Thursday, November 1, 2012
Columbus' Egg refers to a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact.
Italian historian and traveler Girolamo Benzoni in his book 'History of the New World', published in 1565, wrote that Columbus was dining with a number of Spanish nobles when one of them said: "Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been someone else here in Spain, which is a country abundant with great men versed in cosmography and literature, who would have started a similar adventure with the same result."
Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for an egg to be brought to him. He placed the egg on the table and said: "I will lay a wager with any of you that none among you is able to make this egg stand on its end, which I will do without any kind of help or aid." They all tried without success. When the egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table to flatten the tip slightly and so stood it on its end. All those present understood what he meant - once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it.
According to Vasari (a chronicler of Renaissance artists), the young Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi had designed an unusually large and heavy dome for Santa Maria del Fiore, the new cathedral of Florence. City officials had asked to see his model, but he refused.
Instead he proposed that anyone who could make an egg stand upright on a flat piece of marble should build the cupola, since in this way a man's intellect would be revealed. None was able to accomplish the feat. Whereupon Filippo was told to make it stand. He took the egg graciously and gave one end of it a blow on the flat piece of marble, thus making it stand upright.
The craftsmen protested that they could have done the same. Filippo answered, laughing, that they could also raise the cupola, if they saw the model or the design. And so the decision was made to give Brunelleschi the commission to carry out the construction of the dome.
When the Duomo was finally built it had the shape of half an egg slightly flattened at the top.
The concept of this story is a little different from Columbus' Egg, for that was a metaphor for those acts of creativity that give everybody 20/20 hindsight after the fact; the Brunelleschi story is more of an intellectual conundrum since his plan had not yet been revealed.
It is possible that Columbus, being Italian, had read the Vasari story, whereas the Spanish Grandees were not aware of it.
What could be more obvious than a website that would function like a private house where friends gather to talk in private, and invite other friends, and share photos, ideas, opinions etc.
But no-one did it till that guy from Harvard came up with Facebook - Columbus' Golden Egg.
If the story of Columbus' Egg says anything, it's this - the mark of a creative mind is an ability to see the obvious.