If It Worked for Columbus…

The Eclipse That Saved Columbus

The article by Ivars Peterson recounts a tale we know today from a variety of literary sources that took the experience of Columbus and ran with it. The voyage of Columbus in 1502 to the New World wasn’t going well. He and his crew were stranded on Jamaica, and the crew’s depredations on the local population had caused those locals to stop rendering them aid. Things were becoming critical in 1504.

Weary and ill, Columbus had withdrawn to his ship. There, he pondered his precarious situation. Returning to the stained pages of the Ephemerides, he noted Regiomontanus’s prediction of a total eclipse of the moon on Feb. 29, 1504.

Yeah, that’s right, we have Columbus to thank for the “I am going to make the {large heavenly body of your choice} disappear” cliche’ that has become a part of popular culture.

Such a dramatic episode didn’t escape the attention of novelists, who later used eclipse occurrences in a similar way to further their own plots. You’ll find the device in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and even in Hergé’s Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun.

Something the article notes is that the predicted eclipse that saved Columbus’s skin was made via the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system. The Copernican revolution of a heliocentric model of the solar system was still off in the future, adding spice to the new century. This can be a difficult concept for some to grasp, that a scientific idea can be wrong, yet productive and leading to many correct predictions and practical applications. The heliocentric replacement meant that predictions of astronomical events could be made with greater ease, accuracy, and at longer times from the present. Of course, within the history of the heliocentric model, one has various refinements (going from an assumption of circular orbits to circular orbits with epicycles to elliptical orbits) and the fostering of new ideas, like Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation, which helped explain why the model worked at all. Placing these events within a physical framework marked a distinct change from the ready assignment of phenomena to direct supernatural intervention and maintenance.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.