Oh, What A Beautiful Ante Meridiem!

The first known use of ‘ante meridiem’ was in 1563. It’s from Latin: ‘meridiem’ means midday or noon. ‘Ante’ means before and ‘post’ means after. So ante meridiem or a.m. is before noon—the hours between midnight and noon. Post meridiem or p.m. is afternoon—the hours between noon and midnight.

A.M. and p.m. are used to describe hours on a 12-hour clock. 10:15 a.m. means 10:15 in the morning; 10:15 p.m. means 10:15 at night. In the military and in Europe, they use a 24-hour clock, so 13:00 means 1:00 p.m.

‘Meridian’ is a different word with 2 meanings. The first meaning is to make an adjective out of meridiem. To say, “She’s wearing an anti-meridian dress” means she’s wearing a dress suitable for the morning. Nobody talks like that nowadays.

Ooooooh—I just gotta paint her in a blaze of yellow and orange!

The second meaning is to describe a line of longitude. The Prime Meridian is Point Zero of east or west. It’s only ad 1563 in this history so we have to wait 200 years before somebody figures out longitude—and where in the world the Prime Meridian is located…

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Ante meridiem or antemeridian?

Nicolaus Copernicus


Nicolaus Copernicus was a mathematician and astronomer who argued that the Sun rather than the Earth was the center of the universe.

Copernicus studied Ptolemy (#374 in our OLD DEAD WHITE GUYS series), the Alexandrine astronomer who developed the idea that Earth is the center of the universe and all the planets and stars revolve around her. Interesting side note: Copernicus learned Greek so he could read Ptolemy’s writings.

Ptolemy’s geocentric model doesn’t work in real life. To account for planets’ orbits that aren’t centered around Earth, you have to imagine an invisible center of gravity other than Earth’s. That is—if you watch them closely, the planets revolve around something else. In ad 1510 Copernicus figured that the planets—including Earth—are heliocentric. They revolve around the Sun.

In school, the other kids made fun of his hair and called him Co-perm-icus

That’s how the Solar System works, of course. Copernicus was right. This new way of thinking was a big deal in the world of science.


East is east and west is west

Navigators still faced the problem of not knowing how far east or west they were. Latitude is how far north or south you are. You can tell that with an astrolabe. Longitude is how far east or west.
It was a problem Amerigo Vespucci tried to solve. In 1502, he wrote: “…I learned [my longitude] … by the eclipses and conjunctions of the Moon with the planets…” He was trying to find longitude by observing the Moon’s and Mars’ positions in relation to the Earth. Not only was this an overly-complicated method, it had several drawbacks—mainly it only worked during a specific astronomical event.


I’d be a clod not to link Rudyard Kipling’s poem, which I quoted in the title above—http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_eastwest.htm

While we’re at it, here’s Bob Hope and Jane Russell in The Paleface, singing Buttons & Bows.

The Nocturnal

Magellan probably used this instrument to tell time at night, called the nocturnal. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you might notice that the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and the northern constellations revolve around Polaris, the North Star. The nocturnal tells you what time it is based on a star’s position in the sky.

Like an astrolabe, you hold the nocturnal by a ring at the top. The round backplate shows the months and days. Sitting on that is another round plate with the hours of the night—this plate is for the particular star you’ll be sighting. Through the center of both plates is a hole where you sight the North Star. You put the arrow on today’s date (the drawing is on early October), point the pointer at your star and the pointer will show you the time (eight o’clock).

Here’s a website where you can download and make your own nocturnal.

If you have access to a 3D printer, you can download and print this nocturnal for free. https://outguy.blogspot.com/2013/05/3d-nocturnal-celestial-stardial-tjt56.html


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Why 18?

According to inventory records, the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan had 18 hourglasses on each of his ships during his circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. I’ve read this fact in more than one source, but no one tells us why eighteen. Multiple hourglasses would allow you to check one against another for accuracy, but 18 seems like a lot for that purpose. Were all 18 used at the same time? You need only one sandglass to cast a log—and that sandglass would count minutes, not a whole hour.

It seems Magellan used the hourglasses mainly for keeping track of time. But why did he need 18 of them?

If anyone can tell me I’ll draw you a picture.

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Travel brochure

You just know this idea was scribbled on the back of a napkin and handed directly to the unfortunate engraver, who tried to make some sense of it.

‘Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuovamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi’
‘Amerigo Vespucci’s letter on the islands newly-discovered on his four voyages’

This language is Italian, not Latin—Vespucci was educated by his Humanist uncle. Humanism was a way of thinking that celebrated the achievements of people. That was a departure from the Christian Church’s view that all human achievement flows from God. Before Humanism, books and other publications were written in Latin—the language of the Roman Catholic Church. Humanists were the first to write in the vernacular—the language spoken in their own country.

I don’t know—Vespucci’s travel brochure needs something. I took the liberty of designing a new one with more pizzazz!


The next guy to visit the New World was Amerigo Vespucci (vess-POOCH-y) from Florence, Italy. Amerigo was a navigator, a mapmaker, a trader and astronomer. During one of his trips he calculated the circumference of the Earth (how big around at the Equator)—and was off by only 50 miles!

Amerigo Vespucci was also a writer and promoter. If Columbus didn’t realize how big the New World is, Vespucci surely did. He wrote pamphlets (short, easy-to-read) to tell people about the New World and all it had to offer. Vespucci promoted the New World to Europe. Promotion, gang. Amerigo Vespucci did such a good job of promoting the New World that a German mapmaker named the newly-discovered continents for Amerigo—North America and South America—and it caught on.

It’s a tradition to name continents in the feminine form—Asia; Africa; Europe (Europa to the people who live there); India; Australia; Antarctica. So the boy’s name Amerigo became the girl’s name America.

How do people promote nowadays? Writing a pamphlet was the way to go in Vespucci’s time. How would you promote something big that you wanted everybody to know about?

So good it jumps into your mouth

Want to know why Europe was so crazy over New World vegetables? How about some marinara sauce on your pasta? ‘Marinara’ means ‘how the sailors make it.’ I like it because you can whip up a great sauce in the same time your pasta cooks.

As soon as you enter the house—DON’T EVEN TAKE YOUR COAT OFF YET—put a pot of water on to boil.

Chop a clove of garlic into little pieces. Pour a tablespoon of vegetable oil into a medium-hot skillet, then brown the garlic. I like onions, so I chop maybe a quarter cup of onions and throw them in the skillet and cook them until they’re brown/translucent (kind of clear). When the water boils, put pasta in the pot. Grab 4-5 tomatoes—use Roma tomatoes if you can get ‘em, even better out of your garden—chop them into sixths and throw them into the skillet (they should sizzle!) and cook them down for 10 minutes. Add salt, pepper and a fresh basil leaf.

Drain your pasta (put your plate under the colander so the water heats it up), put the pasta on the plate, drizzle a little olive oil onto it, pour the sauce onto the pasta, grate some parmigiano cheese on top. Boom! Done. Buon appetito!

Next time Nonna makes big sauce, thank Columbus

The thing about Christopher Columbus: he was the European navigator who discovered the New World, but it’s not clear that he knew he discovered the New World. At least, it must have been nearly impossible to recognize how big North and South America are. It looks like he may not have gotten as far north as Florida.

Christopher Columbus made four trips to the New World. His voyages were the beginning of what we call the Age of Exploration. European traders started asking, “What if the New World has even more or better stuff than China?” The New World had never-seen-before fruit and vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, pineapples, peppers, pumpkins—and a new kind of poultry, the turkey. Chocolate and tobacco came from the New World. Europe wanted these new products as much as they’d wanted Chinese silk and spice. Remember that Columbus was sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Spain became a major world power through her new source of trade. The Ottoman Empire no longer held all the cards.


Au revoir, Albert Uderzo

One of my heroes passed on—the amazingly talented Albert Uderzo, who drew the French comic book Asterix the Gaul.


A while back I wrote about Asterix and his co-creator here: https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2009/08/24/asterix-le-gaulois-is-50-years-old/

Rest in peace. May the sky never fall on your head.