Geography is the field of science that relates to the study of the Earth, its physical features, landmasses, seas, oceans, the natural phenomena occurring on Earth, and the people who inhabit this planet and their interaction with their environment. Physical Geography is a study of the planet Earth, its surface and the various patterns of its Lithosphere (the land and its features), the Hydrosphere (the water surface of Earth and its characteristics), the Biosphere (the living organisms in land and water), and the Atmosphere (the gaseous blanket that surrounds the earth).
The study of Geography dates back many years. The first person to have used the word Geography (Greek – Geographika) was Eratosthenes of Cyrene, the mathematician and astronomer from ancient Greece. He is also widely regarded as the Father of Geography. This nomenclature is a subject of much debate, though.
Eratosthenes of Cyrene
Eratosthenes was born in 276 BC in Cyrene, a Greek colony (in present-day Libya). He was by nature very curious and studied various disciplines in Plato’s Academy. He excelled in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and music. By 245 BC, Eratosthenes was handed the charge of the Great Library in Alexandria (Egypt) by Pharaoh Ptolemy III. This gave him the opportunity to learn about the earth and to compose his three-volume treatise – Geographika.
Eratosthenes was the first known geographer to create a highly accurate map of the world, complete with grid lines resembling the latitudes and longitudes we use to plot various places on earth (in modern times).
Eratosthenes’ greatest achievement, however, is calculating the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy. The measurement of the circumference was based on few measurements. One was the depth of a well in Syene, where the sun’s rays reached the bottom only on the day of the summer solstice. Secondly, he also knew the distance between Syene and Alexandria. He took the angle of the sun’s shadow cast in Alexandria on summer solstice and took that as a fraction of the degrees of a circle. This fraction he multiplied by the distance between Syene and Alexandria. The result was 25,000 miles. The error in calculation was only about 100 miles. Reaching this accurate answer based on his observations made Eratosthenes an inspiration to scientists and geographers in times to come.
Eratosthenes also accurately calculated the tilt of the Earth on its own axis and also gave us the Leap Year calculation that we use today. His greatest contribution to the world of mathematics was an algorithm to identify prime numbers, popularly referred to as the Eratosthenes sieve.
Other Popular Geographers
Despite his achievements, Eratosthenes’ epithet as the Father of Geography is often debated. Many consider Hecatius (Hecataeus of Miletus) or even Posidonius as the Father of Geography.
As the study of Geography became more varied and specialized various geographers gained popularity. Here are some of the more popular geographers who have been deemed “father” of various branches of geography (some of these are open to debate)
Father of American Geography – William Morris David
Father of Geology – Sir Charles Lyell
Father of Modern Geomorphology – Grove Carl Gilbert
Father of Phytogeography – Alexander Von Humboldt
Father of Modern Cartography – Heinrich Caesar Berann
Father of Scientific Climatology – Reid Bryson
Father of Human Geography – Carl Ritter