Martin Behaim

Martin Behaim (1459?-1507) fashioned a globe depicting the known world in 1492. In the twenty-first century the restored globe remained on display at Nuremberg, and is the oldest surviving relic of its kind on earth.

Martin Behaim distinguished himself as a skilled mathematician and astronomer during the late fifteenth century. In 1490 he accepted a commission to manufacture a terrestrial globe for his hometown of Nuremberg, Germany. The globe, which survived into the twenty-first century, is believed to be the oldest such artifact of its kind. Prior to constructing the globe, Behaim spent time in Flanders and Portugal. In Portugal he was favored among the mathematicians of King John II's court. Behaim then spent two years as a cosmographer on a sailing expedition along the West African coast, before settling briefly in the Azores where he founded a Flemish colony.

A Well-Traveled Merchant

Martin Behaim was born in Nuremberg, Germany, sometime around 1459. In his youth, it is believed that he studied mathematics with the noted German astronomer and mathematician, Johann Mueller, commonly known as Regiomontanus. Behaim, the son of a wealthy merchant, then traveled through much of Western Europe as a merchant's apprentice in the textile business and became a merchant by trade. He traveled to Antwerp and elsewhere as a student and was an apprentice weaver in Flanders in 1477. During the course of his travels he arrived in Lisbon, Portugal some time in the early 1480s, where he quickly found favor at the court of King John II. Also in Lisbon, Behaim made the acquaintance of the explorer Christopher Columbus. According to John Noble Wilford in The Mapmakers, Behaim might have exaggerated or completely concocted many of the tales about him that were handed down, including his claim of tutelage under Regiomontanus. According to Wilford, evidence suggests that Behaim might have devised these and other misrepresentations about his background in an attempt to impress the king of Portugal. Regardless, Behaim displayed an extensive knowledge of mathematics and an intimate familiarity with Regiomontanus's Ephemerides. Likewise Behaim's accomplishments among the Portuguese proved acceptable to King John.

Because of his knowledge of mathematics and navigation Behaim received an appointment to the king's council of mathematicians in 1483 and under that auspices assumed responsibility for a variety of research projects as assigned by the king. Among them Behaim was requested to develop improvements to existing navigational instruments. The exact innovations suggested by Behaim remain unclear. It is believed that he demonstrated the use of Levi ben Gerson's cross-staff apparatus as a means of determining ship's altitude. The cross-staff (also called a Jacob's staff or ballestilla) resembles an Arabian kamal and works on the principle of coordinating the declination of the sun with the horizon. The cross-staff proved an appropriate enhancement to a navigator's astrolabe when used in conjunction with the sun declension tables of Regiomontanus, called Tabula directionum. It is possible that Behaim suggested to the Portuguese to construct astrolabes of brass, to replace the older wooden models in Portugal. According to some scholars the Portuguese already were well versed in the use of solar declension tables and brass instruments by the 1480s when Behaim arrived in Portugal. Regardless, his innovations proved highly satisfactory, and in 1484 King John II dubbed Behaim with the honor of knighthood in the Portuguese Order of Christ. In 1485-86, according to most reports, Behaim was then invited to travel as cosmographer with Diego Cam (var. Diogo Cao) on a southbound expedition to explore the West Coast of Africa. The Cam expedition continued past the mouth of the Congo River, reaching Walvis Bay (var. Walfisch Bay) in southern Africa.

In 1486, while on a return voyage from Africa, the Cam expedition stopped at Fayal in the Azores, where Behaim remained for several years. In Fayal he married the daughter of the governor, Jobst von Hurter, and established a Flemish colony before returning to his hometown of Nuremberg in 1490. It was upon his return to Nuremburg, that Behaim completed construction of the Nuremberg Terrestrial Globe as a commission from the city. Soon afterward he departed for Portugal where he spent his later years as an emissary.

Nuremberg Terrestrial Globe

Martin Behaim's globe was the first known terrestrial globe to be manufactured since the time of the ancient Greeks. If globes older than Behaim's existed, they failed to survive into the twenty-first century and the history of their existence remained obscure as a result. Behaim spent nearly one year in constructing the globe, beginning in 1491 at a cost of approximately $75. Glockenthon, an artist, created the actual map drawings according to Behaim's specifications. The completed globe, which came to be called Erdapfel (earth apple) by the townspeople, was restored in 1825 and preserved at the city hall in Nuremberg. The German National Museum, also in Nuremberg, later took possession of the globe, which is commonly known as the Nuremberg Terrestrial Globe.

The globe is slightly less than 21 inches (51 cm) in diameter; it is fashioned from a type of papier-mache and coated with gypsum. The ball is supported on top of a wooden tripod. Glockenthon's map drawings were detailed onto parchment strips and pasted into position around the sphere. The map appears as a nautical chart, depicting a total of 1,100 geographical locations, although no coordinates appear. Two full circumferences are described on the globe, one being latitudinal and representing the equator; the other representing the ecliptic (the path of the earth with respect to the sun). The tropics of Cancer and Capricorn appear also on the globe, which is decorated with a number of miniature ornamental paintings. Among the decorative illustrations the globe features representations of the zodiac symbols, which punctuate the path of the ecliptic on the globe. Other tiny drawings depict kings, saints, sailing ships, wild animals, and fish. Forty-eight banners and 15 coats of arms appear also among the many decorations. The paintings were created originally in six colors, including a dark-blue sea, brown and green forests, and silver areas of ice and snow. The vicinity of the Cape Verde islands is adorned with a mermaid and a merman, and a single meridian cuts across the globe, spanning 180 degrees from the North Pole to the South Pole at a longitude that is 80 degrees west of Lisbon.

The map of the world as depicted on the Behaim globe represents the known world as described in the second century by Ptolemy, who based his work on the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Behaim globe however dispenses with the longitudinal and latitudinal markings described by Ptolemy. Decorative medieval influences also permeate Behaim's work, including the depiction of several mythical islands. Otherwise the geographic aspects of Behaim's map vary from Ptolemy's description with only some minor revisions in keeping with new knowledge accumulated between the third and fifteenth centuries.

With respect to the geographical representations of the globe, there are some indications that Behaim might have referenced the writings of Marco Polo. The map also bears some resemblance to the Florentine maps of the cartographer Henricus Martellus Germanus. As for the inaccuracies of the map, some cartographers have speculated that a large and indistinct island positioned to the west of the Azores on Behaim's map might have been intended to represent Brazil and the East Coast of South America. If that is true, then Behaim's globe was the first known map to depict the continent of South America, by way of correcting earlier maps, although the first depiction of South America is usually credited to Martin Waldseemueller in his map of 1507. Others have presumed the obscure island on Behaim's globe to represent the Antilles, while the few small islands near Greenland are interpreted as the only possible indication of the existence of North America that appeared on Behaim's globe. Also inaccurate is a distorted extension of the Asian continent that protrudes disproportionately eastward on the globe, in keeping with the surmise of the times as to the location of that continent. As a result, there appears only a slim slip of ocean to separate the western coast of Europe from the easternmost part of Asia on the globe, and the location of Japan on the globe more accurately describes some territory in northwestern Mexico.

It is known that Behaim was acquainted with Christopher Columbus and that the two shared similar beliefs regarding the geography of the world. History leaves no reasonable indication to suggest that any commonality beyond coincidence exists, however, between the construction of the globe by Martin Behaim in 1492 and the voyage of Columbus to the East Indies in that same year. Historians suggest rather that Ferdinand Magellan might have referenced the world map as depicted on Behaim's globe in soliciting sponsorship for his historic voyage that resulted in the circumnavigation of the world in 1519-22. The globe, as it was, described the world not only as Columbus very likely perceived it to be, but also as most reasonable Europeans of the fifteenth century believed Earth to be. Already the educated members of the European population were sufficiently enlightened and accepting of the fact that the surface of Earth is spherical as opposed to being flat. It has been suggested that Behaim may have consulted with the German humanist, Hartmann Schedel, also of Nuremberg in order to insure the scientific accuracy of the globe.

Some historians cite the globe and raise questions concerning the true extent of Behaim's travels; they challenge in particular whether or not in reality Behaim accompanied Cam along the coast of Africa. These suspicions arise because of inaccuracies in that aspect of Behaim's globe, along the western coast of Africa. There are those also who infer that serious inaccuracies on the Behaim globe indicate that he never traveled at all, and that the tales he related to others were the empty boasting of a charlatan. Still others maintain a completely opposing viewpoint, contending that Behaim's positioning of the large island west of the Azores indicates not only that Behaim was well traveled, but also that he might have traveled to South America even before Columbus crossed the Atlantic.

Later Life

After completing his terrestrial globe, Behaim continued his travels and returned to Portugal in 1498. There he served as an emissary to Belgium and the Netherlands. Reportedly Behaim journeyed in a political capacity between Portugal and the Low Countries on several occasions, but he was captured eventually by the English and taken to England. He escaped from Britain and returned to Portugal where he remained until his death in Lisbon on July 29, 1507. The craft of globemaking increased in popularity in the years following Behaim's death.

Modern-day attempts to reproduce the Nuremberg Globe as a two dimensional image have proven unacceptable, although 510 copies were distributed with Ernest George Ravenstein's book-length biography, Martin Behaim, his life and his globe, published in 1908 by G. Philip and Son Ltd. An Internet display at also depicts a two-dimensional reproduction of the map.


Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillespie, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.

Waldman, Carl and Alan Wexler, Who Was Who in World Exploration, Facts on File, 1992.

Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske. Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography, D. Appleton and Company, 1898.


"Martin Behaim," Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent, 30, 2001).

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