How Globes Showed the Earth Was Round (Way Before 1492)

New York Public Library
New York Public Library / New York Public Library

For many of us, the legend of Christopher Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic goes something like this: The explorer stumbled upon the New World while sailing uncharted waters on his way to the East Indies to prove, in part, that the Earth was round. This myth (romantic as it may be) can actually be debunked by one simple fact—that the model globe was invented more than 2000 years ago, long before 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The first known globe was made by Greek philosopher Crates of Mallus in what is now modern-day Turkey. Although now lost, the 1st century BCE writer Strabo referred to it as having a "spherical surface." Prior to that, in the 6th century BCE, everyone's favorite geometry pal, Pythagoras, also deduced that the world was round. His theory was later supported through Aristotle’s astronomical findings a few centuries later.

Fast forward a couple hundred years to 1492. The year of Columbus’ famous expedition also happens to be about the year the oldest extant globe was made. It was produced by German geographer and explorer Martin Behaim, and in proper reflection of the known world at the time, doesn’t include North America, South America, Australia, or Antarctica. The globe was commissioned by the city of Nuremberg, Germany, and came to be known as Erdapfel, or "earth apple."

While the Erdapfel is now reportedly tightly guarded by German authorities and hidden away at an unknown location to keep it safe, there are efforts underway to digitize the globe and make it accessible to the world at large.  

There is one early representation of a globe that is (slightly) more accessible to the public though. One of the oldest existing globes in the world is the Hunt-Lenox, named for architect Richard Morris Hunt and bibliophile James Lenox, both of whom owned the artifact at different points. The small, copper globe was originally produced around 1510 and brought to America by Hunt in 1855 after he discovered and purchased it in France. He later gave the sphere to Lenox, whose collection eventually became part of the New York Public Library. The globe now resides in the Rare Book Division there, though you need to have cause and then register in order to see it. While only about five inches in diameter, the Hunt-Lenox does have an edge over Behaim's globe: South America. Still, it's far from perfect—North America is inaccurately represented as a collection of scattered islands.

The Hunt-Lenox Globe also contains what has become a well-known—though perhaps overblown—mark of cartographical antiquity, the phrase "Hic sunt dracones," or “Here be dragons.” The only other globe known to include that same phrase also boasts the title of the oldest known globe to depict the New World. It was made in 1504 and sketched on the bottom halves of two ostrich eggs, and was most recently purchased in 2012 by an Austrian collector at the London Map Fair.

And though the phrase sounds more like something out of fantasy than reality, Thomas Sander of the Washington Map Society says the drawings were not unusual or impractical. "In early maps, you would see images of sea monsters," Sander told The Washington Post. "It was a way to say there’s bad stuff out there."

Collector Stefaan Missinne, who studied the egg extensively, believes that the Hunt-Lenox is actually a cast of the ostrich egg globe, concluding that many small details on the new discovery match those of the copper-cast Hunt-Lenox. One of Missinne’s most intriguing speculations regarding the egg is that it may somehow be connected to Leonardo da Vinci. While the creator is unknown, artwork on the globe bears a resemblance to work done by an acquaintance of Leonardo. It's possible the artist drew inspiration from such work, as well as other explorers of the time. Sander believes a wealthy Italian family commissioned the ostrich egg map. In that era, it was common for upper-class families to have ostriches residing in their gardens.

And while the Hunt-Lenox and its possible sister, the ostrich egg, were produced after the voyage to the New World, they're part of a body of antique globes that show that neither Columbus nor Magellan proved the spherical nature of Earth. Ancient scientists had a scientifically backed hunch that the planet was round, and by the time the Santa Maria set sail in 1492, proponents of the flat earth model were already falling off the edge.