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Egg of Columbus

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Columbus Breaking the Egg by William Hogarth

An egg of Columbus or Columbus's egg (Italian: uovo di Colombo [ˈwɔːvo di koˈlombo]) refers to a seemingly impossible task that becomes easy once understood. 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.[1] The term has also been used as the trade name of a tangram puzzle and several mechanical puzzles.

Source of the story

Columbi ägg (1924) by the Swedish artist Nils von Dardel

The Columbus egg story may have originated with Italian historian and traveler Girolamo Benzoni. In his book History of the New World, published in 1565,[2] he wrote:

Monument to the discovery of America by Columbus in the shape of an egg in Sant Antoni de Portmany, Ibiza, Spain

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.[3][4] 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:

When the church was finally built it had the shape of half an egg slightly flattened at the top.[5]

See also

  • 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
  • Tesla's Egg of Columbus, Westinghouse Electric display at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition
  • Väinämöinen in Kalevala was asked to tie an egg into a knot, in which he succeeded


  1. ^ Kant, Immanuel (2013[1790]), 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."
  2. ^ Girolamo Benzoni (1572[1565]), Historia del Mondo Nuovo, Venice, pp. 12–3; English translation: History of the New World by Girolamo Benzoni, Hakluyt Society, London, 1857, p. 17.
  3. ^ Giorgio Vasari (1550), Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects: "Filippo Brunelleschi." Florence.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Martin Gardner (May–June 1996). "The great egg-balancing mystery". Skeptical Inquirer. 20 (3). Archived from the original on 2007-02-21.