Call It Printing Press Day

Hold the front page!

Today we are celebrating Columbus Day.

Here in New York, there is a massive parade up Fifth Avenue, which has clogged up my entire neighborhood.


As elementary school students are taught, Christopher Columbus discovered America and proved the world was round.

As anyone with anything past a 3rd grade education knows, Columbus did neither.

(Of course, there are nearly 100 million Americans who apparently believe that the earth is only 5,000 years old, so I put nothing past them).

In any event, Columbus was hardly the first to set foot in the New World.  The Vikings had been here around 1100 AD, and of course, the Native Americans for about 35,000 years before that.

In the time of Columbus every educated person already knew that the earth was round. That was common knowledge since the time of the Greeks.  Even the circumference was pretty will known since the time of Pliny the Elder.

Basque fishermen had long been traversing the Atlantic, fishing the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland and bringing their cod catches back to Lisbon.  But they kept it a secret.  Columbus spent two years with the Basques, working their routes.

What Columbus did, that no one had ever done before, was to tell people what was there.

He did this by publishing.

Many people had been across the Atlantic by the time Columbus went.  No one had ever published the information.  Columbus was the first.

The printing press was invented in 1452. Columbus landed in Hispanola in 1492. It was only 50 years later.

Upon his return to the New World, Columbus published an 8-page pamphlet on his voyage.  He published more than 100,000 copies. And soon the story of where he had been and what he had found was circulating all through Europe.  No one had to come to Spain, get the permission of Ferdinand and Isabella, see the ships or even talk go the Great Navigator. All they had to do was read about it.

Today, this seems obvious, but in 1492 this was indeed revolutionary.

And the pamphlets that Columbus published circulated though Europe and pretty soon everyone was not only reading about what Columbus had done, they were building their own ships and heading west.  The age of European exploration as kicked off not so much by Columbus, but rather by marrying his adventure to the new technology of the printing press.

As I look outside my window at the parade on Fifth Avenue, I see lots of marching bands, Italian flags, floats and banners.

What I don’t see is a printing press.

Which is too bad.

Because without the printing press, none of the rest of this would have been possible.


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