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There is a story about Christopher Columbus and an egg. I don't know how well-known it is, but I seem to remember seeing it enacted in a movie about Columbus. In idiomatic German, the "egg of Columbus" is used as a metaphor for an amazing discovery or invention.

After a Web search on the topic, I still can't verify conclusively if it's fact or myth. Still, it's a cute little story and there's kind of a moral to it, so here goes:


Columbus was planning his legendary voyage to India that ended up getting him to America, and was trying to raise money and other support for the trip. But he was having trouble convincing people that his project had a chance of success. So by way of demonstration, he picked up an egg.

"Is it possible to set this egg down on its tip?" he asked.

"Of course not, everyone knows that!"

So he set the egg down hard on its tip, using enough force that the tip was slightly bashed in, so he was able to stand the egg up on the flattened tip.

"Oh, you mean like that? That's easy!"

"Yes, " he replied, "it's easy once you know about it. It's a little harder to trust in something that hasn't been discovered yet."


In his 1565 History of the New World, Italian historian Girolamo Benzoni relayed an anecdote wherein Christopher Columbus, post-triumphant transatlantic voyage of discovery, gave a comeuppance to some snooty Spanish nobleman:
Columbus was dining with many Spanish nobles when one of them said: 'Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been, here in Spain which is a country abundant with great men knowledgeable in cosmography and literature, one who would have started a similar adventure with the same result.' Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for a whole egg to be brought to him. He placed it on the table and said: 'My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.' They all tried without success and when the egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table breaking it slightly and, with this, the egg stood on its end. All those present were confounded and understood what he meant: that once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it.
The story is, naturally, highly questionable. It has since been observed to be more than passingly similar to an earlier-told-tale by Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, who credited a very similar response to his younger countryman and colleague, Filippo Brunelleschi. In this version, Brunelleschi designed a Florentine cathedral, but refused to share his models with city fathers, rightly fearing that his design would then be stolen and the commission to oversee the construction handed to a lesser architect. Brunelleschi instead challenged other contenders to the sort of egg-standing contest ascribed to Columbus, and prevailed in the same manner. He used the event to argue that any man might direct that such a thing be built, but not every man might think of the thing to build. Further embellishment of the story has the final building having an egg-reminiscent dome.

Whatever the origin of the story, it has stuck with the larger legend of Columbus, resulting in tributes and tricks, toys and monuments, featuring the imagery of a standing egg. Perhaps the most important such follow-up was Nikola Tesla's monumental exhibition of the capabilities of the alternating current electrical power system, featured at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. This was back when Tesla was in the heyday of his inventive career, having bitterly departed the employ of Thomas Edison and founded his own competing company, which had only begun to turn out wonders. (Tesla now worked for Westinghouse, which won the bid to provide electrification for the event, and which had to invent a new kind of light bulb since bitter losing bidder Edison barred the use of his conventional bulbs). Tesla's egg didn't need to be indented to stand, but it did need to be made out of metal, since the trick he used to stand it up was the magnetic field generated by the induction motor -- surely an appropriate tribute to Columbus, at the exposition named for the famed explorer, for whom the event marked the 400th anniversary of his landing in the New World.

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