Debunking a Columbus Myth
Well, today's Columbus Day, so I thought I'd write a little entry about it. (Actually, I'd planned on writing it a year ago for Columbus Day, but didn't get around to it in time.)
Here's what prompted me to write this - my family and I were talking, and my wife and daughter were rubbing it in how they both got Columbus Day off when I didn't. Well, me being the type of father I am, I asked my daughter what Columbus did that's so special that he's got a day named after him. She responded with the typical proving the world was round. Ugh. She was just repeating what her teacher had taught her, so she didn't do anything wrong, but how does this story continue to get taught?
I won't bother to give too much detail here - just go to the Wikipedia entry on Columbus, and read the Navigational Plans section. Basically, by Columbus's time, most people knew the world was round. Eratosthenes had even calculated the diameter to within a few percent 1700 years prior. The reason why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding, was because he believed the Earth was a whole lot smaller than most other people thought. He thought the Earth was around 15,700 miles in circumference, when in reality it's around 25,000 miles. Nobody knew about the Americas at the time. They figured that in theory, if you sailed west from Europe, you would eventually get to Asia, but that the trip would be so long, there'd be know way to take enough supplies on the ship to get you there. In fact, Columbus was lucky the Americas were there, or he wouldn't have had enough supplies.
added 2007-10-10 After reading through this entry again, I realized I forgot to mention something. The answer I was expecting my daughter to give was that Columbus discovered America. I was all prepared to tell her about the Vikings and others that made it to the Americas before Columbus, and the fact that Columbus never realized he'd discovered a new continent, even though it was his voyage that really did spark the major wave of European exploration of the new world. But for her to bring up the old myth of proving the world was round, it really took me by surprise.
I have a new post mentioning Columbus's ruthlessness, not just his incompetence, Happy Exploration Day.