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.