Egg of Columbus
An egg of Columbus or Columbus' egg (Italian: uovo di Colombo [ˈwɔːvo di koˈlombo]) refers to a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. The expression refers to an apocryphal story, dating from at least the 16th century, in which it is said that Christopher Columbus, having been told that finding a new trade route was inevitable and no great accomplishment, challenges his critics to make an egg stand on its tip. After his challengers give up, Columbus does it himself by tapping the egg on the table to flatten its tip.
The story is often alluded to when discussing creativity. The term has also been used as the trade name of a tangram puzzle and several mechanical puzzles. It also shows that anything can be done by anyone with the right set of skills; however, not everyone knows how to do it.
Source of the story
Trovandosi adunque Colombo in un convito con molti nobili Spagnuoli, dove si ragionaua (come si costuma,) dell'Indie; uno di loro hebbe a dire. Signor Christofano ancora che voi non haveste trovato l'Indie, non sarebbe mancato ch'il simile hauesse tentanto, come voi, quà nella nostra Spagna; come quella che è de grand'huomini giudiciosi ripiena, cosmografi, & letterati. Non rispose Colombo à queste parole cosa alcuna, ma fattosi portare un'ovo, lo pose in tavola, dicendo; io voglio, Signori, con qual si voglia di voi giuocare una scomessa chen non farete stare quest'ovo in piedi come farò io, ma nudo senza cosa alcuna. Pruovaronsi tutti, & à nessuno successe il farlo stare in piedi; come alle mani del Colombo egli venne, dandogli una battuta su la tavola lo fermò, stricciando cosi un poco della punta; onde tutti restarono smarriti, intendendo che voleva dire; che dopo il fatto ciascuno sà fare, che dovevano prima cercare l'Indie, & non ridersi di chi le cercava innanzi, come un pezzo s'erano risi, & maravigliati, come cosa impossibile à essere.
Columbus being at a party with many noble Spaniards, where, as was customary, the subject of conversation was the Indies: one of them undertook to say: —"Mr. Christopher, even if you had not found the Indies, we should not have been devoid of a man who would have attempted the same that you did, here in our own country of Spain, as it is full of great men clever in cosmography and literature." Columbus said nothing in answer to these words, but having desired an egg to be brought to him, he placed it on the table saying: "Gentlemen, I will lay a wager with any of you, that you will not make this egg stand up as I will, naked and without anything at all." They all tried, and no one succeeded in making it stand up. When the egg came round to the hands of Columbus, by beating it down on the table he fixed it, having thus crushed a little of one end; wherefore all remained confused, understanding what he would have said: that after the deed is done, everybody knows how to do it; that they ought first to have sought for the Indies, and not laugh at him who had sought for it first, while they for some time had been laughing, and wondered at it as an impossibility.
The factual accuracy of this story is called into question by its similarity to another tale published fifteen years earlier (while Benzoni was still travelling in the Americas) by painter and architect Giorgio Vasari. According to Vasari, the young Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi had designed an unusually large and heavy dome for Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. City officials had asked to see his model, but he refused, proposing instead:
...che chi fermasse in sur un marmo piano un uovo ritto, quello facesse la cupola, che quivi si vedrebbe lo ingegno loro. Fu tolto uno uovo, e da tutti que' maestri provato a farlo star ritto, nessuno sapeva il modo. Fu da loro detto a Filippo ch'e' lo fermasse, et egli con grazia lo prese e datoli un colpo del culo in sul piano del marmo, lo fece star ritto. Romoreggiando gl'artefici che similmente arebbono fatto essi, rispose loro Filippo ridendo che egli averebbono ancora saputo voltare la cupola, vedendo il modello o il disegno. E cosí fu risoluto che egli avessi carico di questa opera, e ne informasse meglio i Consoli e gli operai.
...that whosoever could make an egg stand upright on a flat piece of marble should build the cupola, since thus each man's intellect would be discerned. Taking an egg, therefore, all those Masters sought to make it stand upright, but not one could find a way. Whereupon Filippo, being told to make it stand, took it graciously, and, giving one end of it a blow on the flat piece of marble, made it stand upright. The craftsmen protested that they could have done the same; but Filippo answered, laughing, that they could also have raised the cupola, if they had seen the model or the design. And so it was resolved that he should be commissioned to carry out this work.
When the church was finally built it had the shape of half an egg slightly flattened at the top.
Significant cultural references
Mary Shelley mentions Columbus's egg in her Introduction to the third edition of Frankenstein (1869, p. 10), writing, "In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it."
Leo Tolstoy mentions Columbus’s egg in War and Peace after Hélène explains to her spiritual guide her reasoning as to why she is not bound by her previous vows of marriage to Pierre after switching religions. "The spiritual guide was astonished at this solution, which had all the simplicity of Columbus’ egg."
Westinghouse Electric's Nikola Tesla display at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World) used the story in an "Egg of Columbus" exhibit that had the rotating magnetic field in an alternating current induction motor spin a large copper egg until it stood on end.
F. Scott Fitzgerald refers to Columbus' egg in The Great Gatsby when describing the topography of the fictional villages of East Egg and West Egg: "They are not perfect ovals – like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end – but their physical resemblance must be a source of perpetual wonder to the seagulls that fly overhead."
- Egg balancing, a Chinese tradition
- Gömböc, an egg-like (convex, homogeneous, solid) 3-D body that has only one stable equilibrium
- Gordian Knot, a legendary impossible knot
- Hindsight bias, the inclination to see events that have already occurred as being more predictable than they were before they took place
- Superegg, an egg-like shape designed by Piet Hein that stands on its ends
- Väinämöinen in Kalevala was asked to tie an egg into a knot, in which he succeeded
- Kant, Immanuel (2013), Critique of Judgement, Book II, "Analytic of the Sublime", Simon and Schuster: "In my part of the country, if you set a common man a problem like that of Columbus and his egg, he says, 'There is no art in that, it is only science': i.e. you can do it if you know how; and he says just the same of all the would-be arts of jugglers."
- Girolamo Benzoni (1572), Historia del Mondo Nuovo, Venice, pp. 12–3; English translation: History of the New World by Girolamo Benzoni, Hakluyt Society, London, 1857, p. 17.
- Giorgio Vasari (1550), Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects: "Filippo Brunelleschi." Florence.
- The similarity of Vasari's story to the egg of Columbus story was first pointed out in Our Paper, vo. 10, Massachusetts Reformatory, 1894, p. 285.
- Martin Gardner (May–June 1996). "The great egg-balancing mystery". Skeptical Inquirer. 20 (3). Archived from the original on 2007-02-21.
- Darwin, Charles (1876–1882). "'Recollections of the development of my mind & character' [Autobiography] [1876-4.1882] CUL-DAR26.1-121". Darwin Online. Archived from the original on 2010-04-11. Retrieved December 2, 2021.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p. 4, Scribner, 2004
- chapter XI "Race and People" of the 1939 Murphy translation, Hurst & Blackett, London, online at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200601.txt
- Baldwin, James. Columbus and the egg, 1903.