History of calculation
Illustration showing a portion of the globe showing a part of the African continent. The sun beams shown as two rays hitting earth at Syene and Alexandria. Angle of sun beam and the gnomons (vertical sticks) is shown at Alexandria which allowed Eratosthenes' estimate of the circumference of Earth.
According to Cleomedes' On the Circular Motions of the Celestial Bodies, around 240 BC, Eratosthenes, the librarian of the Library of Alexandria, calculated the circumference of the Earth in Ptolemaic Egypt. Using a scaphe, he knew that at local noon on the summer solstice in Syene (modern Aswan, Egypt), the Sun was directly overhead. (Syene is at latitude 24°05′ North, near to the Tropic of Cancer, which was 23°42′ North in 100 BC.) He knew this because the shadow of someone looking down a deep well at that time in Syene blocked the reflection of the Sun on the water. He then measured the Sun's angle of elevation at noon in Alexandria by using a vertical rod, known as a gnomon, and measuring the length of its shadow on the ground. Using the length of the rod, and the length of the shadow, as the legs of a triangle, he calculated the angle of the sun's rays. This angle was about 7°, or 1/50th the circumference of a circle; taking the Earth as perfectly spherical, he concluded that the Earth's circumference was 50 times the known distance from Alexandria to Syene (5,000 stadia, a figure that was checked yearly), i.e. 250,000 stadia. Depending on whether he used the "Olympic stade" (176.4 m) or the Italian stade (184.8 m), this would imply a circumference of 44,100 km (an error of 10%) or 46,100 km, an error of 15%. In 2012, Anthony Abreu Mora repeated Eratosthenes's calculation with more accurate data; the result was 40,074 km, which is 66 km different (0.16%) from the currently accepted polar circumference.
Posidonius calculated the Earth's circumference by reference to the position of the star Canopus. As explained by Cleomedes, Posidonius observed Canopus on but never above the horizon at Rhodes, while at Alexandria he saw it ascend as far as 7 1⁄2 degrees above the horizon (the meridian arc between the latitude of the two locales is actually 5 degrees 14 minutes). Since he thought Rhodes was 5,000 stadia due north of Alexandria, and the difference in the star's elevation indicated the distance between the two locales was 1/48 of the circle, he multiplied 5,000 by 48 to arrive at a figure of 240,000 stadia for the circumference of the earth. It is generally thought that the stadion used by Posidonius was almost exactly 1/10 of a modern statute mile. Thus Posidonius's measure of 240,000 stadia translates to 24,000 mi (39,000 km), not much short of the actual circumference of 24,901 mi (40,074 km). Strabo noted that the distance between Rhodes and Alexandria is 3,750 stadia, and reported Posidonius's estimate of the Earth's circumference to be 180,000 stadia or 18,000 mi (29,000 km). Pliny the Elder mentions Posidonius among his sources and without naming him reported his method for estimating the Earth's circumference. He noted, however, that Hipparchus had added some 26,000 stadia to Eratosthenes's estimate. The smaller value offered by Strabo and the different lengths of Greek and Roman stadia have created a persistent confusion around Posidonius's result. Ptolemy used Posidonius's lower value of 180,000 stades (about 33% too low) for the earth's circumference in his Geography. This was the number used by Christopher Columbus in order to underestimate the distance to India as 70,000 stades.
Around 830 AD, Caliph Al-Ma'mun commissioned a group of Muslim astronomers led by Al-Khwarizmi to measure the distance from Tadmur (Palmyra) to Raqqa, in modern Syria. They calculated the Earth's circumference to be within 15% of the modern value, and possibly much closer. How accurate it actually was is not known because of uncertainty in the conversion between the medieval Arabic units and modern units, but in any case, technical limitations of the methods and tools would not permit a reliable measurement to better than about 5%.
Diagram showing how al-Biruni was able to calculate the Earth's circumference from a high point and a low point at the same location.
A more convenient way to estimate was provided in Al-Biruni's Codex Masudicus (1037). In contrast to his predecessors, who measured the Earth's circumference by sighting the Sun simultaneously from two different locations, al-Biruni developed a new method of using trigonometric calculations, based on the angle between a plain and mountain top, which made it possible for it to be measured by a single person from a single location. From the top of the mountain, he sighted the dip angle which, along with the mountain's height (which he calculated beforehand), he applied to the law of sines formula. This was the earliest known use of dip angle and the earliest practical use of the law of sines. However, the method could not provide more accurate results than previous methods, due to technical limitations, and so al-Biruni accepted the value calculated the previous century by the al-Ma'mun expedition.
1,700 years after Eratosthenes's death, while Christopher Columbus studied what Eratosthenes had written about the size of the Earth, he chose to believe, based on a map by Toscanelli, that the Earth's circumference was 25% smaller. Had Columbus set sail knowing that Eratosthenes's larger circumference value was more accurate, he would have known that the place that he made landfall was not Asia, but rather the New World.