You can’t visit a country named Ecuador without setting foot on the equator. It wouldn’t be right. And so last month, when this blogger found herself in the small South American nation, she journeyed to Mitad del Mundo, the official site of the imaginary line midway between North and South poles.
The account of how the equatorial line was determined and drawn is one of the great scientific adventure stories of the Enlightenment. France’s Académie des Sciences sent Charles-Marie de La Condamine and other scientists to measure a degree of latitude at the equator in what they then called Peru (and in 1830 became the independent republic of Ecuador). The expedition sought to answer the vexing question of the earth’s shape: whether it bulged at the center as Isaac Newton posited, or whether it was egg-shaped as René Descartes had contended.
La Condamine and group were scooped by mathematician Pierre Louis Maupertius, who provided measurements from up in Lapland that supported a pumpkin-shaped earth. But La Condamine’s 1745 book about the Geodesic Mission to the Equator was still highly popular (Rare Book Collection F2546 .L148). La Condamine mapped the Amazon and studied the rubber and cinchona trees (the latter he correctly championed as the source of a substance beneficial against malaria, quinine).
The Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale was republished in 1778, with the same foldout map of the equator (above) and the transcription of La Condamine’s letter to Madame ***, which detailed the murder of the expedition’s surgeon in Cuenca. However, this later edition also included a foldout plate opposite the title-page, rendering the assassination in the context of the Andean landscape.
Deborah Poole in her book Vision, Race, and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World (Princeton, 1997) has examined this frontispiece choice as an example of evolving European conceptions of South America and representations of non-European peoples. Indeed, it was published a few years before the last Inca revolt in 1780.
Today, European achievement and indigenous culture are both celebrated north of Quito at Mitad del Mundo, where a tower structure, surmounted by globe, officially marks the equator. An allée with busts of expedition scientists leads up to the monument; inside, exhibits along the stairs to the top document Ecuador’s multiple non-European ethnic groups.
But the truth is the Geodesic Mission did not set foot near this site, and you aren’t on the equator there! The triangulation methods of the 18th century–as well as later mapping that set the monument’s location–were somewhat off in fixing the center of the earth. Modern GPS technology has determined the equator to be 240 meters to the north of the “official” line.
On adjacent private property, the Museo Intiñan (above) claims to have the real equatorial line, although this is also disputed. Nonetheless, the museum seeks “to rescue and revive the ancestral worldview of a geographic center and to establish an ethno-ecological habitat at the ‘Middle of the World.’”
So maybe this corresponent didn’t set foot on the equator, but between these two sites, she got awfully close. Here’s to the power of place, planet, and sun for all cultures and ages and the volumes in the RBC that help tell the story.