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

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.

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”


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