Monthly Archives: March 2020

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.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

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:

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

Beware the Ides of March!

Apologies to the JUMBLE® guys: Henri Arnold, David L. Hoyt and Jeff Knurek!

Et Tu, Brute?

A really long trip and no egg roll

What just happened? Columbus thought he would get to China (the ‘Indies’) by traveling west. He was right, as far as his theory went. But Columbus had no idea there would be two king-sized continents—North and South America—standing in his way. He and his crew spent the next 5 months exploring the islands Cuba and Hispaniola before they went home to Spain.

Columbus was disappointed. He really wanted to reach China. He considered himself a failure for not accomplishing that goal. What he didn’t realize was that the Americas, with all their natural resources (gold, in particular), would become more valuable to Spain than China ever could be.

Land, ho!

Even so, after two months the crew were unhappy and ready to turn around. Columbus said, “Okay, bambini. Give me two more days. If we don’t see land in two days, we’ll turn around and go home.” Luckily for Columbus, the next day they saw birds, and some branches floating around—the kind of stuff you see when you get close to land. Sure enough on October 12th, 1492 the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria bumped into the island of Guanahani—which Columbus called San Salvador. It’s part of a group of islands called the Bahamas, off of Florida.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

Are we there yet?

Columbus had a feeling his crew would start getting antsy, so he kept 2 logs. A captain’s log is a daily record of data: ship’s speeds, changes in course, weather and other news. In one secret log Columbus was honest—he wrote the actual distances they had come each day (as far as he could tell). In the second log, Columbus wrote that they hadn’t come very far at all. He added some potty stops they hadn’t taken. That’s the log he showed his crew. He wanted them to not be upset that the voyage was taking so long.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space