Martin Behaim Builds the First World Globe

Following an extended commercial residence in Portugal and a voyage to Africa, Behaim constructed the earliest known globe of the world, which summarized the geographical knowledge of educated Europeans at the time of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage.

Summary of Event

The fifteenth century was a time of expanding commercial activity in Europe, and this activity produced tremendous demands for commodities and raw materials from Asia and Africa. Portugal took the leadership role in establishing trading bases along the coast of West Africa. Early in the century, moreover, Portuguese explorers were already sailing several hundred miles westward. In 1445, Portuguese settlers began colonizing the Azores (800 miles [1,290 kilometers] west of Portugal), and in 1462, they founded a settlement in the archipelago of Cape Verde. The school for navigators in the Portuguese town of Sagres was one of several centers for the art and science of cartography. Colonization;Portugal of Africa
Globe, first world
Behaim, Martin
Glockendon, Georg
Cão, Diogo
John II (1455-1495)
John II (king of Portugal)
Cão, Diogo
Glockendon, Georg
Martellus Germanus, Henricus
Behaim, Martin

Martin Behaim’s career took place within the context of these developments. He was born and raised in a prosperous family of merchants and public officials in the free German city of Frankfurt. His family occupied a large wooden house located at the chief market square of the city. It is not known whether he attended the local parish schools or had a private tutor. Possibly one of his teachers was the celebrated astronomer Regiomontanus, who was a neighbor and friend of the family. Behaim’s extant writings, nevertheless, suggest that he never learned to use Latin, even though it was the international language of the time.

At the age of fifteen, Behaim’s family sent him to Flanders for professional training in the textile trade, after which he became a successful importer of goods to Frankfurt and other German cities. In 1484, he moved to Portugal to work in the growing spice trade. His business often involved maps and geography. He had every opportunity to establish connections with prominent cartographers and navigators of the period, and it is known that he possessed maps. Behaim briefly served as a counselor to King John II, who knighted him in 1485. Later that year, he apparently accompanied Diogo Cão on a voyage along the western coast of Africa. In 1486, while at Fayal in the Azores, he married Joanna de Macedo, daughter of the governor of a large Flemish colony in Fayal.

In 1490, Behaim visited Nuremberg for business purposes, and he remained in the city for the next three years. Probably he had been thinking about constructing a globe modeling the earth for some time, and he convinced the leading members of the city council to finance such a project under his direction. It is thought that his motivation was primarily financial, although it is possible that he recognized the educational and publicity value of this visual model of the earth.

To construct the “earth-apple” (erdapfel in German), one or more craftspeople made a clay ball twenty-one inches in diameter, which they covered with numerous strips of linen soaked in glue. After drying, the external covering was cut in half to remove the clay. Next, the empty halves were glued together and covered with leather and additional layers of paper. The sphere was then placed within a wooden ring. Finally, a prominent local artist, Georg Glockendon, painted the surface according to Behaim’s instructions.

For the boundaries and place-names that appeared on the globe, Behaim reportedly relied on a large map he owned. Unfortunately, it has not survived. Among surviving maps from the time, Behaim’s outline of the earth most closely resembles those produced by Henricus Martellus Germanus of Florence, especially the large Martellus map of 1489 (now at Yale University). In contrast to this map, however, the terms and place-names from Bartolomeu Dias’s voyage of 1487-1488 do not appear on the globe. Another difference is that the globe uses German rather than Latin nomenclature, which was very unusual in the late fifteenth century. Behaim’s ideas about the earth’s size are similar to those of Italian astronomer Paolo Toscanelli dal Pozzo, who influenced Christopher Columbus.

Behaim’s globe has no grid of longitudes and latitudes, but it does include the equator, one meridian, the tropics, and the constellations of the zodiac. Some of the details are surprisingly inaccurate when judged by contemporary cartographic knowledge. Even the West African region, which Behaim probably visited, had major mistakes. The unexplored space between Western Europe and Eastern Asia contains several imaginary islands that were most likely based on medieval speculations. The islands of Japan appear to be placed too far to the south (just as Columbus imagined). Some historians think that Behaim’s representation of a large island west of the Azores might indicate that he had heard stories about the West Indies or Brazil.

For the fifty drawings and inscriptions on the globe, Behaim incorporated information from a combination of ancient writings and recent explorations. In addition to Ptolemy’s Mathēmatikē syntaxis (c. 150; Almagest, 1948), he made use of the narrative descriptions of Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville, and Diogo Gomes. Among several mistaken ideas on the globe, one inscription warned that the region south of the equator was dangerously warm, which would prevent compasses from functioning properly.

After Behaim returned to Portugal, King John II entrusted him with a number of official missions. While on a trip to Flanders, he was taken prisoner by the English. He escaped and made his way to the Azores, where he lived for a time. Following John’s death in 1495, Behaim was unable to establish a relationship with the new king, Manuel I. The later life of Behaim was one of personal tragedy. He was imprisoned for a time on charges of adultery, and his business failed. He died in obscurity and poverty in Lisbon at about the age of forty-eight.

The beautiful globe Behaim had created remained in the city hall of Nuremberg for more than a century. It was then returned to the Behaim family and almost forgotten. In 1823, it was finally rediscovered. Since 1906, the globe has been on display at the German National Museum in Nuremberg. In 1937, when the family showed interest in selling the globe in the United States, the government of Adolf Hitler purchased it as a patriotic statement.


In the case of Behaim, historians have a difficult time separating fact from legend. It is doubtful that he made any significant contribution to astronomy. Most recent historians reject earlier claims that he taught the Portuguese the principles of celestial navigation, the use the cross staff (Jacob’s staff), or the astronomical tables of Regiomontanus. The cross staff had been invented a century earlier by Levi ben Gerson, and it was well known on the Iberian Peninsula before Behaim’s arrival. The astronomical tables used by Portuguese navigators were apparently different from those developed by Regiomontanus. It is possible that Behaim might have met explorers like Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci, but there is no evidence of any connection.

Behaim’s contribution to geography was to put together a compilation of geographical knowledge existing shortly before Europeans learned about the Western Hemisphere and to record this knowledge in the form of an artistic sphere. Although his is currently the oldest extant terrestrial globe, Behaim was probably not the first person to produce such an object. Less impressive models were naturally less likely to survive the ravages of destructive wars, fires, and neglect. It is doubtful that Behaim ever recognized the great scientific importance of globes as tools in geography. He was a creative entrepreneur who somehow convinced practical city leaders that a large and beautifully constructed model was of commercial value.

Behaim’s globe interests many people today, because its existence graphically refutes the myth that educated Europeans in the age of Columbus believed that the earth was flat. An inscription on the globe explicitly asserted that the earth was spherical and therefore it would be possible to travel to any place on the earth’s surface. Apparently such an idea did not shock or surprise the people of the Renaissance.

Further Reading

  • Gross, John. Mapmaker’s Art: An Illustrated History of Cartography. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1995. A beautiful, comprehensive guide to three thousand years of maps, showing how they artistically reflected the geographical learning of their times.
  • Levenson, Jay A. Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. A variety of interesting essays about the period, with interesting accounts of the Portuguese explorations and maps relevant to Behaim’s globe.
  • Ravenstein, Ernst G. Martin Behaim: His Life and His Globe. London: George Philip & Sons, 1908. Although out of date in some particulars, this is the only significant book about Behaim in the English language. Students able to read German can find several more recent biographical studies.
  • Short, John Rennie. The World Through Maps: A History of Cartography. Richmond Hill, Ont.: Firefly Books, 2003. The story of mapping from prehistoric times, with interesting material about the great value of sea charts in the fifteenth century.
  • Thrower, Norman. Maps and Civilization: Cartography in Culture and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Introductory account about the close links between maps and history from antiquity to the present day.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1519-1522: Magellan Expedition Circumnavigates the Globe

1569: Mercator Publishes His World Map