Eratosthenes’ measurement of the Earth’s circumference
Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth without leaving Egypt. Eratosthenes knew that on the summer solstice at local noon in the Ancient Egyptian city of Swenet (known in Greek as Syene, and in the modern day as Aswan) on the Tropic of Cancer, the sun would appear at the zenith, directly overhead (he had been told that the shadow of someone looking down a deep well would block the reflection of the Sun at noon). He also knew, from measurement, that in his hometown of Alexandria, the angle of elevation of the sun was 1/50th of a circle (7°12’) south of the zenith on the solstice noon. Assuming that the Earth was spherical (360°), and that Alexandria was due north of Syene, he concluded that the meridian arc distance from Alexandria to Syene must therefore be 1/50 = 7°12’/360°, and was therefore 1/50 of the total circumference of the Earth. His knowledge of the size of Egypt after many generations of surveying trips for the Pharaonic bookkeepers gave a distance between the cities of 5000 stadia (about 500 geographical miles or 800 km). This distance was corroborated by inquiring about the time that it takes to travel from Syene to Alexandria by camel. He rounded the result to a final value of 700 stadia per degree, which implies a circumference of 252,000 stadia. The exact size of the stadion he used is frequently argued. The common Attic stadion was about 185 m, which would imply a circumference of 46,620 km, i.e. 16.3% too large. However, if we assume that Eratosthenes used the “Egyptian stadion” of about 157.5 m, his measurement turns out to be 39,690 km, an error of less than 2%.