the Sun.Ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (310 – 230 BC) is generally credited with being the first person to propose a Sun-centred astronomical hypothesis of the universe. At that time, however, Aristarchus’s heliocentrism gained few supporters and 18 centuries would then pass before Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus produced a fully predictive mathematical model of a heliocentric system.
We have all heard the story about Roman Catholic Church, which espoused the world-view of Ptolemy and Aristotle crushing Galileo’s theory regarding the Earth being the centre of the solar system.
And that’s what it is … a story, a myth.
The real issue which led to Galileo being placed under house arrest was over an imaginary character in Galileo’s published book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. In the book, the Pope was apparently subjected to public ridicule, called old and foolish and it caused problems between Galileo and his old friend Pope Urban VIII.
Besides, if the matter was as serious as going against the Church, individuals charged of heresy usually had their heads chopped off, not placed in a comfortable house arrest!
During the Renaissance, the educated Europe was already aware of the earth being a sphere and the revolving around the Sun. Nobody argued that.