Galileo’s rise to immortality starts at the end of the 18th century. In this period, scientific biography started to become popular, and Galileo became a favourite subject, largely because of his persecution by the Catholic Church. This effect was immensely magnified by the largely mythical war between science and religion in the late 19th century, waged by two US-based scientist-historians, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. They wrote passionately about religion as an obstacle to the forces of progress, and advanced a self-congratulatory thesis in which Western civilisation had steadily emerged from the ignorance of the Dark Ages to the modern age of Enlightenment. This was an outgrowth of the broader rejection of the dominance of religious thought, which had emerged in Europe during the Enlightenment and had been enthusiastically adopted by influential American intellectual figures including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
To fit into this narrative, Galileo was presented as a solitary hero defending Copernicanism against the ignorance and prejudice of the Church. Draper and White also promoted the notion that mediaeval scholars, blinded by theology, had believed the world was flat – another myth that has wormed its way into generally accepted truth.