Christopher Columbus and the Round Earth – A Mythconception

When I’ve asked people who it was the figured out the Earth is round, I’ve gotten a few different answers.  Some have said Galileo.  Others think it may have been Magellan.  But the answer I get most frequently; indeed, the one that seems to be the most commonly held belief, is that it was another explorer, perhaps the most famous of them all: Christopher Columbus.

Popular artist’s rendition of Columbus

Doing a quick Google search, the reasons for this answer seem to fall along a pretty straightforward path:  Columbus proved the Earth was round when he didn’t fall off of it during his journey to the New World.  But the truth is that Columbus knew the world was round because it had been pretty common knowledge for well over a thousand years by that point.

“I knew we should have listened to the Flat Earth Society!”

In fact, many men who lived long before Columbus had used various ways to prove the Earth was round.  Famed philosophers and mathematicians, like Pythagoras and Aristotle, for instance, had made observations to this effect years before even Christ is said to have been born; in some cases many hundreds of years beforehand!

The interesting thing is where exactly this myth came from:  a work by one of our most famous American storytellers, Washington Irving!  Irving, of course, is noteworthy for having written such classics of literature as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  But it was his biographical account of Columbus, “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,” published in 1828, that the myth seems to have first appeared.  Before this time, writes Jeffrey Burton Russell, historian and religious studies scholar, no one believed that medieval people thought the Earth was flat.

In “The Myth of the Flat Earth,” a paper which summarizes his book, “Inventing the Flat Earth:  Columbus and Modern Historians,” Russell writes that “This vast web of falsehood was invented and (then) propagated by the influential historian John Draper (1811-1882) and many prestigious followers, such as Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), the president of Cornell University, who made sure that the false account was perpetrated in texts, encyclopedias, and even allegedly serious scholarship, down to the present day.” 

Surely, a true testament of the power of the media to not only entertain, but also to deceive.

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3 thoughts on “Christopher Columbus and the Round Earth – A Mythconception

  1. I think it is interesting that popular modern belief is that people during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance thought the earth was flat. Having not read any of these authors I want to comment that I believe a lot of myths like this arise from a common idea that people nowadays are somehow smarter than people from the past. An idea that is enforced by our technological advancements. We have cars, planes, scientific methods and we don't live in mud huts.

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