Columbus and the Flat Earth Myth by Mano Singham

One of the things that surprised me after coming to the US is how many students (and even adults) believed that it was Christopher Columbus who established the fact that the Earth was round and that prior to his 1492 voyage across the Atlantic, people believed the Earth was flat. (Some people still believe the Earth is flat but that is another story.)

I wrote an article about this myth that appeared in Phi Delta KAPPAN, vol. 88, no. 8, p. 590-592, April 2007 that you can read by following the link below.

Columbus and the Flat Earth Myth


  1. DrVanNostrand says

    Thomas Friedman repeats the error when he writes, “Columbus reported to his king and queen that the world was round, and he went down in history as the man who first made this discovery.”

    That’s about the level of rigor I expect from good old Tom Friedman. He probably heard it from a cab driver in Baghdad.

  2. atowers says

    That Columbus first came up with the idea that the earth was a globe probably came from a Bugs Bunny cartoon from several decades ago. In this episode, Bugs joins Columbus on his voyage and they argue whether the earth is flat or round with predictable hilarious results. Unfortunately, some people forgot it was a cartoon.

  3. says

    Oh please, please, please, Friedman is living proof that America (or at least the NYT) is not a meritocracy. Just prior to the 2020 election I heard him say that he hoped the Dems would get the White House and the Repubs would get the Senate. Apparently, he believed it would help foster cooperation and things would “get done”. He is immune to the lessons of recent history and has all the insight of a toad squashed by a semi.

  4. says

    Isaac Asimov once said that Columbus only proved one thing: that it doesn’t matter how wrong you are, as long as you’re lucky.

    And yeah, it was the ancient Greeks who first proved the Earth was round, based on observation of the lengths of shadows at a certain time of day but different distances from the Equator. Not sure when the masses fully caught on to the idea though — Columbus’s self-serving PR campaign in the service of a new Spanish Empire may have helped…

  5. John Morales says

    jimf, did you not read DrVanNostrand’s comment as sarcasm?

    Because I sure did, and I’m unfamiliar with the subject at hand.

    (“He probably heard it from a cab driver in Baghdad.” is a dead giveaway.)

  6. jrkrideau says

    I believe Neil deGrasse Tyson also once mentioned the Flat Earth theory as well but I did not bookmark it.

  7. says

    Wasn’t the antikythera device a model for calculating the earth/sun/moon’s positions? One would have to know the earth is round to do that, I assume? It seems to me that smart people in the ancient world spent a lot of time trying to figure out lunar cycles and eclipses, and they would have been able to figure out the ball-like moon and the curvature of the earth.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @8: From what I’ve read, its purpose was to locate the heavenly bodies, but it was only accurate for a limited range of latitude. That suggests it didn’t incorporate the Earth’s roundness. That said, the Greeks knew the Earth was round by the time the thing was made.

  9. mnb0 says

    Also quite some Americans think Luther a hero for standing up against the RCC, not caring that he was also a vile antisemite, endorsed witch hunts and for theological rejected heliocentrism long before the Galilei trials -- ie in a time that the RCC was actually OK with it.
    And there are those Americans who think that Kirchensteuer means that Germany sponsors religion, blissfully unaware that several other European countries (including very secular FInland and two French departments) have the same system.

  10. says

    @Rob Grigjanis#9:
    Thanks, I did not understand that -- especially not the bit about the latitude.
    If I recall correctly, there were lots of ancients who knew Earth is round, and Ptolemy even had a pretty good estimate of its size.

    There was someplace that claimed the “sail off the edge of the earth” meme was an early attempt by atheists to make theists look stupid. I don’t remember where I read that though. Sad, because it basically worked.

  11. jrkrideau says

    @ 12 Marcus
    Probably the most influential of these was the American author Washington Irving who in his fictional biography of Columbus claimed that Columbus had to fight against the Church’s belief that the world was flat in order to get permission and backing for his voyage, a complete fabrication.

    The myth of the flat medieval world was taken up by two figures well known to readers of this blog John William Draper (1811–1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) in their widespread myth of the eternal war between religion and science. Science believing in a spherical earth whereas the reactionary Church believed in a flat one.

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