Discovering the True Shape of the Earth

One of the first geography lessons we learn is that the Earth is round and not flat, but that was not always the case. The history of discovering the earth’s true shape is long and complex. There were many theories and beliefs about the shape of the Earth and its place in the universe, both scientific and religious, over the course of human history.

In the early 1700s, there was a great debate raging between the Newtonian and Cartesian theorists. The Newtonians believed the Earth was flattened at the poles and bulged along the equator. The Cartesians believed it was elongated at the poles and cinched, as if wearing a belt, along the equator. Which group was right?

The French expedition had traveled to Quito to measure the distance of one degree of latitude at the equator. As a first step, they measured a baseline nearly eight miles in length by placing measuring rods end to end. Source:

In 1735, two groups of French scientists set out to put an end to the debate once and for all. The first group traveled to Lapland, an area near the Arctic Circle, to measure degrees of latitude.  A second group, led by Charles Marie de La Condamine, traveled to South America to perform similar measurements at the equator. Condamine’s expedition lastedn early 8 years, and became much more than just determining the shape of the Earth. It was the first real view of colonial South America for the European community. Much like the Lewis and Clark expedition more than a half century later, Condamine compiled an amazing collection of the geography, flora and fauna of the area as well as cultural observations. But there was more…

In 2004, Robert Whitaker’s book “The Mapmaker’s Wife” was published. The book’s subtitle is “A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon.” The first half of the story alternates between the details of the scientific journey and the relationship between Jean Godin and Isabel Grameson. Godin joined the expedition as a cartographer and naturalist. While in Riobamba, Peru (now Cajabamba, Ecuador) he met and married Isabel, a member of the elite class in colonial Peru. Through some twists and turns of fate and the complicated politics of the time, the couple became separated when Godin traveled to French Guiana. They remained separated for nearly 20 years.

Isabella’s life-long desire was to be reunited with Jean, and on October 1, 1769, she set off on a 3,000 mile journey through the Amazon. Hers was a most perilous course and one that only and few men and no woman had ever attempted. The enormity of the challenges she faced as she ultimately became lost and abandoned are best left to the pen of Whitaker.

I read his book shortly after its release, and nearly a decade later it is a story I will never forget. It is truly a remarkable biography, and the daunting task faced by the scientific team as they struggled to triangulate their measurements high up in the Andes is nothing short of fascinating. If only they had GPS in the 1700s.