The Equator Question


Was the Earth oblate, as English physicist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, had theorized in 1687, based on his understanding of gravity? If so, it would mean that the Earth’s circumference at the poles was shorter than at its middle, a sphere flattened at both ends.

Or was the Earth prolate, an elongated sphere that if drawn today would resemble a football, flattened a bit at both ends and in the 18th century was compared to a lemon? The prolate spheroid shape would mean that the Earth’s circumference at the top and bottom were shorter than around the middle but not so different in their dimensions as if the Earth was oblate. A few notable scientists maintained that the prolate Earth narrowed slightly at the equator, like a waist.

Newton died in 1727, too soon to learn he was right, when the Arctic expedition returned a decade later, followed by the scientists on Ecuador tours who measured the Earth’s middle. As in other realms of science, the research by these two expeditions didn’t end the debate. Scientists continued to hypothesize, suggesting flaws in the thinking of those who had proved the Earth’s shape to be oblate.

Just because the northern hemisphere had been shown to flatten at the pole, no measurements had proven the same was true at the South Pole. For this task there would be no Ecuador tours. The French Royal Academy of Science chose the French astronomer, Nicholas Lacaille to conduct a land survey in Cape Town, South Africa in 1752.

Misled by the topography and an inaccurate measuring tool, Lacaille’s calculations arrived at a surprising conclusion: It seemed the northern and southern hemispheres were different, that the Earth was shaped not like an orange, but rather was flat at the top and round like a pear at the bottom. Lacaille had been dead seventy-five years before British physician-turned-astronomer, Sir Thomas Maclear, undertook the re-surveying of Lacaille’s Arc in 1838. The project took some thirty men nine years to check Lacaille’s calculations and find his error.

In 1902, the French Academy of Sciences sent a mission to trace the steps of La Condamine’s Ecuador tours in order to verify the original work. The group confirmed the conclusions of La Condamine’s travel to Ecuador.

As visitors who schedule Ecuador tours will learn, the equator is a short jaunt from the capital city of Quito, an itinerary stop that many visitors include during their travel to Ecuador, whether they are stopping off in the capital on the way to start their Galapagos Islands cruise, an Ecuador Amazon adventure vacation or Ecuador tours in the Andes.