Today, meet our national namesake. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Our country's named after
the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci instead of
the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus. But
why? Who was Amerigo Vespucci, and what did he do?
He was an Italian merchant, born in 1454 in
Florence and employed by the Medicis. They sent him
to look after their ship-outfitting business, which
operated out of Seville, about the time Columbus
made his first voyage. In fact, the business had a
part in outfitting Columbus's third voyage.
Vespucci finally outfitted his own voyage in quest
of the passage to the Indian subcontinent that had
eluded Columbus. He sailed in 1499 -- seven years
after Columbus first landed in the West Indies.
Vespucci made two voyages between 1499 and 1502 and
possibly a third one in 1503.
During his first voyage he explored the northern
coast of South America to well beyond the mouth of
the Amazon. He gave names like "Gulf of the
Ganges," and other Asian place-names he knew about,
to the things he saw. He also made significant
improvements in navigational techniques. During
this trip he predicted the earth's circumference to
within 50 miles.
But the big breakthrough came on Vespucci's second
trip. And that was the realization that what he was
looking at was not India at all, but 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 was the man who recognized that it was
a new world.
And who wrote Vespucci's Christian name on the
maps? The King of Spain? Our founding fathers?
Vespucci himself? No -- it was none of these. We
were given our name by an obscure German clergyman
and amateur geographer named Waldseemuller.
Waldseemuller was a member of a little literary
club that published an introduction to cosmology in
1507. In it he wrote of the new land mass that
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 ability.
The name stuck, and when a second huge
land mass was discovered to the north, the names
North and South America were applied to the two
All this leads us to ask, "Who really discovered
America?" Was it the person who first found it or
the person who first recognized it for what it was?
Perhaps I'd better leave you to decide that
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds