13 Things You Should Know About Ferdinand Magellan

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In 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) set sail in search of a westward route to the Maluku Islands of modern Indonesia, which brimmed with nutmeg, cloves, and mace. His trip to these “Spice Islands” would lead to the first successful round-the-world voyage and turn Magellan into a larger-than-life figure. Get reacquainted with the world’s most famous (almost) circumnavigator.

1. BEFORE HE WAS A SEA CAPTAIN, HE FOUGHT IN THE MILITARY.

Magellan got his first taste of sea life when he joined a Portuguese military fleet headed for India at the age of 25. At the time, Portugal was hungry to control global trade, and that meant taking strategic points along the Indian Ocean. Magellan fought in a number of pivotal naval conflicts and learned the ropes of navigation. (He also fought in Morocco, where he suffered a leg injury that caused a permanent limp.)

2. PORTUGAL REGARDED HIM AS A TRAITOR.

Magellan’s military stint in Morocco was unsuccessful: Not only was he wounded, he was later accused of illegally trading with the Moors, a charge that tarnished his reputation in his home country of Portugal. Afterwards, he had trouble landing a job. He bickered with the king. In 1517, Magellan became so fed up that he left Portugal and soon pledged allegiance to his country’s most bitter rival—Spain. Portugal considered it an act of treason.

3. PORTUGAL TRIED TO STOP HIS VOYAGE TO THE SPICE ISLANDS.

By 1517, Portugal controlled access to the Spice Routes, the trade routes from Europe eastward to what is now Indonesia around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. (This was a big deal: Spices at the time were worth their weight in gold.) Magellan told Spain’s king, Charles I, that he knew a possible workaround: Sail west. Charles approved, and Portuguese officials were livid. When Magellan left Spain in 1519 with a fleet of five ships, destined for the Spice Islands via the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Portuguese tried—and failed—to chase him down.

4. MAGELLAN WAS GUARANTEED HIS OWN ISLAND AS PART OF THE DEAL.

When Spain’s king approved Magellan’s plan, he reportedly offered the explorer a number of perks: Magellan, along with his partner Rui Faleiro, would automatically become governor of the lands they found. They would gain the right to levy fees for any upcoming trips. And, most interestingly, they would get their very own islands.

5. HIS VOYAGE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN APPROVED WERE IT NOT FOR HIS INTERPRETER—AND SLAVE—ENRIQUE.

Years earlier, in 1511, Magellan helped invade the port city of Malacca and came home with a Malay-speaking man known now as Enrique de Malacca. Enrique would become Magellan’s most vital resource. Not only did he join Magellan on his 1519 voyage, but his fluency in the Malay language—and his skills as an interpreter—were a major reason why Spain’s king agreed to fund Magellan’s search for a westward spice route.

6. HIS SHIPS WERE STUFFED WITH BOOZE ...

Magellan traveled with large amounts of sherry on board—more than 253 butts and 417 wineskins—and reportedly spent more money supplying his ship with booze than he did on weapons. As we'll see, this might not have been his greatest idea.

7. ... AND CRIMINALS.

An engraving of the Victoria, the first ship to circumnavigate the globe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Santiago, and Victoria set sail in September 1519 with a crew of about 270 sailors. Few of them had extensive seafaring experience. In fact, many of them were criminals loaned from prisons. Others joined because they were avoiding creditors. (Many experienced Spanish sailors refused to join Magellan, possibly because he was Portuguese.)

8. WHEN HIS CAPTAINS STARTED A MUTINY, MAGELLAN SHOWED NO MERCY.

In March 1520, Magellan’s ships reached what is now Port San Julián in southern Argentina. Here, three of his captains—all Spaniards who were reportedly jealous that the position of commander had been bestowed to a Portuguese man—vowed to kill Magellan. Long story short, Magellan killed them instead. To show he wasn’t to be messed with, Magellan had their bodies drawn, quartered, and impaled on stakes on shore.

9. HE CLAIMED PATAGONIA WAS THE HOME OF 10-FOOT-TALL GIANTS.

Patagonia
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According to Antonio Pigafetta, a member of Magellan’s voyage who recounted his adventure in a book, Magellan discovered giants in South America “so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist.” (They were most likely Tehuelche people who, while tall by 16th century European standards, were definitely not giants.) Regardless, Magellan kidnapped two of them and named them Patagons. To this day, we still call their home Patagonia.

10. HE NAMED THE PACIFIC—BUT HE WASN’T THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO REACH IT.

Ferdinand Magellan's fleet discovers the path to the Pacific
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In October 1520, Magellan reached Cape Virgenes at the southeastern tip of present-day Argentina and concluded that he had found a passage that could cut across South America. His ships traveled 373 miles and reached the other side in late November, and Magellan named the new ocean Mar Pacifico for its peacefulness. (He wasn’t the first European to set eyes on it, though. That accolade belonged to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who crossed the Isthmus of Panama seven years earlier. He had called it the “South Sea.”) Today, the passage across the continent is called the Strait of Magellan.

11. HE DIED A PRETTY GORY DEATH.

The subsequent events in the Pacific were, to say the least, not peaceful. In March 1521, Magellan reached the Philippines and gently converted some of the chieftains to Christianity. Magellan then moved to convert the ruler of Mactan, Datu Lapu-Lapu. When Lapu-Lapu refused, Magellan decided to kill him. Magellan’s men rushed the shore. Mactan soldiers attacked and quickly recognized Magellan as their leader. They charged him. A Mactan warrior thrust a spear into Magellan’s face. Magellan thrust a lance into his attacker’s body. Magellan then tried pulling his sword, but the spear prevented him from extracting it. At this moment, the Mactan soldiers jumped him.

12. ENRIQUE, NOT MAGELLAN, MAY HAVE BEEN THE FIRST PERSON TO CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE GLOBE.

A lot of history books say that Magellan was the first person to lead a circumnavigation around the globe. The words to lead do a lot of heavy lifting: Magellan, of course, died before the voyage was complete. His slave, however, might have completed an around-the-world circuit. Shortly after Magellan’s death, Enrique escaped. If he succeeded in returning home (and it’s unclear if he did or not), that would mean that the first human to accomplish the feat was not some European explorer, but a Southeast Asian ex-slave sailing to freedom.

13. DESPITE EVERYTHING THAT WENT WRONG, MAGELLAN’S VOYAGE WAS STILL PROFITABLE.

After Magellan died, the voyage was led by Juan Sebastian Elcano. In the coming months, much of the remaining crew starved, and only one ship managed to make the full trip back to Spain. But that was OK: When Elcano had visited the Spice Islands, he had secured 381 sacks of cloves. Those spices were worth more than all five ships combined.

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

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This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.


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By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

Michael Faraday
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At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

London's Trafalgar Square Gets a Poetry-Writing Red Lion

Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images
Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images

London’s historic Trafalgar Square just got a fifth lion, the BBC reports. The fluorescent red, AI-powered lion takes visitor-submitted words and turns them into two-line poems, which are displayed on a screen inside its mouth. The history-inspired installation is part of the ongoing festivities for the London Design Festival, which ends Sunday.

The idea comes from set designer Es Devlin, who is participating in a yearlong collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. She was inspired by another designer who remarked that Sir Edwin Landseer, who sculptured the other lions in the square in the late 19th century, "never wanted [them] to look so passive.” Landseer apparently wanted the lions to assume a more lively stance, “but Queen Victoria found it too shocking,” Devlin says.

The story of how Trafalgar Square’s lions came to be is an odd piece of history. For one, the process was painfully slow. Landseer spent four years just working up a sketch and spent hours studying the habits of lions at the London Zoo. He even waited two years for one of the zoo’s lions to die, then carted it back to his studio and kept it there until it started to decay. He was forced to throw out the animal—and his reference material—before he finished. “Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions,” The Telegraph notes.

[h/t BBC]

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