Today, we name America. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Our continents are named
after the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci
instead of the Italian navigator Christopher
Columbus. Why do you suppose that is? Who was
Vespucci, and what did he do?
He was an Italian merchant, born in 1454 in
Florence. He worked for the Medicis. The year
Columbus made his first voyage, they sent Amerigo
to handle their ship-outfitting business in Spain.
Vespucci helped to outfit Columbus's third voyage.
Finally he outfitted his own voyage to look for the
Indian subcontinent (which had eluded Columbus). He
sailed in 1499, seven years after Columbus first
landed in the West Indies. Vespucci made trips in
1499 and 1502, and possibly a third in 1503.
During his first voyage, he explored the Northern
Coast of South America to well beyond the mouth of
the Amazon. He gave Asian place names like "Gulf of
the Ganges" to the things he saw. He also made
significant improvements in navigational
techniques. On that trip he predicted Earth's
circumference to within 50 miles.
But the breakthrough came on Vespucci's second
trip, when he realized he wasn't looking at India
at all but at an entirely new continent. He
verified the fact by following the coast of South
America down to within 400 miles of Tierra del
Fuego. Columbus found the new world, but Vespucci
recognized that it was a new world.
So who wrote Vespucci's Christian name, Amerigo, on
the maps? Was it the King of Spain; our founding
fathers; Vespucci himself? It was none of those. An
obscure German clergyman and amateur geographer
named Waldseemüller belonged to a literary
club that published an introduction to cosmology in
1507. In it he wrote about the new land mass
Vespucci had explored:
I see no reason why anyone should justly object
to calling this part ... America, after Amerigo
[Vespucci] its discoverer, a man of great
The name stuck. Later Waldseemüller thought
better of the name, but he hadn't counted on the
power of the new medium of print. There was no
undoing what'd been set in type. When a second
great land mass was found to the north, the names
North and South America were applied to both
continents. And we're left with an old question:
"Who really rediscovered America on behalf of
Was it the person who found it or the person who
recognized it for what it was? That same riddle
dogs all of science. Who
"discovered" oxygen? Was it Priestly,
who first isolated it, Lavoisier, who recognized it
for a new substance but failed to see what the
substance was? Or was it Scheele, who got it right
before either Priestly or Lavoisier but didn't
publish until after they had?
It's a hopeless question, of course. Columbus,
Vespucci, Ericson, and that brave Asian who first
walked off across the tendril of land that is now
the Bering Strait. They all discovered this place.
We might as well say, with Waldseemüller, "Why
not call it America?"
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
See your Encyclopaedia Britannica for more on
Wilford, J. N., The Mapmakers, New York:
Vintage Books, 1982.
Boorstin, D. J., The Discoverers: A History of
Man's Search to Know his World and Himself. New
York: Random House, 1983, Chapter 33.
Kuhn T., The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1970.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode
Drawing by Maria Zsigmond-Baca. By
permission of Peter Gordon.
Vespucci and his two voyages -- the first as a
solid line, the second as a dashed line
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.
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