Why did Columbus have such a difficult time acquiring funding for his expeditions to Asia? Most people would probably say: “Because everyone thought that the world was flat.” Chances are, you were probably taught this in grade school and the idea just persisted into adulthood.
I know this because I, too, was taught this as a kid.
Unfortunately, it is just another lie we were all told.
It’s not that this lie is maliciously retold or is part of some conspiracy theory, but it is a lie none the less.
It is true that, for most of our existence, humans have believed the Earth was flat. But by the fifth century BC that view began to be challenged. A wave of scientific inquiry and rationalism infused Greece during that period, especially in the city of Athens, leading many learned men to come to the conclusion that the Earth was shaped like the celestial objects.
During the second century AD, the Greek scientist Ptolemy produced the first map that showed the world as a sphere rather than a flat disc. Although Ptolemy’s map was missing the Americas and Australia, it was the first to include longitude and latitude. Furthermore, he accurately calculated that there were other unknown continents—terra incognita.
Knowledge of Ptolemy’s maps lapsed during the Dark Ages in Europe but resurfaced in the early fifteenth century during the Renaissance. It was during the Renaissance that the maps were translated from their original Greek into Latin which, although a dead language, was one that most educated Western Europeans of the time could read.
The Renaissance happened to coincide with the Age of Exploration.
By the time Christopher Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas in 1492, knowledge of Ptolemy’s maps was well-known among the nobles and explorers of Europe. Benefit-to-cost analyses are what actually kept Columbus from getting funding from the Portuguese and English; they simply believed that an expedition to Asia across the Atlantic would cost more than any type of profit it could net.
But sea monsters? Well, that’s another story!