Behaim’s Erdapfel: The Oldest Extant Terrestrial Globe


“Martin (von) Behaim (6 October 6, 1459 – 29 July 1507) was a German mariner, artist, cosmographer, astronomer, philosopher, geographer and explorer in service to the King of Portugal…During his visit to his native home in Nuremberg, in collaboration with the painter Georg Albrecht Glockenthon, Martin Behaim constructed his familiar terrestrial globe between 1491 and 1493, one of two globes, which he called the Erdapfel (literally, the earth apple). It conforms to an idea of a globe envisioned in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV, but has the added improvements of meridians and an equatorial line. It was, until recently, preserved in the German National Museum, on the same floor as Albrecht Dürer’s gallery (owing to Nuremberg being the heart of the German Renaissance).

The influence of the African Ptolemy, who bequeathed the world latitude and longitude, is apparent, but every attempt is made to incorporate the discoveries of the later Middle Ages (including information from the voyages of Marco Polo, among others). Aside from its fame, the Behaim Globe has numerous geographic errors, even when comparing them to discoveries of the epoch. Western Africa is incorrect, though technology at the time made such calculations difficult; the Cape Verde archipelago lies hundreds of miles out of its proper place; and the Atlantic is filled with mythological islands that were psychologically important to isolated Medieval Christendom. Japan is located only 1500 miles off the coast, and was just where Marco Polo mentioned it, placing it temptingly within sailing distance of the Canaries. The Isle of St. Brendan is also located on this globe, but it contains the entire Western Hemisphere in capsule form. There are 16° errors in the location of many of the places, whereas modern maps seldom have more than 1°, because longitude was very difficult to ascertain before the invention of accurate clocks.

The antiquity of this globe and the year of its execution, on the eve of the discovery of the Americas, make it not just the oldest, but the most historically valuable globe. Currently, it has been moved to an undisclosed location, to be studied at high resolution by the Behaim Digital Globe Project, in Vienna. It corresponds particularly well with Columbus’s notion of the Earth, and makes the notion of a jump across that little Ocean Sea to the Far East irresistible; he and Behaim drew their information from the same sources. Though less navigationally accurate than the beautiful Catalonian portolani charts of the 14th century, as a scientific work it is of enormous importance; it may be the first terrestrial globe ever built, is tilted to spin at the correct angle, and represents an encyclopedia of the West’s known world in the year 1492” (source).

Editor’s note: A much more comprehensive article on the Benhaim Globe can be found here.

Image 1 for article titled "Behaim's Erdapfel: The Oldest Extant Terrestrial Globe"
The terrestrial globe named “Erdapfel” produced by Martin Behaim may be the first terrestrial globe ever built (Wikipedia: Erdapfel)

Image 2 for article titled "Behaim's Erdapfel: The Oldest Extant Terrestrial Globe"
Projection made of the Erdapfel by A.E. Nordenskjold in 1889 (Ibid.)

Image 3 for article titled "Behaim's Erdapfel: The Oldest Extant Terrestrial Globe"
Reproduction of the globe of Martin Behaim, 1492 showing details of the Atlantic Ocean (Ibid.)

Image 4 for article titled "Behaim's Erdapfel: The Oldest Extant Terrestrial Globe"
Martin Behaim. Engraving from Narrative and critical history of America, Volume 2 by Justin Winsor