Martin Behaim, as his surname suggests, was descended from a wealthy Nuremberg family, who had arrived there in the early 1300s, having fled religious persecution in Bohemia. Later, he claimed for himself, that he was a student of the celebrated mathematician and astronomer known as Regiomontanus (Johannes Müller von Königsberg, 1436 – 1476). Nevertheless, his intellectual abilities recommended him to King John II of Portugal, when he travelled to Lisbon in about 1481. Behaim became one of a group of mathematicians commissioned by King John to solve the problem of determining latitude. It is possible that Behaim’s contribution to the conundrum was to provide the commission with a Jacob’s-staff, or cross-staff, and astronomical tables used for determining the declination of the sun.
Armed with these instruments, Behaim may, or may not, have accompanied Diego Cam (Cão) on his voyage of discovery along the west coast of Africa. However, what is certain, is that after 1486, Behaim was elevated to Knight of the Portuguese Order of Christ, and married a daughter of the hereditary governor of islands in the Azores, Jobst von Hurter.
Back in Nuremberg, in 1490, the City Council member George Holzschuher proposed that Behaim construct a globe based on recent geographic discoveries in Portugal. Along with the painter Georg Glockendon, and possibly with the help of Hartman Schedel, compiler of the “Nuremberg Chronicle”, Behaim started work on the globe and completed it in 1492. The “Erdapfel” – Earth Apple – is the oldest surviving terrestrial globe. Dedicated to burghers Gabriel Niitzel, Paul Volkamer, and Nicolaus Groland, Behaim also gives credit to Ptolemaeus, Marco Polo, and Sir John Mandeville for their inspiration.
Historically, Behaim has been credited with inspiring the voyages of Columbus, and predicting the existence of the Magellan Strait. However, this is now questioned.