Marco Polo’s Clue for Christopher Columbus


Marco Polo was born in the year 1254. As a teenager, he traveled from Europe to Asia with his father and uncle. This was no small task 750 years ago. They crossed foreign lands and mountain ranges to distant and mysterious societies. Marco Polo returned to Italy after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa. He served on a galleon and was captured as a prisoner of war and incarcerated for one year.

While in prison, he dictated his memoirs to another prisoner, a writer named Rustichello da Pisa. The memoirs became the book known as (loosely translated) The Travels of Ser Marco Polo.

A couple hundred years after Marco Polo wrote his book, Christopher Columbus read it. Like Polo, Columbus was a sailor and adventurer. He ardently studied maps and the work of other writers and explorers. He studied the sea, sailing, cartography, and ships. By the time he was 30, he had chosen to be an ocean explorer. Ocean discovery up to that time had been south, toward Africa. Few had dared to go west, where sea monsters and an endless waterfall awaited.

He was about 40 when he was studying in the Columbian Library in Seville, Spain, and picked up the book by Marco Polo. There he found a clue so profound that he made a handwritten note in its margin. His note highlights Marco’s observation that distant lands were washed on the East by a great sea.

Columbus may have imagined himself standing on the eastern shore of that distant land, facing Spain. He probably couldn’t have known that what would become known as the Americas lay between, but as he pondered on that comment by Marco Polo, he must have realized that if Japan had a sea to the east, and Europe had a sea on the west, there was no endless waterfall. There was land. The earth must be round.

For some 3,000 years of recorded sailing history, no one had journeyed past Portugal except for the Vikings, some 500 years earlier, who had ventured as far as what is now Nova Scotia. But this clue set Columbus’s mind to believe that he could venture west, which he did in October of 1492. That pierced the curtain, and fleets of explorers followed. The next 50 years saw more than a dozen countries launching hundreds of ventures into the new world, exploring both North and South America, where today we play Marco Polo in our pools.

What a Silly Idea

Silly Putty. What a silly idea. A silly, 140-million-dollar idea that began three decades before it hit it big.

That top-selling, everybody-wants-it toy from the 1970s was actually invented during World War II. The U.S. government needed a substitute for rubber during the war, and on March 6th 1943 a scientist at GE mixed boric acid with silicone oil and came up with a synthetic rubbery material that proved too soft to actually use.

But it did bounce, pull like taffy, and lift photograph images from newspapers. At one particular party, some scientists were playing with this fun but unmarketable material. Peter Hodgson noticed it. He saw something in it that others didn’t see. He borrowed money and paid GE $147 for the patent rights and many pounds of the stuff.

In 1950 Hodgson introduced it at the International Toy Fair. He marketed it in catalogs and toy stores as Nutty Putty. Hardly anyone bought it. Someone wrote a letter and asked if it was made of nuts. Hodgson saw that it needed a new name, so he called it Silly Putty and repackaged it in plastic eggs so it could be kept from drying out and could even be kept in pockets. It did a little better.

But Silly Putty didn’t hit it big until after a New York Times writer bought some, played with it and loved it enough to write about it. Peter received 250,000 orders for his Silly Putty. Nearly 32 million units were sold in 5 years. By 1976, at his passing, Peter was worth $140 million—nearly a million times more than what he had bought the patent for.

Actual Commercial

Today, Silly Putty is still sold by Binney & Smith Inc., the Crayola Crayon company. In March 2001, Silly Putty was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

Here’s the thing about Peter Hodgson and Silly Putty. He made a fortune, and it wasn’t even his idea. The original scientist wasn’t thinking that kids would love his invention. But Hodgson saw something that no one else saw and ran with it.

The next person who saw what other people didn’t was the reporter who wrote about it. As soon as people heard about Silly Putty, the orders flooded in.

So what do you see in your life? Is it something no one else recognizes? Does that scare you or inspire you? Maybe your idea isn’t hot or trending right NOW, but if you see something in front of you, maybe your vision is all it will take.

Throw out what everyone else sees. It doesn’t really matter. You could be the person who starts something that nobody knew they wanted until you gave it to them. Imagine that.



No Big Deal

Saturday night around 11:30 I was sitting in the living room reading a book because that’s the kind of fascinating and adventurous life I lead. Then suddenly I heard the garage door go up. I looked at my watch to realize our second son had arrived home just in time for curfew. Phew! You parents know the drill.

Then I heard the garage door go down as the buzz of the motor reverberated throughout the whole house. When the noise finally faded I could hear music blasting from inside my son’s car. The old man inside me immediately kicked in. “What the heck?” “That’s so loud!” “He’s gonna ruin his ears!” “I hope it isn’t some low-budget Miley Cyrus song!”

But instead of going out there to tell him to cut the music and come on into the house, something told me to just slow down at little. I put down my book, closed my eyes, and tuned my ears in to hear what kind of lame music my 16-year old had been listening to on his way home.

After a few moments I started to recognize the tune. Then I started to smile and even got a few goose bumps. It was actually a song from is younger years at church. The lyrics went something like, “We have been taught, and we understand that we must do as the Lord commands.” That’s what he was blasting in his car. By then the car engine was off, but he was still in the driver’s seat just listening. He didn’t even come into the house until the song was over.

I played it cool and just smiled and said, “Hey, son. How was your night?” He said, “Good,” and gave me his usual quick, no-big-deal rundown of his evening.

After he went upstairs I sat on the couch and wondered what might have been going through his mind. Probably something great. Something real. Maybe even something to do with his big brother now living a thousand miles away. I’m sure I’ll bring it up sometime soon and we’ll talk about it. But right now I think I know everything I need to know.