Tech UPTechnologyAhoy there! The sailors, true forgotten of science

Ahoy there! The sailors, true forgotten of science

Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Galileo, Planck, Lavoisier… These are some of the names that dot the pages of the history of science. It is a heroic story, of great men with great ideas capable of changing our way of seeing and understanding the world. But scientific progress has not been the work of a few creative geniuses but rather a collective enterprise, the product of many anonymous characters that history has relegated to oblivion.

“Newton’s seeing further should not be attributed, as he put it, to standing ‘on the shoulders of giants,’ but to standing on the backs of thousands of unknown illiterate craftsmen,” says historian of science Clifford D. Conner.

The history of science does not differ much in its approach from history in general. In fact, historians have been presenting their vision of the past without abandoning the point of view of the dominant social classes, and the case of science has not been different. A look at the books that narrate the scientific epic of humanity reveals the lives and miracles of the “gentlemen” of science, who are given all the credit for scientific discoveries.

However, to a great extent those who really made new scientific discoveries were the artisans, those who worked with their hands and their brains , motivated not by curiosity but by a material need: to be able to live.

The Legend of Henry the Navigator

And it is that history is not only written by the victors; those in charge do it. There we have the embellished legend of Henry the Navigator, who is recognized as the promoter of ocean navigation. The name already contains its irony, because the Portuguese infante not only never sailed in his life but also never set foot on a ship . His hagiographers have made him a scholar of navigation and geography, as well as astronomy. He never actually created scientific knowledge; I buy. One of his most celebrated exploits is the expedition commanded by Gil Eanes, which managed to pass the fearsome Cape Bojador, on the north coast of Western Sahara. It is said that Enrique encouraged such an exploration, but the truth is another. His position as brother of the king allowed him to exercise a monopoly: an act of 1443 forbade any sailor to cross this cape without his permission. That this record appeared indicates the desire of the sailors to explore on their own without informing Enrique. The infant did not need to encourage the expedition members too much.

How to travel through unknown seas

How did European navigators manage the unknown Indian and Pacific oceans? It is evident that his expertise had a lot to do with it, although we should not rule out the widespread practice of boarding ships in the area, kidnapping a pilot and forcing him to work for him . That was what Vasco da Gama did when he first arrived in the Indian Ocean in 1497.

Nautical charts also contain stories of forgotten sages and a peculiar redistribution of fame carried out by historians of science. An example is the first chart picked up by the Gulf Stream sweeping across the eastern seaboard of North America, traditionally attributed to Benjamin Franklin . As head of the postal service in the colonies, he was struck by something very curious: the ships that traveled from Falmouth to New York took two weeks longer than those that went from London to Rhode Island. But luck was on his side: one of his cousins, Timothy Folger, was a whaling captain from Nantucket. He explained what was happening to a stunned Franklin and how sailors had been taking advantage of this current since the early 16th century. Thanks to information from Folger – who provided its dimensions, course and speed – and other whalers, Franklin was able to publish his chart in 1770.

Sailors and the flat Earth

One of the most cursed legends against sailors is that, since they believed that the Earth was flat, they did not want to sail too far from the coast for fear of falling over the edge. In fact, those who really knew that it was round were precisely them . 4,000 years ago the sailors of the Red Sea were aware of this because on their voyages, which involved a 20º change in latitude, they saw new stars in the night sky. Even more they knew, as Strabo wrote, that “it is obvious that the curvature of the sea prevents sailors from seeing distant lights at a height equal to that of their eyes, but if they are placed at a higher height they become visible”. The fable that sailors mutinied against Columbus because they thought they were going to fall off the edge of the Earth was created by the American writer Washington Irving . What they feared was that the Earth was much larger than Columbus believed. And they were right.

There is sufficient evidence to affirm that navigation, geography and oceanography are the work of several generations of illiterate sailors who passed their knowledge from one to another, although they never put their knowledge down in writing. Around 2000 B.C. C. Minoan sailors crossed the Mediterranean; in 600 BC The natives of Brittany regularly sailed to Ireland in flimsy skiffs, and 5,000 years ago Polynesians were able to travel across the Pacific in their boats guided by the stars and thanks to an impressive knowledge of the characteristic currents and patterns that the islands produce in the waves : the astronomy and oceanography of these men, whom we gratuitously classify as “primitives”, has had no parallel in history.


Conner, C. D. (2005) A People’s History of Science, Bold Type Books

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