How circling the globe has evolved in the 500 years since Magellan’s famous trip

Botanist Jeanne Baret and journalist Nellie Bly are two women who duplicated the feat

map of Magellan's route

This map, created by Genoese cartographer Battista Agnese ca. 1544, shows the approximate route Magellan’s fleet took around the world.

Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Half of a millennium ago, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew embarked on the first voyage to successfully sail around the world. On September 20, 1519, Magellan’s five-ship fleet set sail from Spain and traveled south, crossing the Atlantic to South America. There, the sailors happened upon a channel, later dubbed the Strait of Magellan, to the Pacific Ocean, and the ships continued west.

The journey was anything but smooth sailing. Magellan dealt with shipwrecks, mutiny and conflicts with indigenous people. He was killed during such a conflict in the Philippines in 1521. But his crew carried on, traversing the Indian Ocean and hooking around Africa’s southern tip to sail north back to Spain. A lone ship docked in Seville in 1522.

In the 500 years since Magellan, humankind has found new ways to circle the globe. The goal of many early circumnavigations was to connect the world, says Jeremy Kinney, chair of the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Circumnavigation is the ultimate expression of “humans’ ability to conquer nature and geographic boundaries,” he says.

Here are some notable trips — testaments to innovation and the human spirit.

By sea

In late 1774 or early 1775, French botanist and explorer Jeanne Baret became the first woman to circumnavigate the world (SN: 2/8/14). Part of a naval expedition that set sail from France in 1766, Baret disguised herself as a man to gain entry onto the Étoile. She sailed to places like Uruguay, Brazil, Tahiti and Mauritius, documenting the local flora.

Baret’s shipmates eventually discovered her true identity, putting her safety at risk, and Baret stayed on Mauritius as the expedition returned to France. She made her way back to France after a few years, completing the circumnavigation. In 2012, scientists named a plant species in her honor. Solanum baretiae, a flowering vine found in Ecuador and Peru, belongs to the plant genus that claims potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants as members.

Étoile route
Botanist Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world, set sail from France in 1766 on the Étoile. The ship’s route is shown in this map, created by French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville ca. 1771. But Baret abandoned the Étoile during a stop in Mauritius. She made her own way back to France, arriving just shy of a decade after she left home.Louis Antoine de Bougainville

By land and sea

November will mark another circumnavigation milestone: 130 years since American journalist Nellie Bly’s 1889 record-breaking journey. The newspaper the New York World sent her on assignment to beat the time of Phileas Fogg, the protagonist of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. Verne encouraged Bly’s attempt, but doubted she could accomplish the feat in less than 79 days.

Nellie Bly
American journalist Nellie Bly (left) is best known for pioneering undercover investigative journalism and for her record-breaking trip around the world. Her 72-day journey was also chronicled in a board game (right). Each square, arranged in a circular pattern, represents one day of her trip.H.J. Myers/Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-75620; The New York World/Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02918

Bly circled the globe in an astonishing 72 days, aided by advances in transportation. Those improvements included the U.S. transcontinental railway and the Suez Canal, which opened a corridor by way of Egypt that allowed quicker passage between the Atlantic and Indian oceans. She chronicled her journey, which mesmerized the public and made the world seem a bit more accessible, in the book Around the World in 72 Days.

By air

A 1924 series of flights by the United States Army Air Service (which later became the Air Force) is largely considered the first global circumnavigation by plane. A team of aviators — the “Magellans of the Air” — flew west over the northern Pacific, across South Asia and Europe and back to the United States in 175 days, though never leaving the northern hemisphere. A series of flights that began four years later might be the first true circumnavigation, meaning they crossed the equator, by plane. From 1928 to 1930, Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith and his copilots flew the Southern Cross from California to Australia to England and, eventually, back to California.

Magellans of the Air map
This 1924 map from the U.S. Army Air Service (which later became the Air Force) shows the planned route of the “Magellans of the Air,” a crew of pilots who became the first to fly around the world.U.S. Army Air Service

In 1949, a U.S. Air Force plane — Lucky Lady II — became the first to fly nonstop around the world, accomplishing the feat in 94 hours and 1 minute. Neither of the U.S. military flights was made possible by technological advances, Kinney says. Rather, the United States set out to prove the airplane — and the Air Force — had global reach, he says.

Lucky Lady II
In 1949, the Lucky Lady II (shown refueling mid-flight) became the first plane to fly nonstop around the world.Richard K. Smith/AFHSO

By space

Part of the Soviet Union’s Space Race victory, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space and the first to orbit Earth (SN: 4/22/61). His capsule, Vostok 1, completed one Earth orbit in 108 minutes in April 1961. Four months later, cosmonaut Gherman Titov in the Vostok 2 made 17.5 orbits in a little over a day.

Yuri Gagarin's path
In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to complete an orbital circumnavigation. Taking off from Baikonur, Russia, Gagarin completed one orbit in 108 minutes before crash-landing near Saratov, Russia, as shown by this map.Detlev van Ravenswaay/Science Source

The Soviet Union sent Titov to space so scientists could study the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body. Similar research is ongoing on the International Space Station, which whips astronauts around Earth every 92 minutes (SN: 4/11/19).

Need for speed

In 2017, French sailor Francis Joyon and his crew set a new fastest record for sailing around the world. Piloting a 30-meter yacht called a trimaran, Joyon circled the globe in 40 days, 23 hours, 23 minutes and 30 seconds, which earned him the Jules Verne Trophy. That same year, French sailor François Gabart set a new fastest record for singlehandedly sailing around the world. Piloting a 31-meter trimaran, Gabart circled the globe in 42 days, 14 hours, 40 minutes and 15 seconds, according to the World Speed Record Council. He beat the previous record by more than six days.

In 2017, Francis Joyon sailed around the world on a 30-meter trimaran in 40 days, setting a new record for fastest circumnavigation by boat.Claude PERON/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In July 2019, a Gulf Stream jet broke the record for fastest circumnavigation via the poles, making the journey in just over 46 hours. The flight — part of a mission called One More Orbit — was a tribute to the 500th anniversary of Magellan’s voyage and to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (SN: 7/16/19). The jet took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, flying over the North Pole to Kazakhstan. It continued on to Mauritius, then flew over the South Pole to Chile before making its way back to the space center. One More Orbit beat the previous record-holder by nearly six hours.

One More Orbit route
A flight commemorating Magellan’s circumnavigation and the Apollo 11 moon landing broke the record for fastest circumnavigation via the poles, completing the journey in less than two days. The route is shown on this map.Courtesy of One More Orbit

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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