Man has been concerned about the earth on which he lives for many centuries. During very early times this concern was limited, naturally, to the immediate vicinity of his home; later it expanded to the distance of markets or exchange places; and finally, with the development of means of transportation man became interested in his whole world. Much of this early "world interest" was evidenced by speculation concerning the size, shape, and composition of the earth.
The early Greeks, in their speculation and theorizing, ranged from the flat disc advocated by Homer to Pythagoras' spherical figure-an idea supported one hundred years later by Aristotle. Pythagoras was a mathematician and to him the most perfect figure was a sphere. He reasoned that the gods would create a perfect figure and therefore the earth was created to be spherical in shape. Anaximenes, an early Greek scientist, believed strongly that the earth was rectangular in shape.
Since the spherical shape was the most widely supported during the Greek Era, efforts to determine its size followed. Plato determined the circumference of the earth to be 40,000 miles while Archimedes estimated 30,000 miles. Plato's figure was a guess and Archimedes' a more conservative approximation. Meanwhile, in Egypt, a Greek scholar and philosopher, Eratosthenes, set out to make more explicit measurements.
He had observed that on the day of the summer solstice, the midday sun shone to the bottom of a well in the town of Syene (Aswan). Figure 1. At the same time, he observed the sun was not directly overhead at Alexandria; instead, it cast a shadow with the vertical equal to 1/50th of a circle (7° 12'). To these observations, Eratosthenes applied certain "known" facts (1) that on the day of the summer solstice, the midday sun was directly over the line of the summer Tropic Zone (Tropic of Cancer)-Syene was therefore concluded to be on this line; (2) the linear distance between Alexandria and Syene was 500 miles; (3) Alexandria and Syene lay on a direct northsouth line.
FIGURE 1 ERATOSTHENES' METHOD FOR DETERMINING THE SIZE OF THE EARTH
From these observations and "known" facts, Eratosthenes concluded that, since the angular deviation of the sun from the vertical at Alexandria was also the angle of the subtended arc, the linear distance between Alexandria and Syene was 1/50 of the circumference of the earth or 50 x 500 = 25,000 miles. A currently accepted value for the earth's circumference at the Equator is 24,901 miles, based upon the equatorial radius of the World Geodetic System (Chapter VIII). The actual unit of measure used by Eratosthenes was called the "stadia." No one knows for sure what the stadia that he used is in today's units. The measurements given above in miles were derived using one stadia equal to one-tenth statute mile.
It is remarkable that such accuracy was obtained in view of the fact that most of the "known" facts and his observations were incorrect: (1) although it is true that the sun at noon is directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer on the day of the summer solstice, it was erroneously concluded that Syene lay on the line. Actually, Syene is 37 miles to the north; (2) the true distance between Alexandria and Syene is 453 miles and not 500; (3) Syene lies 3° 30' east of the meridian of Alexandria; (4) the difference of latitude between Alexandria and Syene is 7° 5' rather than 7° 12' as Eratosthenes had concluded.
Another ancient measurement of the size of the earth was made by the Greek, Posidonius. He noted that a certain star was hidden from view in most parts of Greece but that it just grazed the horizon at Rhodes. Posidonius measured the elevation of the same star at Alexandria and determined that the angle was 1/48th of circle. Assuming the distance from Alexandria to Rhodes to be 500 miles, he computed the circumference of the earth as 24,000 miles. While both his measurements were approximations when combined, one error compensated for another and he achieved a fairly accurate result.
Revising the figures of Posidonius, another Greek philosopher determined 18,000 miles as the earth's circumference. This last figure was promulgated by Ptolemy through his world maps. The maps of Ptolemy strongly influenced the cartographers of the middle ages. It is probable that Columbus, using such maps, was led to believe that Asia was only 3 or 4 thousand miles west of Europe. It was not until the 15th century that his concept of the earth's size was revised. During that period the Flemish cartographer, Mercator, made successive reductions in the size of the Mediterranean Sea and all of Europe which had the effect of increasing the size of the earth.
The telescope, logarithmic tables, and the method of triangulation were contributed to the science of geodesy during the 17th century. In the course of the century, the Frenchman, Picard, performed an arc measurement that is modern in some respects. He measured a base line by the aid of wooden rods, used a telescope in his angle measurements, and computed with logarithms. Cassini later continued Picard's arc northward to Dunkirk and southward to the Spanish boundary. Cassini divided the measured arc into two parts, one northward from Paris, another southward. When he computed the length of a degree from both chains, he found that the length of one degree in the northern part of the chain was shorter than that in the southern part. Figure 2. This unexpected result could have been caused only by an egg-shaped earth or by observational errors.
FIGURE 2 CASSINIS' ELLIPSOID; HUYGEN'S THEORETICAL ELLIPSOID
The results started an intense controversy between French and English scientists. The English claimed that the earth must be flattened, as Newton and Huygens had shown theoretically, while the Frenchmen defended their own measurement and were inclined to keep the earth egg-shaped.
To settle the controversy, once and for all, the French Academy of Sciences sent a geodetic expedition to Peru in 1735 to measure the length of a meridian degree close to the Equator and another to Lapland to make a similar measurement near the Arctic Circle. The measurements conclusively proved the earth to be flattened, as Newton had forecast. Since all the computations involved in a geodetic survey are accomplished in terms of a mathematical surface (reference ellipsoid) resembling the shape of the earth, the findings were very important.
Next: the Figure of the Earth