Tag Archives: history

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.


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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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?

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.

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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.

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Meanwhile, on the Atlantic Ocean…

Christopher Columbus’ crews are getting worried. If you’ve ever traveled to a new place, you know how they were feeling—”Are we there yet? How much longer?” Remember: those guys were probably okay with the idea that the Earth is round, but they didn’t know it for sure. After a couple of months, maybe they’re starting to think traveling west to reach the east isn’t such a hot idea after all.

Sailors in those days didn’t have an accurate way of knowing how far east or west they were. A compass can tell you which direction you’re traveling. An astrolabe will tell you how far north or south you are and what time it is. Casting a log will give you a rough idea of how far you’ve traveled. There was simply no way for Columbus and his crew to know exactly how far west they were.

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The amazing fantastic clock of Piazza San Marco

In 1493, the Venetian Republic commissioned the clockmaker Giovan Paolo Rainieri, from the town of Reggio Emilia, to design and build a clock. This clock would be big and beautiful and expensive—a tower would be designed and built on Saint Mark’s Plaza to house it. It would face the lagoon and the sea beyond, so the whole world could see how prosperous was Venice.

If you visit Venice you can see the Rainieri clock. Its face is decorated in gold and lapis lazuli (a mineral you make blue out of—blue paint ain’t cheap); the hand tells what hour it is and the current zodiac sign; above the clock is a statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus (made of gilded copper); twice a year a mechanical angel and three wise men parade in front of Mary and tip their crowns to her; above Mary is the lion of Saint Mark with his paw on the Gospel (the statue of the praying doge isn’t there anymore); and at the top, every hour two bronze giants ring an enormous bell with their hammers.

The entire contraption from top to bottom used a verge and foliot escapement to regulate the gears.



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